Court Rules for Progressive in Health Care Clinic Licensing Dispute

On July 29, 2014, the 13th Judicial Circuit Court for Hillsborough County granted final judgment in favor of Progressive Insurance in a case involving licensure violations by defendant health care clinic Best Medical. The defendant did not undertake a defense.

The following facts were undisputed:

  • Best Medical listed licensed massage therapist Jorge Romero as its 100% owner;
  • Romero did not actually own Best Medical, but was paid $2,000 a month for the right to use his credentials and claim that he was the owner;
  • Best Medical obtained a certificate from the State of Florida exempting it from licensure as a health care clinic by utilizing Romero’s credentials; and,
  • Progressive paid Best Medical PIP reimbursements in excess of $97,000 in response to bills submitted.

In his analysis of the case, Judge James Arnold noted that the Florida PIP statute requires that medical services be lawfully rendered and the corresponding bills be lawfully submitted to be valid. Additionally, the statute provides an insurer, such as Progressive, the right to challenge potential licensure violations, including the ownership of a clinic.

Florida’s Health Care Clinic Act requires that all medical clinics operating in Florida be licensed unless they are exempted. Relevant here is that a clinic “wholly owned by one or more licensed health care practitioners” is exempt from licensure.

The facts showed, however, that Romero was never the 100% owner of Best Medical. The clinic was therefore not entitled to the exemption for being wholly owned by a licensed health care practitioner.

Lacking a lawful exemption, Best Medical was required to possess valid licenses pursuant to the Health Care Clinic Act. Because it possessed no such licenses, Best Medical lacked the ability to lawfully render medical services and lawfully submit corresponding bills as required by Florida’s PIP statute.

Accordingly, Progressive was held not liable for payment of the bills rendered by Best Medical for reimbursement of purported medical services.

The case is Progressive v. Best Medical Healthcare Solution (f/k/a Tropical Healing Power), Case No. 14-CA-000327 Div. J (July 29, 2014). Click on the link to read the Final Judgment.

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Filed under Case Law

Florida’s Third-Party Bad-Faith Laws are Costly to State’s Auto Insurance, Says IRC Study

More than $800 million in additional auto liability claim payments were made in 2013 as a result of Florida’s third party bad-faith lawsuit environment.

Those findings were revealed in a recent study—“Third-Party Bad-Faith in Florida’s Automobile Insurance System”—conducted by the Insurance Research Council (IRC). This translates to an average of $79 in additional claim costs for every insured vehicle in the state.

From 1995 through 2013, Florida experienced a striking increase in the frequency of bodily injury liability claims and a significant jump of 68 percent in average claim payments per insured vehicle, according to the report.

Compare that to other large no-fault states that do not authorize third-party bad-faith lawsuits against insurers, such as New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania, where notable declines in liability claim frequency and much smaller increases or even declines in claim payments per insured vehicle were found.

A contributing factor in Florida’s growing problem with third-party bad-faith lawsuits is believed to be the “apparent failure of the no-fault system’s tort threshold to limit access to liability reimbursement under most auto insurance policies,” according to the study. Other no-fault states’ systems are designed to limit the number of liability claims that are filed for reimbursement for lost wages and medical costs.

In contrast, Florida’s tort threshold appears not to minimize liability claim frequency. In 2013, Florida’s bodily injury claim frequency rate was not only higher than most tort system states (states without no-fault coverage), but was higher than the U.S. frequency rate for liability claims.

“The virtually unrestricted ability to file a third-party bad-faith lawsuit against an insurance company poses a serious threat to Florida’s auto insurance system,” said Elizabeth A. Sprinkel, CPCU, senior vice president of the IRC. “The possibility of winning large bad-faith settlements and court judgments creates powerful incentives for potential claimants and their attorneys to file auto liability insurance claims that otherwise would not be filed.”

The IRC said that it will be doing more research related to the impact of Florida’s tort threshold and other important aspects of the no-fault system and will publish those findings later this year.

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Filed under Insurance Fraud

Labor Day Highway Safety Programs Underway in Florida

Florida drivers will see more speed traps and DUI checkpoints this holiday weekend as law enforcement personnel hit the roads with several safety initiatives aimed at stopping risky drivers.

Drive Sober or Get Pulled Over, supported by The Florida Highway Patrol, is a national campaign that began on August 15 and will run through Labor Day on September 1. FHP officers will be on the lookout for impaired drivers across the state.

“Take a shot at drinking and driving, and we’ll provide the chaser,” said FHP Director Col. David Brierton. “The choice to drink and drive is a bad decision that could have grave consequences. Be responsible, don’t drink and drive.”

The annual “Hands across the Border” is a separate Southeastern U.S. regional campaign coordinated by highway safety agencies from Florida, Georgia, Alabama, and Tennessee, among others, to look for drivers under the influence (DUI) of alcohol as they cross state lines.

The blood alcohol content (BAC) is .08 in all 50 states, note the program sponsors, meaning that impaired drivers cannot claim ignorance of the law. Drivers who fail a sobriety test are likely to be arrested.

The “Hands across the Border” program, which is now in its 23rd year, also encourages safe driving habits such as the use of seat belts and observance of speed limits.

AAA Travel predicts that almost 35 million Americans will travel 50 miles or more from home during the Labor Day holiday weekend, defined as Thursday, August 28 to Monday, September 1. Automobile travel makes up the largest portion of this number, with 29.7 million travelers planning a road trip. The overall traffic projections represent a 1.3 percent increase from 2013 and the highest Labor Day traffic volume since 2008. Recent reductions in gas prices are contributing to increased travel plans, notes AAA.

Drive safely!

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Filed under Uncategorized

Uninsured Motorists Declining but Still a Concern in Florida, New Study Finds

A new study released by the Insurance Research Council (IRC) found that the estimated percentage of uninsured motorists has been in decline since 2010. According to the organization’s latest report, “Uninsured Motorists, 2014 Edition,” 14.9 percent of drivers were uninsured in 2003, but that figure dropped to 12.6 percent in 2012. That’s about one in eight drivers on the road who are uninsured, according to the study’s most recent data.

The study’s numbers were figured based on a ratio of insurance claims made by individuals who were injured by uninsured drivers to claims made by those who were injured by drivers who had insurance.

Although there is an overall downward trend nationwide, the IRC has broken the percentages down by numbers for each state and discovered great variation. Nationally, the number of uninsured drivers peaked at 29.9 million in 2009 and moderately declined to 29.7 million in 2012.

In terms of states, Florida ranked second in the highest total number of uninsured drivers with 3.2 million. California ranked highest with 4.1 million, while Texas followed Florida with 1.6 million, the report found.

The study also revealed that Florida ranked high in terms of the estimated percentage of uninsured motorists per state. That number is highest in Oklahoma at 26%, followed by Florida (24%) and then, Mississippi (23%).

The “Uninsured Motorists” study also analyzed the total number of uninsured motorist claim payments and found that amount has climbed drastically in spite of an overall drop in the number of uninsured drivers.

Not counting fatalities and total permanent disability claims, the IRC estimates that $2.6 billion was paid in the U.S. on 2012 uninsured motorists’ claims. This is a 75 percent increase over the past 10 years, translating to $14 per insured individual in 2012.

According to Elizabeth A. Sprinkel, CPCU, senior vice president of the IRC, these numbers show that “responsible drivers who pay for insurance end up also paying for injuries caused by uninsured drivers.”

“The declining trend in the percentage of uninsured motorists is a positive development for consumers; however, the heightened levels of uninsured motorists and the rising claim payments involved still remain a concern for insured drivers, insurers and policymakers,” she said.

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Filed under Insurance Fraud

Three Jacksonville Residents Charged with PIP fraud

Florida Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater recently announced that three Jacksonville residents have been arrested for personal injury protection fraud. The suspects—Yolanda Vargas, Christian Vargas, and Willdelyn Rodgriguez—have each been charged with one count of committing a staged motor vehicle accident and one count of insurance fraud.

A fourth suspect by the name of Felix Vargas, who has not yet been located, is alleged to have recruited the three individuals to participate in the fraud scheme. He is believed to be connected to a New York identity theft ring, as well as to an IRS scam in which he directed payment of others’ tax refunds to himself.

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Filed under Insurance Fraud

Chiropractor & Receptionist Connected to Operation Sledgehammer Get Prison Sentences

Convicted for their role in a massive insurance fraud ring involving staged accidents in South Florida, two more people were sentenced in Operation Sledgehammer last week.

Chiropractor Lawrence Schechtman from Parkland, whom we reported about on our FL-PIP Guide on December 19 when he pleaded guilty to mail fraud conspiracy and mail fraud, was sentenced to four years and four months in federal prison. In addition to his sentence, he was ordered by U.S. District Judge Kenneth Marra to pay more than $2.4 million in restitution.

According to federal prosecutors, Schechtman worked at clinics in Palm Springs and Miami, where he signed off on treatments for people who fraudulently claimed they were accident victims as part of the staged-accident ring which operated in several counties.

According to a story in the August 8 Sun-Sentinel, the 45-year old Schechtman, who suffers from heart and back problems, was granted a request to serve his confinement at the Federal Medical Center, a medical prison in North Carolina. Judge Marra gave the chiropractor two months to turn himself in and begin serving his term.

Another co-conspirator from Palm Springs was sentenced for her role in Operation Sledgehammer. Sircy Sacerio, also known as Sisi or Sircy Santos, received four years in federal prison by Judge Marra.

Under the terms of her sentence, the Palm Beach Post reported, the 31-year old reception and office assistant must also repay $1,146,824.26 and will have two years of supervised release following her time in prison.

She originally pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to commit mail fraud and five counts of mail fraud.

Part of the fraud activity in Operation Sledgehammer, which was recorded by investigators, included co-conspirators damaging vehicles with sledgehammers to give the appearance of a crash. The participants in the staged accidents would then go to clinics involved in the ring to receive bogus treatment which, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office, brought in millions of dollar to chiropractors on false and fraudulent insurance claims. The scheme began around October 2006 and continued through December 2012.

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Filed under Fla. Stat. 627.736 (2008), Insurance Fraud

Disbarred Florida Attorney Gets Prison Sentence in $28.3 Million Medicare Fraud

A disbarred Florida attorney who participated in a $28.3 million Medicare fraud scheme involving false claims for physical and occupational therapy services was recently sentenced in federal court in Tampa to 70 months in prison, the Justice Department announced.

Margarita Grishkoff, formerly of southwest Florida, initially pleaded guilty on January 24 to conspiracy to commit health care fraud. In addition to her prison term, U.S. District Judge Susan C. Bucklew of the Middle District of Florida sentenced the 60-year old to three years of supervised release and ordered her to pay $14,424,856 in restitution, jointly and severally with her co-conspirators.

Grishkoff, who is currently a resident of Charlotte, North Carolina, acknowledged in her guilty plea that approximately $28.3 million in fraudulent claims were submitted to Medicare by her and the scheme’s co-conspirators. Medicare paid approximately $14.4 million of those claims, which were made through physical therapy clinics throughout Florida from 2005 through 2009.

Court documents reveal that Grishkoff, who was disbarred in Florida in 1997, was vice president and director for Ulysses Acquisitions Inc., a Delaware holding company that purchased several comprehensive outpatient rehabilitation clinics and physical therapy providers to gain control of Medicare provider numbers. These clinics included: West Coast Rehab Inc. in Fort Myers; Rehab Dynamics Inc. in Venice; Polk Rehabilitation Inc. in Lake Wales; and Renew Therapy Center of Port St. Lucie LLC in Port St. Lucie.

The Justice Department also said that Grishkoff and her co-conspirators paid kickbacks to patient recruiters and clinic owners to get identifying information of Medicare beneficiaries and physicians. They subsequently took this information to create and submit false claims to Medicare through the clinics Ulysses Acquisitions owned. Claims for reimbursement were made on therapy services that were not legitimately prescribed or actually provided.

But it didn’t end there. Grishkoff and her co-conspirators used the clinics they controlled to submit false reimbursement claims on behalf of other clinics not owned by Ulysses, in exchange for a percentage of the Medicare reimbursement received.

These Miami-based therapy clinics included: Hallandale Rehabilitation Inc., Tropical Physical Therapy Corporation, American Wellness Centers Inc., and West Regional Center Inc. According to court documents, Grishkoff and her co-conspirators kept approximately 20 percent of the fraud proceeds and paid the remaining 80 percent to the co-conspirator clinic owners. Grishkoff further admitted that she arranged sham sales of her clinics to nominee or straw owners to disassociate herself and Ulysses Acquisitions from the fraudulent scheme. Those new owners were recent immigrants with no background or experience in the health care industry.

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Filed under Insurance Fraud