A Palm Beach County drug testing lab and 10 South Florida treatment centers worked together to fraudulently bill more than $141 million in unwarranted urine testing of drug addicts, Palm Beach County State Attorney Dave Aronberg said Tuesday.
Aronberg said 15 people have been arrested in Florida, increasing the total number of arrests by the county’s Sober Homes Task Force to 85 since 2016.
The task force coordinated its work with law enforcement in Pennsylvania, where 20 people have been arrested in connection with the scheme. Aronberg said it’s all part of the task force’s efforts to end the “Florida shuffle” that lures drug addicts to the Sunshine State with the promise of recovery but often ends up leaving them on the street when their insurance runs out.
“The Florida shuffle doesn’t end at the Florida border, and certainly not at the Palm Beach County border,” he said at an afternoon news conference. “Today sends a message that labs that engage in kickback schemes will not be able to hide behind corporate walls to conceal unlawful activity.”
Palm Beach County officials have unleashed a stampede of lawyers, health officials, police and rehab specialists to tackle the opioid epidemic that kills hundreds a year in Palm Beach County alone.
Owners of rogue sober homes have been arrested. Narcan, the nasal spray that halts an overdose, became widely used on patients by rescuers, and now can be purchased over the counter. And cities began hiring staff to work with people hooked on drugs, including Delray Beach, where the police department has its own social worker dedicated to the homeless and the addicted.
Contributing to the quantity and intensity of overdoses was the increased usage of fentanyl, a synthetic painkiller 100 times more potent than morphine, and carfentanil, 10,000 times stronger than morphine.
The epidemic led to an influx of addicted people to Palm Beach County. Touting the chance of recovery in the sunshine, private providers recruited out-of-state patients with lucrative insurance plans to South Florida.
The county created a task force to tackle problematic sober homes, similar to halfway houses, where the formerly drug addicted transition back into society. Officials discovered fraud and abuse at many homes in Palm Beach County and began arresting unscrupulous owners for health-care fraud and illegal patient brokering.
Almost three years after Palm Beach County officials set out to combat the epidemic, it looks like their efforts are paying off: The State Attorney’s Office reports there were 326 opioid deaths in 2018, down from 558 in 2017. That’s a 41 percent decline.
When the crisis started in 2012, 143 deaths were attributed to these addictive prescription drugs. Then there were 189 deaths in 2014, and 307 in 2015. They hit a peak of 569 in 2016.
The 15 people arrested last week were charged with patient brokering and conspiracy, Aronberg said. He said Coastal Laboratory LLC billed $141 million in urine testing from 2015 to 2017 and kicked back at least $6.2 million to 12 drug treatment centers in Florida and Pennsylvania that referred their patients.
Coastal Laboratory managing member Thomas Stanley was among those arrested. He couldn’t be reached for comment Tuesday.
Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Detective Mark Berey said the Lake Park lab performed extra, unnecessary tests on each urine sample so the owners could get more money from insurance companies. He said 30 percent to 50 percent of the money they got from each test was kicked back to the treatment centers.
“This is the largest scheme we’ve discovered,” Aronberg said. He said the 15 arrested will be prosecuted in Palm Beach County.
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