Ark. Doctor Convicted in Wheelchair Fraud Scheme

December 13, 2005

An Arkansas doctor’s conviction on Medicare fraud charges after prosecutors claimed he talked elderly patients into unnecessarily seeking wheelchairs, paid for with government money, may leave Magnolia, Ark., with fewer doctors.

Dr. Patrick Antoon Sr., a popular family doctor in southeast Arkansas, was found guilty along with a pair of Nigerian wheelchair suppliers from Texas. Prosecutors said the threesome, along with a Dallas doctor and Arkansas recruiter, were responsible for $2.65 million in fraudulent charges.

Antoon was found guilty last month of health-care fraud, falsifying office records and obstructing the investigation. He is to be sentenced Feb. 8.

Prosecutors said the scam is just an example of ballooning power wheelchair spending, citing $289 million spent in 1999 to a jump to $1.2 billion in 2003. A government crackdown cut that figure to $822 million in 2004.

Antoon’s scheme included kickbacks from the wheelchair suppliers. The U.S. Attorney’s office in Dallas, where Antoon was prosecuted, says other Arkansas doctors also took illegal payments, but wouldn’t give specifics pending the outcome of an investigation.

But the case has hit hardest in Magnolia, a town of 10,000, where community leaders already struggle to keep the city hospital open. They now worry how to make up for the loss of Antoon, who had 4,500 patients.

The crux of the scheme hinged on medical-equipment suppliers sending recruiters out to Magnolia neighborhoods with concentrations of elderly people. Universal Health Services Inc., which was owned by Ignatius Chuka Chuck Ogba and Ifeanyi Boniface Iffy Ogba, set up their Magnolia business in 2003, according to government documents. The Ogbas are from Nigeria.

Prosecutors say fraudulent parties, like University Health Services, moved north after major crackdowns in Texas.

“They were coming in with wads of cash, saying ‘Here’s our application,”’ said John Kirtley, assistant director of the Arkansas State Board of Pharmacy, which licenses companies that supply wheelchairs.

Soon after the Ogbas came to Magnolia, recruiters were going door-to-door, often in hard-pressed neighborhoods. The accusation was that Antoon approved the wheelchairs for patients who didn’t need them.

But Antoon’s attorney, Dan Guthrie of Dallas, said he saw about 125 patients and received a payment of $200 for examining each one a total of $25,000. Antoon thought the money was proper exam fees and the needs of his patients for the power wheelchairs were legitimate, Guthrie said.

“All of the patients he approved, he believed were medically qualified to receive a wheelchair,” Guthrie said.

Medicare records show only patients who otherwise would be confined to bed or a chair should be eligible. Guthrie said when his client filled out the forms, he didn’t think a patient who could walk a short distance shouldn’t receive a power wheelchair.

Back in Magnolia, city leaders and staff at Magnolia Hospital, were so worried about losing Antoon that they traveled to Dallas to talk to the prosecutors about it, said Steve Crane, a Magnolia lawyer who has represented Antoon.

“We’re just in a world where it’s hard to recruit doctors to small towns,” Magnolia Mayor Lane Jean said.

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