Two doctors and a nurse working for a Texas-based hospice agency were sentenced to a combined total of more than 25 years in prison for a healthcare fraud scheme exceeding $40 million, the Department of Justice (DOJ) announced.
Bradley Harris, the CEO of the now-defunct Novus Health Services in Frisco, Texas, entered a guilty plea before the trial and later testified against his former employees, Mark Gibbs, MD, Laila Hirjee, MD, and Tammie Little, RN. As a result of his testimony and other evidence presented at the trial, Gibbs was sentenced to 13 years in a federal prison and was ordered to pay $27,978,903 in restitution, and Hirjee was sentenced to 10 years and ordered to pay $16,253,281. Little was sentenced to 33 months in prison.
According to the DOJ and Harris’s plea papers, Gibbs, Hirjee, and Little helped Harris defraud Medicare and Medicaid by falsely admitting patients into hospice when it was not medically appropriate and submitting false claims for hospice services from 2012 to 2016.
Harris disclosed that Gibbs and Hirjee frequently determined that patients were terminally ill without conducting any in-person examinations, as required by Medicare; the doctors were paid around $150 for each false order, a DOJ press release from March stated.
Harris and Novus nurses — not the licensed physicians on staff — decided which patients would be admitted and discharged from hospice care, and which drugs and drug doses the patients would receive. Witness testimony confirmed that Gibbs and Hirjee would dole out blank pre-signed prescription pads to Harris and other Novus staff members; they would then use these pads to prescribe controlled substances — such as morphine, hydromorphone, and fentanyl — without any oversight.
“I was the doctor,” said Melanie Murphey, director of operations at Novus, during the trial, according to the DOJ. (Murphey is not a licensed medical professional.)
In a 2018 court record obtained by MedPage Today, Murphey stated that Harris instructed nurses “to intentionally overmedicate beneficiaries with medications such as hydromorphone and morphine with the intent to hasten their deaths.”
Harris said in his plea that he made an agreement with a company called Express Medical that permitted him access to potential patients’ private medical records in order to subvert Medicare’s aggregate hospice cap by enrolling first-time patients. In return, Novus would use Express Medical for lab services and home health visits. Amy Harris, Harris’s wife and Novus’s vice president of patient services, would then recruit Express Medical patients for hospice care regardless of their eligibility for benefits.
Amy Harris also pleaded guilty before the trial, along with a number of co-defendants, including Ali Rizvi, the owner of Express Medical, and two Novus nurses: Jessica Love, RN, who was sentenced to 8.5 years in prison, and Patricia Armstrong, RN, who was given a 7-year prison sentence.
“These doctors allowed Bradley Harris — an accountant with no medical expertise — to dispense controlled substances like candy, with little to no medical oversight,” said Chad Meacham, U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Texas. “They claimed to have had hands-on experience with hospice patients, when in fact, they’d entrusted life-or-death medical decisions to untrained businesspeople. We are satisfied to know they will spend the next decade behind bars.”
Kara Grant joined the Enterprise & Investigative Reporting team at MedPage Today in February 2021. She covers psychiatry, mental health, and medical education.