Bay area doctors charged in federal fraud sweep

Federal prosecutors say Dr. Zachary Bird used the Tampa clinic, Physicians Wellness and Pain Specialists, as a pill mill to prescribe 5.2 million opioid pills over a three-year period. [Google]
Federal prosecutors say Dr. Zachary Bird used the Tampa clinic, Physicians Wellness and Pain Specialists, as a pill mill to prescribe 5.2 million opioid pills over a three-year period. [Google]
Published July 6, 2018

The Justice Department is touting the largest health care fraud crackdown in its history, a multipronged approach fed in part by efforts to stop illegal distribution of opioids.

And some of the action took place in the Tampa Bay area.

Nationwide, authorities have charged over 600 people, alleging schemes that produced more than $2 billion in false billings and distributed 13 million illegal doses of opioids.

The sweep includes 13 Tampa defendants alleged to be associated with millions of dollars in health care fraud or theft of government funds and the movement of 5.2 million pills.

"The FBI Tampa division is committed to working collaboratively with our federal, state and local partners to address the opioid crisis and health care fraud in our communities," said Eric Sporre, special agent in charge of the FBI Tampa division, in a news release from the U.S. Attorney's Office in Tampa.

Four Tampa doctors were among those charged, including Dr. Zachary Bird, an anesthesiologist who operated a pain management clinic called Physicians Wellness and Pain Specialists.

The news release described his clinic as a pill mill, alleging that from January 2015 through May 2018, Bird wrote prescriptions for approximately 5.2 million tablets of opioids, including hydrocodone, morphine, methadone and oxycodone.

He was arrested June 25 under a six-count indictment, which includes allegations of distributing and dispensing controlled substances outside the usual course of medical practice and not for a legitimate medical purpose.

Bird previously made headlines in 2012 when a video of him spitting blood at a highway patrolman went viral after he was arrested on a charge of driving under the influence.

Dr. Jeffrey Abraham had previously worked at veterans hospitals in the Tampa Bay area but resigned to work at a Tampa pain management clinic in June 2017, according to the indictment against him.

While working at the clinic from August 2017 to March 2018, Abraham prescribed more than 2,000 controlled substances, federal authorities charged.

On March 5, Abraham confessed to federal agents that he knew his Drug Enforcement Agency registration number could not be used for his work at the clinic, the U.S. Attorney's Office said in the news release.

Abraham has pleaded guilty to distribution of controlled substances not specified by his DEA registration, which was only for official federal duties, and he has surrendered the registration.

Dr. Charles Gerardi faces charges of conspiracy, health care fraud and obstruction of a federal audit for his work at Geriatric Psychological Specialists, a Tampa-based practice. Gerardi impermissibly billed Medicare for years, providing medically unnecessary psychotherapy, prosecutors said.

Gerardi tried to obstruct a 2012 audit by creating phony patient records and billing for sessions that were longer than what he provided, according to the charges against him.

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Two people associated with Tampa-area clinic Foundational Health face eight charges related to alleged fraud over a five-year period.

Caridad Limberg-Gonzalez, who owns the clinic, submitted approximately $1.8 million in Medicare claims, listing Dr. Thomas Carpenter as the physician, according to the charges against them.

Carpenter was the clinic's medical director at the time, but the services were performed by assistants and doctors who were not in the Medicare program and without supervision by Carpenter, prosecutors alleged.

Accurate Home Health, an agency in the Tampa area, used those documents to submit more than $750,000 in claims, the U.S. Attorney's Office said.

Both Carpenter and Gonzalez have pleaded not guilty to the charges.

Bjorn Brunvand, an attorney for Carpenter, said his client did not knowingly defraud anyone.

Aside from the doctors, other Tampa-area defendants were charged in the sweeping bust.

Alcira Mercedes Wells and Edward Leonard Wells Jr. were charged with health care fraud, conspiracy and aggravated identity theft.

The pair worked for Pasco-based marketing firm Centurion Compounding Inc.

Edward Wells, who was stationed at Fort Bragg in North Carolina at the time, paid personnel stationed with him to fill out information for Centurion-marketed compounded creams, the U.S. Attorney's Office said.

Tricare, which provides health care coverage for military families, then paid more than $1 million for fraudulent prescriptions written for those clients.

"This takedown sends a clear message that criminals who engage in health care fraud schemes and illicit opioid distribution will be caught," said Shimon R. Richmond, special agent in charge for the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services Office of Inspector General.

Contact Bre Bradham at