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Feds arrest Riverhead doctor for Medicare fraud
Dr. Jesse Stoff has maintained a high profile in the media while practicing at East End Wellness Center, an alternative medicine facility in Riverhead where he serves as medical director.
News 12 Long Island made him the subject of a half-hour special on his unique treatment of allergies. In July, Hamptons.com mentioned his appearance at an East Hampton fundraiser for the Stem Cell Research Foundation. He has even maintained a medical advice blog for the local news website Patch.com over the past several months.
But one thing about Dr. Stoff has managed to remain under the radar all this time: his past.
Dr. Stoff was previously the medical director at Solstice Wellness Center in Rockaway Park, N.Y., a facility that was shut down last May following a federal investigation into Medicare fraud that has led to the arrest of more than 90 people in six states.
Earlier this month, Dr. Stoff and two others became the most recent suspects charged in the massive sting, which uncovered more than $295 million in Medicare fraud nationwide.
The Medicare Scheme
Federal prosecutors are alleging Dr. Stoff gave kickbacks on payments received through Medicare to patients he treated for “medically unnecessary” services at his former practice in Queens. He then made cash payments from January 2009 to April 2010 to two patients for referring other Medicare beneficiaries to Solstice Wellness Center, according to the charges.
Dr. Stoff, 55, was arrested in Queens by federal agents Sept. 7 following a grand jury indictment on charges of conspiracy to pay and receive health care kickbacks, six counts of health care fraud and one count of health care fraud conspiracy. He pleaded not guilty to all charges at his arraignment in Eastern District Court of New York that day and was released on a $250,000 bond. A receptionist at Dr. Stoff’s Roanoke Avenue office, which is lined with shelves of vitamins and supplements as well as Buddha and other religious statues, said he was working at the office Tuesday. Dr. Stoff declined to speak to a reporter.
Dr. Stoff’s Manhattan-based attorney, Andrea Likworni Weiss of Levi, Lubarsky & Feigenbaum LLP, said her client maintains his innocence.
“He is not guilty of those charges, that will be established in court,” she said Tuesday, declining to elaborate further on the charges and other aspects of his past.
The indictment alleges that Dr. Stoff and his colleague, Dr. Billy Gervis, conspired with patient recruiters Ilya Gershkovich and Palageya Kotelsky to pay kickbacks to a small network of Medicare beneficiaries to present themselves as patients at Solstice, where they were “prescribed medically unnecessary services such as physical therapy and diagnostic tests.” The doctors then filed claims with Medicare for reimbursement on those services and others they never performed, according to the indictment.
Maria Nakhbo, 72, a Medicare beneficiary and a patient of Solstice, was also arrested this month and charged with one count of conspiracy to pay and receive health care kickbacks and one count of making false statements.
According to a prior indictment that led to the arrest of several other key players in the scheme at Solstice Wellness Center, more than $2.8 million in Medicare claims were filed at the facility between February 2009 and April 2010. What tipped federal investigators off to the excessive Medicare billing practices at Solstice was a one-month period in 2009 when more than $800,000 was billed to Medicare by Dr. Stoff.
An undercover federal agent then posed as a patient at the facility and was paid $300 for his five visits there, according to the 2010 indictment of Solstice Wellness Center owner Dmitry Shteyman, who pleaded guilty in June and is expected to be sentenced next month.
At a May 2010 press conference, federal prosecutors said the payouts at Solstice Wellness Center and other facilities were often done in a “kickback room.” In one Brooklyn facility, prosecutors said a Cold War-era poster was hung warning patients in Russian not to gossip about the scheme.
Run-In With the FTC
According to news reports and government records, Dr. Stoff’s arrest in the Solstice Wellness Center scheme isn’t his first brush with controversy.
In 2005, he was accused by the Federal Trade Commission of falsely claiming that a supplement, marketed as AG-Immune and manufactured in California, could prevent and treat numerous diseases including cancer and AIDS. Dr. Stoff, who was practicing medicine in Arizona at the time, was reportedly paid a royalty for every bottle sold. The product retailed at $50 for a one-month supply and brought in $14 million in annual sales, according to the FTC.
Dr. Stoff was ordered to pay a $358,000 fine and was prohibited from making unsubstantiated claims about any food, drug or supplement, according to the settlement reached between him and the FTC. The fine was suspended due to Dr. Stoff’s inability to pay, according to the FTC.
“In addition, the order requires Dr. Stoff, when acting as an expert endorser, to support his expert conclusions with both competent and reliable scientific evidence and an actual exercise of his purported expertise,” said an FTC press release.
But in a statement on his personal website, dr.stoff.com, Dr. Stoff wrote that he was just a victim of circumstance as he was affiliated with the company, and never made false claims about the product.
“No evidence of the FTC’s claims and assertions was ever presented and the Consent Decree supports Dr. Stoff’s contention that he simply described those products within his knowledge and experience and never made any claims relative to their usefulness other than as dietary supplements,” the statement reads.
In the same case in 2005 the Federal Trade Commission, the Orange County, Calif., District Attorney and the California State Attorney General reached a settlement with the product’s manufacturer, Body Wise International, for $2 million to be paid to the FTC and $1.58 million to be paid to the State of California. Body Wise admitted no wrongdoing as part of the agreement.
The State of Arizona had previously investigated Dr. Stoff in 2000 after five former patients alleged a number of wrongdoings, including allegations of ordering unnecessary experimental treatments without patient’s consent and failing to properly oversee his staff, according to records found on the State of Arizona website. The state found the claims submitted by those five patients were justified, according to a copy of a settlement agreement Dr. Stoff reached with the Arizona Board of Homeopathic Medicine.
Dr. Stoff reached the non-disciplinary consent agreement in an effort to avoid litigation, according to the government records. The agreement prohibited him from ordering experimental treatments without first obtaining written consent from patients and required him to undergo training for medical recordkeeping and issuing diagnoses, among other stipulations. The matters were reported to the National Practitioner’s Data Bank.
He voluntarily surrendered his Arizona homeopathic medical license in December 2001.
Dr. Stoff graduated from New York Medical College in 1981 after receiving his undergraduate degree from Adelphi University. In addition to New York and Arizona, he has held a license to practice medicine in Massachusetts, where officials say he allowed his license to voluntarily expire in 1993.
He has written several books including “Chronic Fatigue Syndrome: The Hidden Epidemic” released in 1992 and “The Prostate Miracle” released in 2000.
‘It Didn’t Feel Right’
The Riverhead News-Review was made aware of concerns about East End Wellness Center earlier this month after receiving a phone call from the mother of a 24-year-old patient who was treated by a doctor there. The woman, who lives in Rocky Point and whose name has been withheld from this story in the interest of privacy, said her daughter went to the facility for treatment of fatigue after hearing about it through a friend who was treated for allergies there. She said her daughter was diagnosed with candidiasis, a type of yeast infection, and sent home with an over-the-counter supplement that cost $75. The daughter told a News-Review reporter that during her visit, she was stuck more than a dozen times in the arm by a needle.
The mother said she contacted East End Wellness asking for a refund after researching the supplement. She said she was originally told all purchases were final, but was later given the refund after warning that she would alert a local news outlet to the situation.
“Something about the place immediately didn’t feel right to me,” the mother said. “The office was cramped, tight and old. It looked nothing like a facility that you’d imagine would have something to do with health.”
When contacted after Dr. Stoff’s arrest, the mother said she was concerned to learn that East End Wellness could continue to operate despite the arrest of its medical director.
The conditions of Dr. Stoff’s release on bond do not prevent him from practicing medicine. Those conditions do, however, prohibit him from filing Medicare claims or performing services that may later require Medicare billing.
He is due back in court next February. The charge of conspiracy to pay and receive health care kickbacks carries a maximum sentence of five years in prison and a fine of up to $250,000, prosecutors said. The charges of conspiracy to commit health care fraud and health care fraud each carry a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison and a $250,000 fine per count.