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Sweeping Arrests, Seizures Mark Feds Crack Down on Medicare Fraud in D.C.

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By Zenitha Prince
Special to the NNPA from the Afro-American Newspaper

More than 200 local law enforcement agents made arrests, executed warrants and seized dozens of bank accounts and property on Feb. 20 in the largest health care anti-fraud operation in the history of Washington, D.C.

The crackdown came after a multi-year, multi-agency investigation into tens of millions of dollars in fraudulent Medicaid billing conducted by the FBI, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Inspector General, the U.S. Secret Service, the Medicaid Fraud Control Unit of the District of Columbia’s Office of the Inspector General, the IRS, the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and other federal and local agencies.

“Today’s arrests are part of a well-coordinated action with our law enforcement partners that puts criminals on notice that we are actively working to identify, arrest and prosecute anyone who participates in defrauding government programs designed to assist truly deserving patients,” Valerie Parlave, assistant director in charge of the FBI’s Washington Field Office, said according to statements provided by the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia.

More than 20 people, including operators of home care agencies and nurse staffing agencies, office workers, and personal care assistants, were arrested for their alleged involvement in separate schemes involving fraud, kickbacks, and false billings in the growing field of home care services for D.C. Medicaid patients.

All four home health agencies involved in the indictments—Global Health Care Services, Ultra International, Vizion One and American Quality—had been previously marked for suspicious billing patterns by the D.C. Department of Health Care Finance and referred to the Medicaid Fraud Control Unit within the Office of the Inspector General beginning in 2009.

“[The D.C. Department] highlighted the agency’s growing concern with the unexplained and rapidly increasing cost of the personal care program in 2011 and has been working on a number of initiatives to address this serious problem since that time,” department Director Wayne Turnage said in a statement. “The actions by federal officials today will be of tremendous assistance as we move forward with additional reforms to the personal care program.”

One key indictment charges Florence Bikundi, 51, the owner of three home care agencies, for allegedly bilking D.C. and Maryland governments of $78 million in Medicaid payments, though she had been barred from participating in any federal health care programs. The Bowie, Md. resident, also known as Florence Ngwe and Florence Igwacho, allegedly concealed her past—which included revoked nursing licenses in Virginia, South Carolina and the District of Columbia—to obtain new Medicaid provider numbers for her businesses, Global Healthcare Inc., and Flo-Diamond Inc.

Bikundi is also charged with multiple counts of money laundering for the means by which she attempted to conceal the “nature, source, and location” of her misbegotten gains.

In other alleged schemes, defendants recruited and coached Medicaid beneficiaries to misrepresent their state of health to medical practitioners so they could qualify for home health care. Those patients then supposedly received cash payments of approximately $200 every two weeks to sign false timesheets for home care services that were not provided.

In another alleged racket, Adoshia L. Flythe, a 36-year-old home care aide from Washington, D.C., was accused of selling counterfeit home health care aide certificates to individuals, making them eligible for Medicaid reimbursement.

“This investigation has revealed that Medicaid fraud in the District of Columbia is at epidemic levels,” U.S. Attorney Ron Machen said in a statement. “This fraud diverts precious taxpayer dollars, drives up the cost of health care, and jeopardizes the strength of a program that serves the most vulnerable members of our society. However, as today’s arrests, searches, and seizures demonstrate, we are aggressively fighting back to protect the U.S. taxpayer and the integrity of our federal health care programs.”

Those charged with first-degree fraud in the Superior Court of the District of Columbia include: Cedonne Ngwilefem Alemnji, 28, of Hyattsville, Md.; Dennis Allen, 56, of Washington, D.C.; Niba Ayinwingong, 49, of Glenarden, Md.; Etienne Boussougou, 34, of Hyattsville; Ulric Ayo Boyle, 47, of Silver Spring, Md.; Rose Epse-Acha, 53, of Greenbelt, Md.; Brandon Chenwi Shu Fobeth, 28, of Greenbelt; Michael Fomundam, 38, of Greenbelt; Eric Mukala, 47, of Bladensburg, Md.; Michael Nyantakyi, 32, of Lanham, Md.; Eliane Poungoum, 47, of Bladensburg; Victor Tarkeh, 47, of Bowie, and Paul Tengwei, 31, of Takoma Park, Md.

Other defendants include: Arrey Kingsly Etchi-Banyi, 30, of College Park, Md., Oyebola Hammed Babarinde, 25, of Forestville, Md.; Oluwatoyin Bakare, 25, of Laurel, Md.; Cecilia Acquah, 32, of Silver Spring; Oyebisi Zaart Babarinde, 31, of Forestville; Felix Aburi Fon, 41, and his wife, Mirabel Tenjoh Mukum, 32, both of Takoma Park; Ernest N. Nkongsah, 38, of New Carrollton, Md.; Elizabeth E. Arung, 41, of Silver Spring, and Emiline Desiree Nkemera Besong, 35, of Hyattsville.

The cases are being prosecuted by Special Assistant U.S. Attorney Dangkhoa Nguyen and Assistant U.S. Attorneys Ted Radway, Michael Friedman, and David Johnson, the office’s health care fraud coordinator, all of the Fraud and Public Corruption Section, and Assistant U.S. Attorney Anthony Saler of the Asset Forfeiture and Money Laundering Section.

The FBI has set up a hotline number to report suspected incidents of Medicaid fraud at 855-281-1242. Individuals can also provide information by e-mail to HealthCareFraud@ic.fbi.gov. The Department of Health and Human Services also has a hotline that can be reached at 800-HHS-TIPS or by visiting the agency’s website at http://oig.hhs.gov/ and clicking on the “Report Fraud” tab.

Obama Appoints Urban League’s Morial to Financial Advisory Council

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By James Wright
Special to the NNPA from The Washington Informer

President Obama appointed Marc Morial, president of the National Urban League, to a panel that will counsel the administration on helping young people make wise financial decisions.

Morial agreed to serve on the president’s Advisory Council on Financial Capability for Young Americans on Wednesday, Feb. 26. Morial, the former mayor of New Orleans, will advise administration officials on how to encourage sound financial practices and habits among young people that will increase their upward mobility.

“I am extremely honored by this opportunity to serve on [the council] and further serve our nation in helping to confront some of the primary issues of our time,” Morial, 56, said. “Whether we refer to them as income inequality, loss of social mobility, the eroding middle class or opportunity inequality, at their core is a great divide that threatens our present and our future.

“We must work together to ensure that the very essence of 20th century America — the possibility of upward mobility for all — does not become elusive and distant in the 21st century,” he said.

Other African-Americans on the council include John W. Rogers, who owns an investment firm in Chicago, and John Hope Bryant, a financial literacy entrepreneur based in Los Angeles.

Minimum Wage Jump Good for Low-Income Blacks

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By Freddie Allen
NNPA Washington Correspondent

WASHINGTON (NNPA) – Increasing the minimum wage to $10.10 by 2016 would lift nearly 1 million low-wage workers out of poverty, according to a recent report by the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office (CBO).

Although a majority of low-wage workers are White, people of color would be disproportionately affected by an increase in the minimum wage. Blacks work in low-wage jobs at higher rates than Whites, according to federal statistics. Blacks account for 11 percent of the workforce, but 16 percent of workers that would see their wages increase.

“When you look at the CBO report, part of what stands out is that the CBO confirms that many millions of workers with low or modest incomes would get significant income gains,” said Robert Greenstein, president of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. “Even after factoring in the CBO’s estimates on the employment effects, there are still very substantial income gains for the bottom and the middle of the population and these income gains are achieved for virtually no budgetary cost.”

Even though the CBO predicted that 500,000 low-wage workers might lose their jobs, 16.5 million workers would directly benefit from seeing an increase in the minimum wage. Economists estimate that another 8 to 10 million workers would see their wages increase as a result of a “spillover effect.”

Families living below the poverty line will get a $5 billion bump in their income, about 20 percent of the estimated $31 billion. Roughly a third would go to families making three times above the poverty line.

According to the Census Bureau, more than 27 percent of Blacks live in poverty compared to less than 10 percent of Whites. Nearly 40 percent of Black children live in poverty.

According to the CBO report, raising the minimum wage would affect low-wage workers in two ways.

“Most of them would receive higher pay that would increase their family’s income, and some of those families would see their income rise above the federal poverty threshold,” stated the report.

The CBO report continued: “But some jobs for low-wage workers would probably be eliminated, the income of most workers who became jobless would fall substantially, and the share of low-wage workers who were employed would probably fall slightly.”

Although the CBO report suggested that up to a million jobs could be lost, if the minimum wage were raised to $10.10 per hour, many economists agree that the effect of wage increase would be minimal.

“In a review of over 60 studies that look for statistical linkages between minimum-wage increases and job losses, economist John Schmitt reports that the most accurately measured results cluster around zero: some studies find that raising the minimum wage has a small negative effect on employment, a smaller number find that it has a small positive effect, and most find no significant effect,” stated a report by the Center for Budget and Public Priorities.

In January, the Economic Policy Institute advocated for increasing the minimum wage to $10.10 in a letter to President Obama and Congress. More than 600 economists, including seven Nobel Prize winners signed the letter, according to EPI.

Keeping his promise to use his pen or phone in a year of action to help American families, last week President Obama signed an executive order to raise the minimum wage of federal contract workers.

In a policy brief detailing President Obama’s executive order raising the minimum wage for federal contract workers, White House officials cited a study that showed when Maryland passed a similar law for state contract employees, competition between companies increased, driving a higher quality of service.

Contrary to common stereotypes most low-income workers are not teenagers working for extra pocket change for clothes and fast food on the weekends.

According to a report by the Center for Economic and Policy Research, titled “Low-wage Workers Are Older and Better Educated than Ever,” the average age of low-workers is about 35 and only about 12 percent were teenagers in 2011. A majority (60 percent) of low-wage workers are 25-64 years old. More than 30 percent of low-wage workers have some college education and roughly 10 percent have a four-year college degree.

The CBO also found that employment prospects for high school dropouts and Blacks in their 20s would be largely unaffected by changes in the minimum wage.

Lawrence Katz, an economist at Harvard University, said that raising the minimum wage would have significant benefits for low-skill workers, especially Africa Americans.

“Our best estimates suggest essentially no impact on employment and a large improvement in wages for disadvantaged workers,” said Katz.

Katz added: “Overall, it’s a substantial win for minority workers.”

Some "Government Workers" Earning Private Sector CEO Wages

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By Jazelle Hunt
NNPA Washington Correspondent

WASHINGTON (NNPA) – The CEOs of some private firms that have taken over government functions are earning as much as $8 million a year, according to a new report titled, “Exposed: America’s Highest Paid Government Workers.”

The report, published by the Center for Media and Democracy (CMD), said American taxpayers have paid nearly $120 million in personal compensation to a handful of corporate CEOs running the nation’s public services.

For example, George Zoley, dubbed the “highest paid corrections officer,” is the CEO of The GEO Group, Inc., an international detention/corrections firm headquartered in Florida. It owns nearly 50 adult and juvenile facilities in the United States. Most are in the south and southwest, with six in southern California, six in Florida, and 11 in Texas.

“Since its founding nearly 30 years ago, GEO Group profited from federal and state policies that led to a dramatic rise in incarceration and detention in the United States – an increase of more than 500 percent during the past three decades,” the report states. “In recent years, with crime rates dropping and sentencing reform spreading, GEO Group found a new way to keep its profits high: many of its contracts contain bed guarantees or ‘lock up quotas’ that require the state keep prisons full, and put taxpayers on the hook for empty beds.”

According to a different CMD report, the company also owns two political action committees, which annually contribute hundreds of thousands of dollars to the Florida Republican Party, the National Republican Party, and their candidates. In the last decade, GEO Group (formerly known as Wackenhut) has faced and settled several lawsuits involving abuse, neglect, cover-ups, and mismanagement leading to inmate deaths. Despite this, the company routinely makes more than $1 billion each year in revenue from local governments (and thus, taxpayers).

The other five CEOs highlighted in the report are: David Steiner of Waste Management; Ron Packard of K12, Inc. (which runs virtual public charter schools and other online education programs); Richard Montoni of Maximus, Inc. (which administrates federal human resources and health care programs such as Medicaid); Nicholas Moore of financial firm, Macquarie (which operates several major highways and toll roads); and Jeffry Sterba of American Water.

Between 2006 and 2012, Steiner earned more than $45 million in personal compensation; tax payers paid approximately half of the company’s $13.65 billion profit in 2012 alone. Packard made more than $19 million from 2009-2013, with $730.8 million in revenue from public schools. Montoni earned $19 million in personal compensation from 2009 to 2013, with his business earning $1.1 billion in revenue in 2012. Moore’s compensation last year was $8.8 million, with $6.7 billion in company revenue. In his three years at American Water, Sterba has earned more than $8.3 million—last year, the company received approximately 89 percent of its $2.9 billion profit from the municipalities it serves.

“These and other ‘government workers’ who head big firms in the fields of education, corrections, waste management, water treatment, transportation and even social services make billions off of taxpayers, but muddy accountability, and cut corners when it comes to public health and safety,” states the report. “Given these astronomical salaries, and evidence of higher prices, poor service and at times outright malfeasance, taxpayers have every right to be concerned whether their outsourced dollars are spent efficiently and effectively.”

These companies also tend to offer their employees lower wages and fewer benefits, compared to public workers doing the same job. Often, municipalities sign contracts with these companies that either do not make provisions for existing public workers, or make arrangements that result in layoffs and/or pay cuts.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 15 percent of the nation’s 6.7 million public administration workers are Black.

Most municipalities use some level of public-private collaboration to carry out public services; common examples of privatized public services include electricity, gas, and health care. Property, sales, and state income taxes pay for these services, and when a private company is hired to provide them, that private company is paid with tax funds.

The report also addresses the risks of privatization without careful planning, oversight, or accountability.

In addition to disclosing the dollar amounts, the report highlights the companies’ relevant shareholder lawsuits, criminal investigations, U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) sanctions, and court settlements. Each firm headed by these top six earners has been sued, or investigated and penalized in the recent past, for harmful business practices and/or federal crimes in relation to providing public services.

The report is part of a larger project called “Outsourcing America Exposed,” which aims to raise awareness about public service privatization, and how it “hinders transparency and shortchanges taxpayers.”

“Business is in business to make a profit; there is nothing inherently wrong with that,” says Shar Habibi, the research and policy director at In The Public Interest, a research organization focused on privatization, and one of Center for Media Democracy’s partners in this project. “But not when that profit comes at the expense of public health and safety. Not when taxpayers suddenly realize they no longer have control over their own schools, roads, or water systems. And not when the heads of these corporations make salaries that are literally 200 times what a dedicated public service worker makes.”

Civil Rights Leaders Submit Agenda to President

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By Freddie Allen
NNPA Washington Correspondent

WASHINGTON (NNPA) – A group of civil rights leaders met with President Obama and several members of his cabinet last week to discuss the “1963-2013: 21st Century Agenda for Jobs and Freedom,” a formal document with more than 90 legislative policy and priority recommendations.

In a statement released after the meeting, Al Sharpton, president and founder of the National Action Network, said that it was one of the most substantive meetings he has had with any president.

“We covered a broad spectrum of concerns from the civil rights community including unemployment, minimum wage, and job training; as well as concerns about restoring and protecting our voter rights, and state laws that we feel threaten our civil rights such as Stand Your Ground which is in 23 states,” said Sharpton.

Even though some have called it the “Black Agenda” civil rights leaders want people to know that they have been working with the president on many of the policy priorities since he took office.

Right after the president’s re-election in 2012, Marc Morial, president and CEO of the National Urban League, said that he and other civil rights leaders felt the need to develop a set of formal, written policy priorities to be presented not only to the president but also to his cabinet and Congress.

The agenda focused on five primary objectives:

1. Achieve Economic Parity for African-Americans
2. Promote Equity in Educational Opportunity
3. Protect and Defend Voting Rights
4. Promote a Healthier Nation by Eliminating Healthcare Disparities
5. Achieve Comprehensive Criminal Justice System Reform

Melanie Campbell, president and CEO of the National Coalition on Black Civic Participation said that discussions surrounding the “1963-2013: 21st Century Agenda for Jobs and Freedom” will stretch far past the White House. The goal is to use the agenda to engage other government agencies and departments as well, said Campbell.

“This administration is always looking for new ideas,” said Campbell “The agenda was just a comprehensive way of presenting those ideas.”

Those ideas range from job creation and training programs to updating programs that fund historically Black colleges and universities to financial assistance to care for people with mental health disorders.

Contrary to criticism from some members of the Black community that wonder why it took the civil rights organizations so long to craft the document, Campbell reiterated the fact that the many of the groups have engaged the president, collectively and individually, on a number of key issues.

Morial said that the agenda reflects the idea that the civil rights groups have to be much more collaborative and much more unified than ever before.

The National Urban League also crafted a document that showed how many of the priorities outlined in the president’s State of the Union address align with recommendations spelled out in the agenda.

The 21st Century Agenda calls for a higher minimum wage, funding for urban infrastructure projects, full implementation of the Affordable Care Act, and support for early childhood education.

“What people do not know is that those are the things that we have been encouraging for the last several years,” said Morial.

Morial continued: “Before income inequality became a mainstream, hot button issue, Black civil rights organizations back in 2010, 2011 and 2013 were encouraging the president to increase his focus on it. This State of the Union this second term agenda reflects an embrace of some of the recommendations that we have been making over the years.”

Morial also noted that Attorney General Eric Holder has taken on criminal justice reform in a way that is unprecedented. Holder called for states to reform or repeal laws that banned ex-felons from voting during an event at the Georgetown University Law Center in Washington, D.C. The attorney general expressed support for sentencing reform and new guidelines for prosecutors at public events last year.

“The criminal justice reforms highlighted in the 21st Century Agenda for Jobs and Freedom have long been a concern to the civil and human rights community,” said Wade Henderson, president and CEO of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights. “Our community has raised these issues repeatedly and loudly, and we’ve refused to be ignored. What we’re seeing now – after many years of activism – is a harmonic convergence of economic, political and moral interests coming together to increase momentum in support of common sense reforms to make our criminal justice system more fair, humane, and just.”

Morial called for the Black community to discuss, comment, praise, criticize, add to the “21 Century Agenda” in meaningful ways.

“We are firmly convinced the president will fight for jobs, training, minimum wage and voting rights as well as explore the other areas of concern,” said Sharpton “We are determined to build this country and make it work for everyone equally and fairly.”

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