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Doctors' sentence: probation

(ran SS edition of METRO & STATE)

The two men received money in exchange for patient referrals to a Clearwater laboratory.

Why, U.S. District Judge Richard A. Lazzara wanted to know, would a respected doctor with a lucrative medical practice get involved in taking kickbacks in exchange for referring patients to a Clearwater laboratory?

"Stupidity," said Dr. Russell Bufalino.

Bufalino of Clearwater was one of two doctors sentenced Friday for receiving money in exchange for referring patients to the Clearwater Clinical Laboratories. They were among 14 doctors from Pinellas, Pasco and Hernando counties charged by federal prosecutors in the case.

Also charged were James McKeown Sr., founder of the company; his son, James McKeown Jr., who was involved in the day-to-day operations of the lab; and Vincent "Vinny" Gepp of Palm Harbor, the lab manager.

In August, Bufalino and Dr. Robert L. Hartzell of Spring Hill pleaded guilty to receiving payments in return for Medicare referrals.

Although Bufalino and Hartzell faced potential prison sentences, Lazzara placed both on three years' probation. They also were ordered to perform 50 hours of community service in each of those three years and to pay $500 in restitution and a $10,000 fine.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Gary Montilla said the sentences were appropriate. He noted that both doctors were extremely cooperative with investigators.

During Hartzell's sentencing hearing, Montilla said prosecutors in these cases often feel like highway patrolmen on I-75 watching cars speeding by. Every once in a while, he said, it's necessary to "reach out and touch" a few speeders to get everyone else to slow down.

"We've got to slow down this practice of kickbacks," Montilla said.

The cases against Bufalino and Hartzell resulted from Operation Takeback, a federal task force investigation targeting health insurance fraud.

The doctors are accused of steering nearly $1.4-million in Medicare business to the Clearwater Clinical Laboratory several years ago in exchange for $400,000 in kickbacks. The now-defunct Clearwater laboratory has been characterized by the FBI as "the largest payer of illegal kickbacks in the Pinellas County area."

Although the two doctors did not get jail time, Montilla said, doctors charged in such cases suffer "intensive collateral" consequences. For one, he said, they are suspended from serving patients who use federally funded medical assistance such as Medicare or Medicaid.

According to prosecutors, the laboratory paid Bufalino about $28,000 for referrals and received $393,329 from Medicare. Hartzell received $32,000 for patient referrals that resulted in the laboratory claiming and getting $355,960 in Medicare reimbursements. In addition, the indictment alleges that the laboratory paid Hartzell's membership dues at a hunting lodge in return for referrals.

"I made a mistake after 35 years with an unblemished record," Bufalino said.

He blamed his actions on "being excessively busy and not paying attention to people who take advantage of people."

A former Navy lieutenant, Bufalino apologized to his family, his patients, his colleagues and the government. Since his indictment, he has sold his practice because he was barred from dealing with Medicare and most of his patients were elderly.

"I have a lot of people come before me and I ask them if they have anything to say before I impose sentence," Judge Lazzara said. "Ninety-nine percent of the time, I'm skeptical of what they tell me. I think you're that 1 percent exception . . . I can see it in your face."

"I don't think putting you in federal prison would serve any justice," he said.

Hartzell did not speak at his sentencing hearing, but he did send Lazzara a letter, and the courtroom was packed with former patients who came to the hearing to show their support for him.

"Obviously," Lazzara said, "he (Hartzell) is thought of very highly not only as a doctor but as a person in the community."

Several of those patients wept when they heard that Hartzell was sentenced to probation rather than jail.

Hartzell, who has continued his practice, greeted each of the dozens of supporters with a hug outside the courtroom. He declined to comment to the St. Petersburg Times.

The sentencing hearings for Gepp and the McKeowns was postponed until April 20.

_ Staff writer Robert Farley can be reached at (727) 445-4185 or farleysptimes.com.

Up next:Correction

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