Former Arkansas Hospice Owner Ordered to Pay $579,972 for Scam

 A former Arkansas hospice owner, a key player in what authorities say is one of Mississippi's worst Medicaid-fraud schemes, was sentenced to five years in prison on Monday and ordered to pay $579,972 in fines and restitution for a similar scam in Helena-West Helena.

Pulaski County Circuit Judge Herb Wright imposed a five-year suspended prison term on 63-year-old Charline Brandon contingent on her paying $289,986 in restitution. The judge said she must forfeit 15% of her take-home pay toward restitution beginning two months after she's paroled.






"Residents in Helena-West Helena should feel vindicated with the justice served today," Rutledge said after sentencing. "Holding facilities and owners to the highest standards is the best way to ensure all Arkansas access to health care facilities near their homes."

Brandon's scheme was uncovered by investigators for Attorney General Leslie Rutledge and prosecuted by lawyers from her office in conjunction with Polaski County Prosecuting Attorney Larry Jegley.

The restitution reflects the false Medicaid claims made by the Bridge of Faith Hospice and Palliative Care in Helena-West Helena on behalf of two patients, both of whom were lied to about their health, according to testimony at Monday's sentencing.

Bridge of Faith made 1,470 claims, collecting $196,833 on behalf of one patient, and 673 claims, worth $93,153, on a second patient. Both women, deceived into thinking that they were dying, spent upwards of three years in hospice care, fraud investigator Mary Bowen testified. Describing the plight of one of the patients, Bowen said the woman had been falsely told she had a heart transplant and contracted a sexually transmitted disease.

"None of that was true," Bowen told the judge. "These were all false diagnoses."

A review of the hospice's bank records show it collected $1,567,433 in Medicaid and Medicare payments between 2013 and 2016 but neither the hospice, which has since been sold, nor Brandon paid state taxes on the monies, Bowen said. She told the judge that tax collectors at the state Department of Finance and Administration estimated the collections would have resulted in $164,968 in state taxes.

Brandon faced up to 46 years in prison after pleading guilty to failure to file state taxes and two counts of Medicaid fraud in March. She must serve at least 10 months of her five-year sentence before qualifying for parole. Her $289,986 fine, an amount matching her restitution, will be reduced by how much time she spends in prison.

Brandon asked for probation to give her a chance to pay back the money but Lloyd Warford, the deputy attorney general in charge of Medicaid investigations, called for a prison term based on the amount of money Brandon had cheated taxpayers out of.

"This woman knew what she was doing," Warford said. "There's no way she can repay this. The state has no real hope of recouping the loss."

Brandon stole money for six years, he pointed out, urging the judge disregard defense efforts to depict Brandon as a simple first-offender. Warford told the judge this is the first time in Rutledge's administration that he's asked for a defendant to go to prison based solely on the amount of money stolen.

Brandon was arrested in September 2017 on the Arkansas charges, barely a year after the state probe launched in August 2016, growing out of the Mississippi investigation into Medicaid and Medicare payments to four hospices run in that state by Brandon. She has pleaded guilty in Mississippi federal court to a charge of conspiracy to commit health care fraud, with sentencing scheduled for October. Federal authorities said Brandon submitted more than $11 million in fraudulent claims to Medicare and more than $2 million to Medicaid.

Bridge of Faith was set up in the name of Brandon's son, but the probe into the facility's operations showed that while Wendell Brandon's name was on the paperwork, Charline Brandon wrote most of the checks, according to testimony.

Bowen, the fraud investigator, said Medicaid requires hospice patients to be examined by a doctor every two months to be certified for continuing Medicaid payments. The average hospice patient only lives six months, she told the judge.

Trimble told the judge the only reason Brandon had been charged with Medicaid fraud was because the two patients have lived longer than expected. And he asked the judge to consider that continuously re-certifying the two patients was beyond the scope of her abilities because the process required a doctor.

"Because these patients kept living, we're here for Medicaid fraud," Trimble told the judge. "There's a lot of other tentacles in this case."

Bridge of Faith's medical director who made the certifications was initially charged with Brandon but the charges were dropped in March in exchange for 54-year-old Dr. Thomas Odell Bailey of Lexa paying a fine.

Prosecutors said they agreed to the arrangement after new evidence from the Mississippi probe changed their minds about his role in Bridge of Faith operations.

Brandon did not testify but addressed the judge for 10 minutes. She apologized for what she'd done and said she was taking responsibility for her wrongdoing by pleading guilty. Brandon, who was not cross-examined, described for the judge how suffering childhood asthma inspired her to first become a nurse, then moving onto becoming a health care entrepreneur who trained hundreds of nursing assistants before moving into hospice care.

"I've devoted my life to my business," Brandon said. "I've always tried to do the right thing. I never intended to do wrong. I have never done anything like this before. I have always tried to obey the law."

Building those business of public service took long hours with no pay or vacation, Brandon said. She said her commitment to public service included establishing food pantries for poor patients and providing school supplies for children in the Cleveland, Miss., area where she had four hospices.

Brandon and her two sisters, who testified as character witnesses, told the judge that the stress of the criminal investigations has taken a toll on Brandon's health, inflicting anxiety attacks and worsening her diabetes and high blood pressure.

"She don't lie. She don't steal and she doesn't take nothing from nobody," Johnette Funchess of Indiana testified.

Sheila Kuykendall Jackson compared her sister's suffering to the crucifixion of Jesus and the ordeal of Job in the Bible.

Both women were overcome by the prison sentence for their oldest sister. A screaming and shrieking Kuykendall Jackson had to be helped out of the courtroom while Funchess, trying to console her, dropped to her knees gasping for breath.

Metro on 06/25/2019

Print Headline: Former Arkansas hospice owner ordered to pay $579,972 for scam