Trump’s Pardons Included Health Care Execs Behind Massive Frauds

At the last minute, President Donald Trump granted pardons to several individuals convicted in huge Medicare swindles that prosecutors alleged often harmed or endangered elderly and infirm patients while fleecing taxpayers.

“These aren’t just technical financial crimes. These were major, major crimes,” said Louis Saccoccio, chief executive officer of the National Health Care Anti-Fraud Association, an advocacy group.

The list of some 200 Trump pardons or commutations, most issued as he vacated the White House this week, included at least seven doctors or health care entrepreneurs who ran discredited health care enterprises, from nursing homes to pain clinics. One is a former doctor and California hospital owner embroiled in a massive workers’ compensation kickback scheme that prosecutors alleged prompted more than 14,000 dubious spinal surgeries. Another was in prison after prosecutors accused him of ripping off more than $1 billion from Medicare and Medicaid through nursing homes and other senior care facilities, among the largest frauds in U.S. history.

“All of us are shaking our heads with these insurance fraud criminals just walking free,” said Matthew Smith, executive director of the Coalition Against Insurance Fraud. The White House argued all deserved a second chance. One man was said to have devoted himself to prayer, while another planned to resume charity work or other community service. Others won clemency at the request of prominent Republican ex-attorneys general or others who argued their crimes were victimless or said critical errors by prosecutors had led to improper convictions.

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Trump commuted the sentence of former nursing home magnate Philip Esformes in late December. He was serving a 20-year sentence for bilking $1 billion from Medicare and Medicaid. An FBI agent called him “a man driven by almost unbounded greed.” Prosecutors said that Esformes used proceeds from his crimes to make a series of “extravagant purchases, including luxury automobiles and a $360,000 watch.”

Esformes also bribed the basketball coach at the University of Pennsylvania “in exchange for his assistance in gaining admission for his son into the university,” according to prosecutors.

Fraud investigators had cheered the conviction. In 2019, the National Health Care Anti-Fraud Association gave its annual award to the team responsible for making the case. Saccoccio said that such cases are complex and that investigators sometimes spend years and put their “heart and soul” into them. “They get a conviction and then they see this happen. It has to be somewhat demoralizing.”

Tim McCormack, a Maine lawyer who represented a whistleblower in a 2007 kickback case involving Esformes, said these cases “are not just about stealing money.”

“This is about betraying their duty to their patients. This is about using their vulnerable, sick and trusting patients as an ATM to line their already rich pockets,” he said. He added: “These pardons send the message that if you are rich and connected and powerful enough, then you are above the law.”

The Trump White House saw things much differently.

“While in prison, Mr. Esformes, who is 52, has been devoted to prayer and repentance and is in declining health,” the White House pardon statement said.

The White House said the action was backed by former Attorneys General Edwin Meese and Michael Mukasey, while Ken Starr, one of Trump’s lawyers in his first impeachment trial, filed briefs in support of his appeal claiming prosecutorial misconduct related to violating attorney-client privilege.

Trump also commuted the sentence of Salomon Melgen, a Florida eye doctor who had served four years in federal prison for fraud. That case also ensnared U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), who was acquitted in the case and helped seek the action for his friend, according to the White House.

Prosecutors had accused Melgen of endangering patients with needless injections to treat macular degeneration and other unnecessary medical care, describing his actions as “truly horrific” and “barbaric and inhumane,” according to a court filing.

Melgen “not only defrauded the Medicare program of tens of millions of dollars, but he abused his patients — who were elderly, infirm, and often disabled — in the process,” prosecutors wrote.

Prosecutors said the scheme raked in “a staggering amount of money.” Between 2008 and 2013, Medicare paid the solo practitioner about $100 million. He took in an additional $10 million from Medicaid, the government health care program for low-income people, $62 million from private insurance, and approximately $3 million in patients’ payments, prosecutors said.

In commuting Melgen’s sentence, Trump cited support from Menendez and U.S. Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.). “Numerous patients and friends testify to his generosity in treating all patients, especially those unable to pay or unable to afford healthcare insurance,” the statement said.

In a statement, Melgen, 66, thanked Trump and said his decision ended “a serious miscarriage of justice.”

“Throughout this ordeal, I have come to realize the very deep flaws in our justice system and how people are at the complete mercy of prosecutors and judges. As of today, I am committed to fighting for unjustly incarcerated people,” Melgen said. He denied harming any patients.

Faustino Bernadett, a former California anesthesiologist and hospital owner, received a full pardon. He had been sentenced to 15 months in prison in connection with a scheme that paid kickbacks to doctors for admitting patients to Pacific Hospital of Long Beach for spinal surgery and other treatments.

“As a physician himself, defendant knew that exchanging thousands of dollars in kickbacks in return for spinal surgery services was illegal and unethical,” prosecutors wrote.

Many of the spinal surgery patients “were injured workers covered by workers’ compensation insurance. Those patient-victims were often blue-collar workers who were especially vulnerable as a result of their injuries,” according to prosecutors.

The White House said the conviction “was the only major blemish” on the doctor’s record. While Bernadett failed to report the kickback scheme, “he was not part of the underlying scheme itself,” according to the White House.

The White House also said Bernadett was involved in numerous charitable activities, including “helping protect his community from COVID-19.” “President Trump determined that it is in the interests of justice and Dr. Bernadett’s community that he may continue his volunteer and charitable work,” the White House statement read.

Others who received pardons or commutations included Sholam Weiss, who was said to have been issued the longest sentence ever for a white collar crime — 835 years. “Mr. Weiss was convicted of racketeering, wire fraud, money laundering, and obstruction of justice, for which he has already served over 18 years and paid substantial restitution. He is 66 years old and suffers from chronic health conditions,” according to the White House.

John Davis, the former CEO of Comprehensive Pain Specialists, the Tennessee-based chain of pain management clinics, had spent four months in prison. Federal prosecutors charged Davis with accepting more than $750,000 in illegal bribes and kickbacks in a scheme that billed Medicare $4.6 million for durable medical equipment.

Trump’s pardon statement cited support from country singer Luke Bryan, said to be a friend of Davis’.

These treatments “involved sticking needles in their eyes, burning their retinas with a laser, and injecting dyes into their bloodstream.”

“Notably, no one suffered financially as a result of his crime and he has no other criminal record,” the White House statement reads.

“Prior to his conviction, Mr. Davis was well known in his community as an active supporter of local charities. He is described as hardworking and deeply committed to his family and country. Mr. Davis and his wife have been married for 15 years, and he is the father of three young children.”

CPS was the subject of a November 2017 investigation by KHN that scrutinized its Medicare billings for urine drug testing. Medicare paid the company at least $11 million for urine screenings and related tests in 2014, when five of CPS’ medical professionals stood among the nation’s top such Medicare billers.

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Fiscal general de California: los jueces deben ver que ACA es “indispensable”

Sacramento.- Cuando la Corte Suprema de los Estados Unidos esté escuchando el martes 10 un caso que podría decidir el destino de la Ley de Cuidado de Salud a Bajo Precio (ACA), California liderará la defensa de la ley federal que impacta en casi todos los aspectos del sistema de salud del país.

Por lo general, es tarea del gobierno federal defender una ley federal, pero la Administración Trump quiere que ACA, también conocida como Obamacare, se revoque.

Por eso, el fiscal general de California, Xavier Becerra, respaldado por más de 20 estados, defiende la ley contra el desafío presentado hace dos años por una coalición de funcionarios estatales republicanos.

Becerra ha sido uno de los adversarios más formidables de Trump: ha llevado a la administración a los tribunales decenas de veces por sus políticas, que van desde la inmigración y el control de la natalidad hasta el cambio climático. Se le considera uno de los principales contendientes para llenar la vacante del Senado que se abrirá ahora que la senadora por California Kamala Harris ha sido elegida vicepresidenta.

“Tan enérgicamente como un presidente y su administración están luchando para destruir la Ley de Cuidado de Salud a Bajo Precio, nosotros estamos luchando para salvarla para todos los estadounidenses”, dijo Becerra a los periodistas en una conferencia de prensa el lunes 9.

Si el tribunal anula toda la ley, el impacto se sentiría ampliamente. La ley proporciona seguro médico a más de 23 millones de estadounidenses. Permite a las personas que califican comprar seguros a través de los mercados estatales y el federal, y recibir subsidios.

También ha recomendado  a los estados expandir sus programas de Medicaid a más personas; previene que las compañías de seguros nieguen cobertura a personas con afecciones médicas preexistentes; prohíbe los límites de por vida en la cobertura; agrega beneficios a Medicare; y permite que los hijos permanezcan en los planes de sus padres hasta los 26 años.

El tema central en California vs. Texas es la multa fiscal federal por no tener seguro médico, como exige la ley. En 2017, el Congreso liderado por los republicanos redujo esta multa a cero, pero mantuvo intacta al resto de la ley, una medida que, según Becerra y otros expertos en leyes, muestra la intención del Congreso de apoyarla.

Sin embargo, funcionarios estatales republicanos dicen que la pérdida de la penalidad invalida el mandato de tener un seguro, así como toda la ley.

Becerra dijo que es posible que el tribunal determine que los impugnadores no tienen legitimidad para demandar al gobierno porque nadie ha sido perjudicado por una multa que cuesta cero.

Aunque la corte ha ratificado dos veces esta ley, la composición de la corte ha cambiado desde su último fallo sobre ACA en 2015. Desde entonces, Trump ha nombrado a tres jueces conservadores. Dos reemplazaron a otros conservadores, pero Amy Coney Barrett, quien fue confirmada a fines de octubre, ocupa el asiento de un ícono liberal, la jueza Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

Abbe Gluck, directora del Centro Salomón de Derecho y Políticas de Salud de la Escuela de Derecho de Yale, dijo que si el tribunal cree que el requisito del seguro médico es inconstitucional sin la penalidad, debería simplemente declarar inválida esa sección de la ley, pero no anularla por completo.

Pero “he aprendido que nunca se puede predecir lo que sucede en la corte cuando se trata de la Ley de Cuidado de Salud a Bajo Precio”, dijo Gluck. “Por eso hay más preocupación, porque el estatuto se ha vuelto tan fundamentalmente importante para una quinta parte de nuestra economía y para la atención médica de prácticamente todos los estadounidenses”.

Becerra habló con Samantha Young de California Healthline sobre su defensa del Obamacare y el enorme alcance de la influencia de la ley. La entrevista ha sido editada por extension, y para mayor claridad.

¿Cuáles son las posibilidades de que la Corte Suprema derogue la Ley de Cuidado de Salud a Bajo Precio?

Confiamos en que no solo verán la lógica legal detrás de esto, sino también la sabiduría y el éxito práctico de la Ley de Cuidado de Salud a Bajo Precio, lo cual pesa mucho a favor de que los jueces reconozcan no solo que es legal, sino indispensable. Cuando los jueces examinen los fundamentos de la Ley de Cuidado de Salud a Bajo Precio, encontrarán que es constitucional.

La composición de la Corte Suprema de los Estados Unidos ha cambiado desde la última vez que se pronunció sobre ACA. ¿Por qué cree que estos jueces decidirán de la misma manera?

Eso no debería cambiar el hecho de que los fundamentos de la ley siguen siendo los mismos. Los fundamentos de ACA son sólidos y funcionan. Espero que nueve jueces que revisan la misma ley observen ese precedente.

¿A qué debe prestar atención el público durante los argumentos orales?

Algo interesante de observar es cómo la corte interpreta las acciones tomadas por el Congreso en 2017, cuando aprobaron el proyecto de ley de exención de impuestos y redujeron a cero la tarifa o multa por el mandato individual. Ahora, estamos ante un presidente y al menos una cámara en el Congreso que está preparada para defender la Ley de Cuidado de Salud a Bajo Precio. ¿Cómo podría considerar el tribunal el hecho de que otro Congreso podría restablecer parte de ese mandato?

¿Cómo se relaciona esto con el argumento legal de que haber reducido a cero el mandato de alguna manera provocó la inconstitucionalidad de toda la ley? Creo que es una cuestión que el tribunal tendrá que examinar.

¿Qué pasará si la Corte Suprema de los Estados Unidos declara inconstitucional la Ley de Cuidado de Salud a Bajo Precio?

Volverán las preocupaciones. La atención preventiva de Medicare desaparecería. Los días en que los estadounidenses no tenían que preocuparse por la bancarrota por haber pisado un hospital prácticamente se esfumarían.

Tengo tres hijas. Hubo un tiempo que, como adultas, las tres estaban en nuestra cobertura de atención médica. Eso desaparecería porque la disposición que permite que los hijos adultos menores de 26 años permanezcan en la cobertura de los padres desaparecería. Y podría seguir y seguir.

¿Podrían los estados, incluido California, darse el lujo de intervenir por su cuenta?

No sé si hay algún estado que tenga la capacidad de reemplazar lo que hace la Ley de Cuidado de Salud a Bajo Precio. Es casi imposible. Parte de eso se debe a que no podemos replicar algunas de las cosas que puede hacer el gobierno federal. No tenemos esa jurisdicción federal, no tenemos esa amplitud y profundidad de alcance.

Si el tribunal anula ACA, ¿el Congreso no puede aprobar protecciones parciales que cuenten con el apoyo de los republicanos, como la cobertura de afecciones preexistentes?

Hemos escuchado a los republicanos decir “revocar y reemplazar” durante más de 10 años, y ha sido una retórica vacía desde el principio. Para los padres que tienen hijos con afecciones médicas preexistentes, no es reconfortante que alguien les prometa que reemplazarán un derecho que saben que ahora tienen para que sus hijo vayan al hospital. Y, ¿por qué desecharías eso por una promesa vacía que ya lleva 10 años?

La mayoría de los estadounidenses dirían: sigue construyendo sobre la base de la Ley de Cuidado de Salud a Bajo Precio. Mejorémosla, pero no descartemos lo que ha funcionado.

¿Cómo sabe que la Ley de Cuidado de Salud a Bajo Precio está funcionando?

Mi antiguo distrito congresional en Los Ángeles se encontraba entre los distritos congresionales con más cantidad de personas sin seguro de salud de la nación. En cuestión de años, una vez que entró en vigor la Ley de Cuidado de Salud a Bajo Precio, la tasa de personas sin seguro en ese distrito se redujo en un 50%. Fue simplemente astronómico.

La Ley de Cuidado de Salud a Bajo Precio hizo posible que las familias trabajadoras pudieran obtener cobertura y eso es enorme. Ese es el tipo de carga que se quita del alma.

¿Cree que tener a Joe Biden como presidente y a Kamala Harris como vicepresidenta en la Casa Blanca llevará a una mejora en la Ley de Cuidado de Salud a Bajo Precio?

Como candidato a presidente, Joe Biden dijo que se basaría en el éxito de la presidencia de Obama-Biden y se aseguraría que sigamos aumentando el número de estadounidenses con acceso a una atención médica asequible. Lo bueno es que finalmente tienes a alguien en la parte superior del tótem que dice que lo vamos a mejorar. Por eso esta elección fue tan importante.

Esta historia de KHN fue publicada primero en California Healthline, un servicio de la California Health Care Foundation.

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Taylor Swift's Hair Hasn't Been This Dark in Years

NEWS: Taylor Swift's Dark Hair

Taylor Swift might try pink highlights and occasionally show off her natural curls, but for the most part, the singer has stuck to her bright blonde shaggy lob and bangs in recent years. That's why her new Rolling Stone cover has Swifties doing a double take.

Along with Sir Paul McCartney, Swift is the magazine's Musicians on Musicians issue cover star, and went with a darker hair color for the photoshoot.

Her light brown hair was styled in a loose braid and her bangs left in her naturally texture. Paired with her blazer, cargo pants, and combat boots, the mood of the shoot is very Folklore.

With many of us not going to the salon as often due to the coronavirus pandemic, it's tough to maintain bright blonde hair like Swift's signature color. So whether or not the singer's new light brown hair is a practical change, we're into it. And we can't wait to see what other looks are going to come out of Swift's Folklore era.

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New discovery could help improve cancer vaccines

Cancer vaccines have shown promise in treating certain tumors, such as melanoma. But such vaccines have limitations. They often target normal proteins that may be more abundant in the tumor but also are present in healthy tissue, which can lead to off-target effects that cause autoimmune disorders and also reduce the effectiveness of the vaccines.

The mutated DNA of cancer cells often produces abnormal proteins, whose fragments can help distinguish the tumor from healthy tissue. Such protein fragments could be harnessed to train the immune system to attack the tumors with, in theory, few side effects. Now, a broad collaboration of scientists in academia and industry have identified the most important features of the protein fragments to help researchers design better immunotherapies against cancer.

The study, co-led by researchers at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, appears Oct. 9 in the journal Cell.

These abnormal protein fragments are called neoantigens. The new study identifies five features of neoantigens that optimize the ability to trigger the body’s T cells to attack the cancer and leave healthy tissue untouched. Using the new criteria, the researchers used computer modeling to accurately predict 75% of effective neoantigens and eliminate 98% of ineffective mutant proteins in melanoma and a common type of lung cancer.

The research team, called the Tumor Neoantigen Selection Alliance (TESLA), has made the computer model and dataset freely available to the research community to speed the development of cancer vaccines and other immunotherapies.

“For scientists working to create personalized cancer vaccines that target the unique neoantigens of an individual patient’s tumor, this is a resource that is desperately needed,” said co-senior author Robert D. Schreiber, PhD, the Andrew M. Bursky & Jane M. Bursky Distinguished Professor of Pathology and Immunology. “There has been an explosion of approaches to try and figure out which are the best mutant proteins to target in a tumor. This broad approach is more accurate and will help to design anticancer vaccines that potentially are more effective for patients.”

The features that the researchers identified as most important in selecting effective neoantigens include the abundance of a specific neoantigen in the tumor; the strength with which the neoantigen binds to vital immune proteins so the T cells can see it; the stability of the neoantigen on the immune protein complex; how much more often the immune proteins preferentially bind to the neoantigen versus the normal protein; and how foreign or distinct the neoantigen is from the normal protein.

Schreiber said that all these factors make sense in selecting the best neoantigens, but he was surprised by some of the findings on criteria that were not important for neoantigen effectiveness.

“We were able to eliminate some of the assumptions that we scientists sometimes make about what makes a good neoantigen,” said Schreiber, who also directs the Andrew M. and Jane M. Bursky Center for Human Immunology & Immunotherapy Programs at Washington University School of Medicine. “For example, there has been a general sense that the mutant proteins that make the best neoantigens are the most hydrophobic — meaning they repel water. It turns out, that characteristic didn’t show any relationship to neoantigen effectiveness.”

Schreiber also pointed out that this study is focused on neoantigens that activate what are called CD8 T cells, which he describes as the immune system’s foot soldiers, those responsible for killing the tumor cell. He said future work should focus on neoantigens that also activate a different type of cell, CD4 T cells. Schreiber calls these the generals, cells that stay behind the front lines but direct the foot soldiers in their anti-cancer mission.

“In order to get a good immune response against a tumor, you need to activate both CD4 and CD8 T cells,” Schreiber said. “In future work, we would like to conduct a similar analysis to identify the best neoantigens for triggering the CD4 T cells as well. In designing an effective vaccine, we think we need at least one good CD8 neoantigen and one good CD4 neoantigen to trigger immune rejection of a tumor.”

The TESLA initiative, led by the Parker Institute for Cancer Immunotherapy and the Cancer Research Institute, includes 33 research teams from universities, biotech companies, pharmaceutical companies and nonprofit research institutes.

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I’ve been questioning my sexuality for years and really think I’m asexual. I don’t feel safe coming out and feel like I can’t tell my doctor or even my family right now. If I tell my therapist, will they be understanding, and will it be confidential?

Thanks for your question. We know that a person’s sexual attraction can range from being asexual, attracted to females, attracted to males, or a combination of females and males. This attraction may stay constant throughout a person’s life or may change.

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I’m a homeschooler, and things at home are getting rough. I’m stressed all the time, but I don’t feel like I can tell my parents. I don’t have outside resources. How do I get counseling without them knowing?

We are sorry to hear things have been difficult at home. With COVID-19 precautions, so many young people are feeling stuck at home and many are struggling with challenging family situations. Your ability to access counseling without parental knowledge depends on where you live. Some states in the USA allow 16-year-olds to engage in therapy without their parent knowing. It may be worth having a conversation with your parents about your desire for additional support. Your primary care doctor can help you with this conversation. If talking to your parents is not an option, you can access crisis resources such as the Crisis Text Line (text HOME to 741741), which is free and private.

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