WASHINGTON — Hundreds of people nationwide, including dozens of doctors, have been charged in health care fraud prosecutions, accused of collectively defrauding the government of $1.3 billion, the Justice Department said on Thursday.
Nearly one-third of the 412 charged were accused of opioid-related crimes. The health care providers, about 50 of them doctors, billed Medicare and Medicaid for drugs that were never purchased; collected money for false rehabilitation treatments and tests; and gave out prescriptions for cash, according to prosecutors.
Some of the doctors wrote more prescriptions for controlled substances in a single month than entire hospitals wrote in that time, the acting director of the F.B.I., Andrew G. McCabe, said at a news conference in Washington of federal law enforcement and health care officials who announced the prosecutions.
“This event again highlights the enormity of the fraud challenge we face,” Attorney General Jeff Sessions said.
Arrests were made nationwide over the course of the last week, the Justice Department said, as part of a Medicare fraud task force established in 2007. The more than 400 prosecutions, a record for the task force, covered years of activity and were spread across more than 20 states.
In one case, prosecutors said, the owner and operator of a drug-treatment center in Delray Beach, Fla., recruited addicts to aid him in his schemes, attending Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and visiting “crack motels” to persuade people to move to South Florida to help him. He offered kickbacks in the form of gift cards, plane tickets, trips to casinos and strip clubs as well as drugs.
The owner, Eric Snyder, and an associate were charged with fraudulently billing insurance companies for more than $50 million for false treatment and urine tests over nearly five years, the authorities said.
Bruce Alan Zimet, a lawyer for Mr. Snyder, said that his client had been cooperating with investigators since 2014. “We anticipate having additional communications with the government,” Mr. Zimet said, “and we’re hopeful they’ll be listening carefully and evaluating whether this is a case that should go forward or not.”
In New York, a Queens cardiologist was arrested at Kennedy Airport on Thursday and accused of engaging in kickback schemes with medical diagnostic facilities to whom he referred business. In Maine, an office manager was charged with embezzling funds from a medical office. In Connecticut, Indiana, Iowa, Texas and other states, people were charged in schemes involving the distribution of medically unnecessary drugs, including opioids.
Opioid addiction is an escalating public health crisis in America, with drug deaths rising faster than ever. Hydrocodone and oxycodone, two powerful opioids, are among the most commonly abused prescription drugs, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 91 Americans die each day of an opioid-related overdose.
Mr. Sessions has emphasized cracking down on drug crime as a priority, directing the nation’s prosecutors in May to pursue the toughest charges for such crimes, even when they may carry mandatory minimum prison sentences.
Last year, the fraud task force charged 301 people for some $900 million in false billings. Since its creation a decade ago, it has charged more than 3,500 people for what prosecutors said were over $12.5 billion in false billings.
“Thanks to these efforts, fewer criminals will be able to exploit our nation’s opioid crisis for their own gain,” said Tom Price, the secretary of health and human services. He cited the Trump administration’s budget request for a $70 million investment in the health care fraud control program as a sign of its commitment to rooting out such crimes.
“I know we overuse certain words in the lexicon like unprecedented and historic and unique,” said Chuck Rosenberg, acting administrator of the Drug Enforcement Administration, who cited an estimated 59,000 deaths from drug overdoses in the United States last year. “But this is an epidemic.”