Doctor in Kenny Chatman case pleads guilty to health care fraud

Dr. Joaquin Mendez, a former medical director for Kenny Chatman’s notorious Reflections Treatment Center, pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit health care fraud today.

He faces up to 10 years in federal prison.

Kenneth Chatman walks into Reflections, his treatment center in Margate, in 2015.

Mendez was the last holdout among eight people arrested in a fraudulent multi-million dollar drug treatment operation run by Chatman.

He admitted today to being essentially a doctor in name only for Reflections between September 2014 and September 2015. Although Mendez was supposed to be seeing patients and dictating their medical care, Chatman was the one deciding when people would get tested.

RELATED: ‘Kenny Chatman kidnapped me:’ Read one woman’s human trafficking story

Mendez would sign doctor’s orders without ever seeing the patients. He also signed off on hundreds of “certificates of medical necessity” for urine and saliva tests after the testing had already been done – and in some cases, the patients had already been discharged from Reflections.

If he had been closely following the drug test results, he would have noticed that up to 90% of the people in Chatman’s care were actively using drugs.

His actions helped turn Reflections, in Margate, and Chatman’s chain of sober homes into a multi-million dollar operation, despite Chatman having no experience in health care when he founded the facility in 2013.

Chatman’s crimes went far beyond health care fraud, however. His sober homes throughout Palm Beach County were houses of horror, where drug use was rampant and where some female patients were kept chained up so he could prostitute them. At least four people died of overdoses while in his care.

Chatman was sentenced to 27 1/2 years in prison in May. All of the other defendants also took plea deals, including another doctor and Chatman’s wife.

Mendez had held out because his attorneys, Richard Lubin and Anthony Vitale, wanted more time to review the mountain of evidence in the case, which included 326 gigabytes of digital records and 225 boxes of paper records.

Lubin said today that after reviewing the evidence, Mendez chose to plead guilty.

Mendez is scheduled to be sentenced Sept. 27.

Drug treatment center doctor who worked for Kenny Chatman will stay out of jail

A doctor who worked for corrupt treatment center operator Kenny Chatman will not be going back to jail – at least for now.

Federal prosecutors wanted Dr. Joaquin Mendez, who is out on $100,000 bond, back behind bars after they argued he violated the terms of his release by treating patients and prescribing opioids.

Kenneth Chatman walks into Reflections, his treatment center in Margate, in 2015.

But Mendez’s lawyer, Richard Lubin, argued the terms were vague, and both sides agreed last week simply to amend the terms of his release.

Mendez, a former medical director for Chatman’s corrupt Reflections Treatment Center, is the only one of eight defendants not to have taken a plea deal for their involvement with the facility.

The seven others, including Chatman and his wife, Laura, were sentenced to a combined 58 years in prison.

Mendez has been charged with money laundering and conspiracy to commit health care fraud for ordering unnecessary urine drug tests for addicts, according to prosecutors.

One of the terms of his release, added in handwriting to the paperwork, was that he “not use his Medicare number to provide any services.”

Prosecutors said he violated those terms after he treated at least 188 Medicare patients wrote more than 100 prescriptions for controlled substances that included oxycodone, Oxycontin, clonazepam and fentanyl.

Lubin, his lawyer, argued the terms were weirdly vague.

“Not only is this Court and Dr. Mendez left guessing at what it means to ‘treat patients using his Medicare number,’ it is entirely unclear what the Government means by ‘Medicare number,'” Lubin wrote.

HEROIN: Killer of a generation

Apparently the ‘Medicare number’ prosecutors referenced was Mendez’s Provider Transaction Access Number, which Lubin said had “absolutely nothing to do with” Medicare claims.

On Thursday, both sides agreed to changing the terms of release.

Mendez is one of two doctors in charge of overseeing patient care at Chatman’s facilities to be arrested. Last Week, Dr. Donald Willems was sentenced to 10 years in prison – the maximum sentence – after pleading guilty to conspiracy to commit health care fraud.

Chatman was sentenced to 27 years in prison last month after admitting to turning his female patients into prostitutes and pimping them out online.

Doctor charged in Kenny Chatman case caught prescribing opioids

Kenneth Chatman walks into Reflections, his treatment center in Margate, in 2015.

Federal prosecutors are trying to get a doctor who worked for notorious treatment center operator Kenny Chatman back behind bars after they say he was caught prescribing the opioids Oxycontin and fentanyl to Medicare patients.

Dr. Joaquin Mendez, facing charges of conspiracy to commit money laundering and health care fraud in January, was out on $100,000 bond. As part of the conditions of his release, he was not allowed use his Medicare number to “provide any services,” according to a court filing on Friday. His Medicare number was also revoked after he was released.

But federal prosecutors say that between February and May, Mendez treated at least 188 Medicare patients, and he wrote more than 100 prescriptions for controlled substances that included oxycodone, Oxycontin, clonazepam and fentanyl.

‘Kenny Chatman kidnapped me’: Read one woman’s human trafficking story

Prosecutors wrote that agents learned Mendez was dropping in on assisted living facilities and asking if anybody wanted to see a doctor. He would then either write the patient a prescription or refer them to a home health agency.

A judge will decide whether he will be arrested again.

HEROIN: Killer of a generation

Mendez is the only co-defendant who has not taken a plea deal in the massive fraud case against Kenny Chatman and his treatment centers, Reflections, in Broward County, and Journey to Recovery, in Lake Worth.

Read The Post’s first story on Chatman: Police reports link sober home operator to prostitution

In addition to fraud charges, Chatman admitted to turning some of his female patients into prostitutes at his Palm Beach County sober homes. Last month, he was sentenced to 27 years in prison and forced to register as a sex offender. His lawyers said he will appeal the sentence.

Prosecutors say Mendez ordered unnecessary urine drug tests for patients at Reflections and Chatman’s other treatment center, Journey to Recovery, in Lake Worth.

Mendez would be the second doctor in the case to get caught violating the conditions of his release. Dr. Donald Willems went back to jail after police discovered he was working in a drug treatment center and prescribing drugs he was not authorized to prescribe.

Willems, who pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit health care fraud, will be sentenced today in Miami. He faces up to 10 years in prison.

Bondi to sit on national drug abuse panel headed by NJ Gov. Chris Christie

President Trump on Wednesday appointed New Jersey Governor Chris Christie – a former rival and deposed head of his transition team – to lead a White House commission to combat drug addiction and named Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi a commission member.

New Jersey Governor and then Presidential Candidate Chris Christie spoke at the Caron Treatment Centers in Boca Raton in December 2015.

During a White House listening session on Wednesday, Trump, Christie, Bondi, Attorney General Jeff Sessions and other Cabinet members and policy makers heard from a recovered addict, the founder of a drug treatment center and a mother whose son had overdosed and died.

“I am honored to be appointed to the President’s Opioid and Drug Abuse Commission,” Bondi said in a press release. “I want to thank the president of the United States, Governor Christie and many others for caring about this deadly epidemic.”

Christie has made drug treatment the centerpiece of his administration and has dedicated his final year in office to addressing the drug crisis.

During an event at Caron Renaissance in Boca Raton in 2015, Christie – then a candidate for president – said his empathy for addicts came from his personal experience with his mother’s cigarette addiction and a law school friend’s overdose death from painkillers.

The commission is being rolled out as part of a new office led by Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner, who has had a frosty relationship with Christie, a former U.S. attorney.

Christie obtained convictions against Kushner’s father in 2004 and 2005 for illegal campaign contributions, criminal tax evasion and witness tampering.

Kushner and Christie had lunch together at the White House on Tuesday to discuss the administration’s drug policy. Exactly what the commission will do and how it will be financed is not yet known.

But Christie offered some details about his plan while speaking at Caron Renaissance in 2015.

“First you have to change the mindset of prosecutors,” candidate-Christie said.  “Sometimes justice means prosecuting and sometimes it doesn’t.”

Christie said he would create drug courts in each of the 93 federal court districts and use the money saved by diverting addicts from prison to provide more public drug treatment.

Christie’s position leading the new commission is a volunteer one. However, people close to him say that he is open to potentially joining the administration when his term ends in January.

 

 

Owner of notorious drug treatment center pleads guilty today

Drug treatment center owner Kenneth “Kenny” Chatman pleaded guilty Wednesday to conspiracy to commit health care fraud, money laundering and conspiracy to recruit persons into sexual acts, a charge that could send him to prison for life.

His wife, Laura Chatman, pleaded guilty to two counts of falsifying and covering up the ownership of the treatment centers. She applied for state licensure for the facilities even though her husband, a felon, was the one owning and operating them. She faces up to 10 years in prison.

Their sentencing will be May 17 at 10 a.m.

Kenneth Chatman walks into Reflections, his treatment center in Margate in December, 2015.

Chatman had been charged with conspiracy to commit sex trafficking, money laundering and conspiracy to commit health care fraud. His wife had been charged with conspiracy to commit health care fraud and multiple counts of money laundering.

Chatman owned Reflections Treatment Center in central Broward County and operated sober homes throughout Palm Beach County. The places were notorious drug dens, with up to 90 percent of patients – who were supposed to be getting sober – doing drugs.

Chatman’s ties to prostitution were first exposed by The Palm Beach Post in December, 2015. Nearly a year later, federal authorities arrested him.

This is a developing story. Check back for updates.

Lawmakers cite Post’s investigation as motive for change

Local lawmakers agreed on Wednesday to cross the aisle and work together on passing legislation to address the opioid crisis and corruption in sober homes.heroin-front-page

During a brief presentation at a meeting of the Palm Beach County Commission and its Legislative Delegation, Democratic Senator Jeff Clemens of Lake Worth urged his colleagues to support a bill soon to be proposed by Republican Rep. Bill Hager of Boca Raton that will address sober home regulation.

Palm Beach County Mayor Paulette Burdick praised the Palm Beach Post for its investigation of corruption in the drug treatment industry and the opioid epidemic.

“We as elected officials work hard in the community and have created task forces but the media, in particular our local Palm Beach Post, has done a wonderful job with presenting the faces of the addiction problem and the health care issues statewide that effect all of us,” Burdick said, referring to a recent article that estimated the cost of the opioid epidemic at Florida hospitals at $1.1 billion.

Spoon sigAssistant County Administrator Todd Bonlarron, formerly the county’s top lobbyist, said he has sent “dozens” of articles from the Post’s series to the White House National Office of Drug Control Policy, hoping to show the extent of the problem.

“We really have struggled in Congress to make the case that we are dealing with a crisis,” Bonlarron said. “This really is a priority issue for us.”

Clemens said he will seek money to continue funding the Palm Beach County Sober Home Task Force, created by Palm Beach County State Attorney Dave Aronberg. The task force has made 9 arrests and drafted proposed legislation.

Clemens and Hager have led the 4-year-long battle to reign in sober homes and succeeded in passing a bill that prohibits treatment centers from referring patients to sober homes that have not been certified by the Florida Association of Recovery Residences.

The county will also seek more money for the Southeast Florida Behavioral Health Network, which is contracted by the Department of Children and Families to oversee drug treatment providers.

 

 

 

Aronberg warns of homeless crisis after sober home crackdown

At a meeting of the Palm Beach County Legislative Delegation on Tuesday, State Attorney Dave Aronberg explained how he has spent the $275,000 lawmakers gave him to probe corruption in the drug treatment industry but warned that if the funding is not renewed, proactive efforts to combat corruption will likely end.heroin-front-page

“Our criminal investigations will continue beyond the appropriation,” Aronberg said, adding that the funding will stop on June 30, 2017. “The only difference will be that we will probably be back in a reactive mode as opposed to the task force being able to get in front of this.”

Aronberg did not make a pitch for a specific amount of money. Instead, he asked local lawmakers to watch the actions of the task force. Since its start on July 1, the task force has made seven arrests: two treatment providers and five sober home operators. All have been charged with multiple counts of patient brokering.

The task force has also drafted legislation which it hopes local lawmakers will sponsor and suggested tweaks to existing laws and regulations, Aronberg said.

“You’ve seen stories on all the unnecessary lives lost because of the heroin crisis,” Aronberg said, holding up a copy of the Nov. 20 front page of the Post, which displayed the faces of the 216 people who died of heroin-related overdoses in 2015.

Aronberg’s experience with cracking down on drugs dates back to his tenure as the state’s Drug Czar during the pill mill crisis a decade ago. Aronberg admitted that he knew that closing the pill mills would create a heroin crisis.

“Government doesn’t always do a good job of preventing,” Aronberg said. “It does a better job of reacting.”

However, Aronberg said he wants to be prepared for the by-product of the sober home crackdown: Homelessness.

“Once we shut down a lot of these sober homes, we’re going to have a homeless problem,” Aronberg said. Already, he has begun talks with the county commission about housing for addicts left homeless.

“Keep in mind, this could be the next front in this fight,” Aronberg said.

The Task Force has three units: Law enforcement, secret group that meets monthly to discuss criminal investigations; A proviso group, that has examined existing laws and regulations and will suggest changes; and the Sober Home Task Force, made up of sober home operators, treatment providers and the public.

Aronberg said some of the money went to hire a full-time investigator and criminal analyst. Aronberg has also assigned a prosecutor to work exclusively on corruption.

“I think Palm Beach County is going to be a leader in this effort,” Aronberg said. “We are creating a model that others can follow.”

 

 

 

How many addicts is too many to treat?

Physicians who prescribe buprenorphine to treat opioid addiction will no longer be limited to 100 patients. Under a rule change announced during a White House press conference on Tuesday, the new rule increases from 100 to 275 the number of patients that qualified physicians can treat.

Hypodermic needles mixed with cigarette butts and empty prescription bottles filled garbage bags recovered from a cottage apartment rented by Jean Thomas, 83, in West Palm Beach's Prospect Park neighborhood. (Thomas Cordy / The Palm Beach Post)
(Thomas Cordy / The Palm Beach Post)

The announcement came as lawmakers today consider the President’s request for $1.1 billion to address the nation’s opioid epidemic, fueled largely by cheap heroin laced with the powerful painkiller fentanyl. Opioid overdoses kill 129 people every day in the U.S.

Buprenorphine, also known by the brand names Suboxone and Subutex, is among a handful of drugs that block the high produced by heroin and other opioids, such as Percocet and Oxycodone, and prevent the addict from suffering the painful side-effects of withdrawal.

These drugs – if misused – can produce a high. To prevent “diversion” – using the drugs to get high rather than to wean an addict off opioids – qualified physicians were only allowed to treat 100 patients with the drugs.

Critics claim that medication-assisted treatment with drugs such as buprenorphine still leave addicts dependent on a drug. They question whether a physician can adequately care for 275 addicts at once and fear buprenorphine clinics may become the new pill mills.

Still, providers, policymakers and experts have pointed to the current 100 patient limit as a barrier to treatment. Administration officials estimate the increased limit coupled with the President’s $1.1 billion budget request will enable 70,000 addicts to access treatment next year.

Under the President’s budget proposal, Florida would be eligible for up to $47 million dollars over 2
years to expand access to treatment. However, the final amount the state could receive depends on congressional approval of the budget and the strength of the State’s application and plan to combat the epidemic.

Florida lawmakers have expressed little interest in addressing the state’s heroin epidemic even though the state – especially south Florida – is considered the recovery capital of the U.S. A Palm Beach Post investigation of the county’s drug-treatment industry revealed evidence of patient-brokering, insurance fraud and kickbacks.

This year lawmakers reluctantly approved a bill that would allow researchers at a Miami hospital to operate a needle exchange program and shot down efforts to control unethical marketing practices in the billion-dollar drug treatment industry.

The homepage of the State’s Dept. of Health is devoted to controlling the spread of the Zika virus. Its “Programs and Services” menu makes no mention of addiction services.

Still unresolved is how uninsured addicts who wish to get clean will find in-patient beds during the initial detox procedure – which takes an estimated 7-10 days. Administration officials said Tuesday that grants will enable communities to develop programs to provide such care.

In Palm Beach County, the Drug Abuse Foundation in Delray Beach is the primary provider of in-patient detox beds for addicts who have no insurance and cannot afford to pay for detox. There is often a waiting list for those beds.

 

Buzzfeed probe of sober homes cites Post investigation

Corruption in South Florida’s drug treatment industry grabbed headlines on the web on Saturday with an in-depth story by Buzzfeed News – the online news and entertainment giant.Spoon sig

The article chronicled recovering addicts victimized in some of the scams uncovered in the Palm Beach Post’s 8-month investigation. By linking to several Post stories, the Buzzfeed article – “Addicts for Sale” – explained how addicts with insurance are bought and sold by “marketers,” “body brokers” and “junkie hunters” who work for sober homes.

The story focused on Delray Beach, where hundreds of sober homes and outpatient treatment program are the focus of a 2-year-investigation by and FBI task force. Investigators raided two sober homes. However, no charges have been filed.

Besides patient brokering, authorities are investigating insurance fraud resulting from unnecessary urine drug tests and kickbacks paid to addicts, sober home operators, outpatient treatment programs and labs – all who need addict’s urine to continue billing insurance companies.