PITTSBURG, Kan. — Several people tied to the rural healthcare management company EmpowerHMS, which operated Oswego Community Hospital in Labette County until last year, when the medical facility closed after failing to pay employees for weeks, were indicted this week on conspiracy charges involving an alleged $1.4 billion criminal scheme.
"I’m really not that surprised by that," said Dusty Jones, who formerly worked as a billing specialist and admissions clerk at Oswego Community Hospital.
Jones also said Wednesday, however, that she had not previously heard about the indictment announced Monday of Jorge Perez — a central figure in the alleged scheme who is now facing more than a dozen criminal charges — and his associates, and she was at a loss for words.
"That’s just deserts, and I still haven’t been paid so I don’t feel sorry for him," said Jones, who now works as clinic coordinator at Labette Health’s Oswego Clinic & Express Care facility.
"This was allegedly a massive, multi-state scheme to use small, rural hospitals as a hub for millions of dollars in fraudulent billings of private insurers," Assistant Attorney General Brian Benczkowski of the Justice Department’s Criminal Division said in a press release. "The charges announced today make clear that the department is committed to dismantling fraud schemes that target our health care system, however complex or elaborate."
Among those charged are Jorge Perez, Aaron Durall, Seth Guterman, Neisha Zaffuto, and Christian Fletcher, who were named in this newspaper’s reporting on the alleged hospital fraud last year, which earned first place Kansas Press Association awards in the Morning Sun’s circulation division for best investigative story and best series. That reporting also earned second place in the small daily newspaper investigative category of the Green Eyeshade Awards, which cover all of the southeastern U.S. and the winners of which were announced just this week.
Perez, Durall, Guterman, Zaffuto and Fletcher are each charged with conspiracy to commit health care fraud and wire fraud, conspiracy to commit money laundering, as well as substantive money laundering. Perez, Guterman and Durall are also charged with substantive health care fraud. Others charged in the alleged scheme include Florida residents Ricardo Perez, James Porter Jr., Sean Porter, Aaron Alonzo, and Nestor Rojas. None of those charged are residents of Kansas or neighboring states.
Although EmpowerHMS formerly operated multiple clinics and hospitals in Kansas and at one time listed an office in Kansas City, the four hospitals specifically involved in the case against those connected to the company do not include any in the state. They do include one in Putnam County, Missouri, however, which was the subject of a scathing 2017 report by Missouri State Auditor Nicole Galloway, who issued a statement on the charges this week.
"For three years, my office has been working with federal law enforcement agencies in Missouri, Florida and Washington, D.C., to share what we uncovered at Putnam County, and it led to the discovery of a conspiracy of similar schemes at other small rural hospitals," Galloway said. "Health care fraud impacts the cost of health care for all of us and affects the viability of hospitals and other health care facilities across rural Missouri. Those responsible for fraud must be held accountable, and my office remains committed to working with federal law enforcement to seek justice in these cases."
As the Morning Sun has previously reported, the scheme allegedly involved improperly overbilling insurance companies for urinalysis drug tests and blood tests.
"All told, the Justice Department claims, the conspiracy resulted in $1.4 billion in sham billings over just more than two years and caused insurance companies to pay out $400 million in reimbursements," the Kansas City Star reported this week.
The conspiracy, if proven, would qualify as "one of Florida’s biggest healthcare schemes," the Miami Herald reported.
Pam Green, a former night charge nurse at a hospital in Horton, Kansas, which was also managed by EmpowerHMS before closing its doors last year, told Kaiser Health News that she hopes Perez and his associates receive lengthy prison sentences.
"He just devastated so many people, not just in Kansas, but in Oklahoma and all the other places where he had hospitals," Green said. "I went months and months without pay, without health insurance. He robbed the community."
Perez has never responded to the Morning Sun’s past requests for comment or those of many other media outlets, but did give a rare interview to KHN last year.
"I wanted to see if I could save these rural hospitals in America," Perez said at the time. "I’m that kind of person."
Jones, the former Oswego Community Hospital billing specialist and admissions clerk, said, however, that it was good to hear Perez and his colleagues would finally be facing serious legal consequences for their actions.
"He hurt a lot of people and a lot of families," she said.