Woman pleads not guilty to chemo fraud charges

AP News
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Posted: Sep 13, 2011 5:10 PM
Woman pleads not guilty to chemo fraud charges

A former cancer clinic worker pleaded not guilty Tuesday to 11 federal charges alleging that old needles were used on multiple patients and they were given less chemotherapy or cheaper drugs than they were led to believe.

Prosecutors say the Rose Cancer Center in Summit, Miss., was involved in a multimillion-dollar Medicare and Medicaid fraud. Between 150 and 200 former patients have been tested for HIV and Hepatitis since the clinic was shut down in July, and testing continues. Mississippi Department of Health officials say none of the patients tested so far have been infected with HIV or Hepatitis B or C.

Some of the counts in the indictment allege that the care caused serious bodily harm, but investigators have not been more specific. Mississippi Department of Health officials began investigating the clinic after 11 patients went to a hospital with the same infection.

When asked Tuesday if any patients died from the care they received, Assistant U.S. Attorney Scott Gilbert told The Associated Press: "At this point the indictment doesn't make such an allegation, but the investigation continues."

Prosecutors say 43-year-old Monica Weeks of Madison, who pleaded not guilty Tuesday in federal court in Jackson, did billing for the clinic. She was released on a property bond on her home. Weeks said little in court other than giving short answers to the judge's questions.

Weeks' attorney, Cliff Johnson, said he would comment later.

Dr. Meera Sachdeva, the 50-year-old founder of the clinic, was indicted with Weeks and another woman last week. Sachdeva was arrested in August, but the case was sealed until the indictment was issued. She's being held without bond.

It's not clear when the other woman, 24-year-old Brittany McCoskey, described as the office manager, will be arraigned. She did not respond to messages Tuesday.

Sachdeva is a naturalized U.S. citizen from India. She's a mother of two college students and a 14-year-old son, according to court documents filed by her lawyer. Her husband died in 2007.

Prosecutors asked for her to remain behind bars pending trial, saying her frequent travel to her native India and her wealth make her a flight risk. Authorities have seized nearly $6 million, but they say Sachdeva still has considerable assets. Court records said she made two wire transfers to banks in India in 2009 for amounts totaling $300,000.

Her attorney, Rob McDuff, argued in court records that she's an established resident of Summit, where her family has lived for at least six years. McDuff says she's not a flight risk, in part, because she surrendered the passports belonging to her and her youngest child.

McDuff has said she's pleading not guilty and will "go from there."

Medical records indicate Sachdeva graduated from Calcutta National Medical College, University of Calcutta, in the 1980s. Some records said 1986; others said 1988. She has or has had medical licenses in Florida, Iowa, Michigan, Mississippi, Nebraska and Ohio.

The Mississippi State Board of Medical Licensure said Tuesday that Sachdeva's Mississippi license has expired, though the agency would not provide other details by phone.

Sachdeva filed paperwork to open Rose Cancer Center in 2005 after working at another cancer clinic in Mississippi. The clinic was operated as a profit-sharing business, at least since 2009, according to IRS records. The clinic had an IRS lien in 2007 for more than $4,000, but there's no other indication the facility had financial troubles.

In 2009, Sachdeva founded a nonprofit group called Mississippi Helping Hands Foundation Inc., according to business records. It's not clear how active the organization had been, but its stated goal was: "To provide medical care, including prescription drugs to cancer patients who are financially unable to pay for such care."

Prosecutors say Rose Cancer Center billed Medicaid and Medicare for $15.1 million in services.

The defendants "knew that the liquid solutions that were infused into the patients treated at Rose Cancer Center contained a smaller amount of the chemotherapy drugs than the defendants had billed to various health care benefit programs, or contained different, less expensive drugs," the indictment says.

The clinic also billed the agencies for new syringes for each patient, even though it reused some on multiple people, authorities said.

Treasure Tyson, who has been working on the joint investigation as part of Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood's task force on Medicaid fraud, called the allegations "disheartening. She declined further comment because the investigation continues.

Liz Sharlot, a Health Department spokeswoman, has said the clinic was closed July 20 because of unsafe conditions. Federal authorities began investigating the clinic after getting information from a confidential informant that the defendants were shredding and altering documents ahead of an expected audit.

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Associated Press researcher Judith Ausuebel in New York contributed to this report.