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May 22, 2015

Detroit-Area Neurosurgeon Admits Causing Serious Bodily Injury to Patients in $11 Million Health Care Fraud Scheme

A Detroit-area neurosurgeon pleaded guilty today in two separate criminal cases that resulted in serious bodily injury to his patients and more than $11 million in Medicare, Medicaid and private insurance companies.

Assistant Attorney General Leslie R. Caldwell of the Justice Department’s Criminal Division, U.S. Attorney Barbara L. McQuade of the Eastern District of Michigan, Special Agent in Charge Paul M. Abbate of the FBI’s Detroit Field Office, Assistant Director in Charge David L. Bowdich of the FBI’s Los Angeles Field Office, Special Agent in Charge Lamont Pugh III of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Service Office of Inspector General (HHS-OIG), Special Agent in Charge Glenn R. Ferry of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Inspector General’s (HHS-OIG) Los Angeles Region and Special Agent in Charge Marlon Miller of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Homeland Security Investigations’ (ICE-HSI) Detroit Field Office made the announcement.

“Disregarding his Hippocratic oath to do no harm, Dr. Sabit enriched himself by performing unnecessary, invasive spinal surgeries and implanting costly and unnecessary medical devices, all at the expense of his patients’ health and welfare,” said Assistant Attorney General Caldwell. “Doctors who sell their medical judgment and ethics for personal profit endanger the lives and safety of vulnerable patients who count on their advice to make life-altering decisions. The Criminal Division of the Department of Justice will continue to prioritize the prosecution of doctors whose criminal behavior puts patients at risk.”

“This case of health care fraud is particularly egregious because Dr. Sabit caused serious bodily injury to his patients by acting out of his own greed instead of the best interests of his patients,” said U.S. Attorney McQuade. “Not only did he steal $11 million in insurance proceeds, but he also betrayed his trust to patients by lying to them about the procedures that were medically necessary and that were actually performed.”

Aria O. Sabit, M.D., 39, of Birmingham, Michigan, entered his guilty pleas in both criminal cases at a hearing before U.S. District Judge Paul D. Borman of the Eastern District of Michigan. Sabit pleaded guilty to four counts of health care fraud, one count of conspiracy to commit health care fraud and one count of unlawful distribution of a controlled substance, resulting in losses to Medicare, Medicaid and various private insurance companies. A sentencing hearing is scheduled for Sept. 15, 2015.

According to court documents, Sabit was a licensed neurosurgeon who owned and operated the Michigan Brain and Spine Physicians Group with various locations in the Eastern District of Michigan, including Southfield, Michigan, Clinton Township, Michigan, and Dearborn, Michigan, which opened in approximately April 2011.

During his guilty plea today, Sabit admitted that he derived significant profits by convincing patients to undergo spinal fusion surgeries with instrumentation (meaning specific medical devices designed to stabilize and strengthen the spine), which he never rendered, and subsequently billing public and private healthcare benefit programs for those fraudulent services.

Sabit further admitted he operated on patients and dictated in his operative reports—that he knew would later be used to support his fraudulent insurance claims—that he had performed spinal fusion with instrumentation, which he never performed. This invasive surgery caused serious bodily injury to the patients. Sabit admitted that his operative reports and treatment records contained false statements about the procedures performed, and the instrumentation used in the procedures. Sabit also admitted that, on occasion, he would implant cortical bone dowels and falsely dictate in his operative reports that he had implanted instrumentation. Sabit, then fraudulently billed public and private health care programs for instrumentation, when in fact the implants were tissue. Sabit admitted he failed to render services in relation to lumbar and thoracic fusion surgeries, including in certain instances, billing for implants that were not provided.

Sabit also admitted that, prior to moving to Michigan, he was a resident of Ventura, California, and a licensed neurosurgeon in California. He admitted that in approximately February 2010, he became involved with Apex Medical Technologies LLC (Apex) while he was on the staff of a California hospital.

Apex was owned by another neurosurgeon and three non-physicians who operated Apex as a physician-owned distributorship and paid neurosurgeons lucrative illegal kickbacks tied directly to the volume and complexity of the surgeries that the surgeons performed, and the number of Apex spinal implant devices the surgeons used in their spine surgeries.

In exchange for the opportunity to invest in Apex and share in its profits, Sabit admitted that he agreed to convince his hospital to buy spinal implant devices from Apex and use a sufficient number of Apex spinal implant devices in his spine surgeries. Sabit further admitted that he and Apex’s co-owners used Apex to operate an illegal kickback scheme. In doing so, they concealed Sabit’s involvement in Apex from outsiders. Sabit then required the hospitals and surgical centers where he and his fellow neurosurgeon performed surgeries to purchase spinal implant devices from Apex.

Sabit admitted that his involvement in Apex, and the financial incentives provided to him by Apex and his co-conspirators, caused him to compromise his medical judgment and cause serious bodily injury to his patients by performing medically unnecessary spine surgeries on some of the patients in whom he implanted Apex spinal implant devices. Sabit admitted that on a few occasions, the money he made from using Apex spinal implant devices motivated him either to refer patients in for spine surgery who did not medically need surgery or refer his patients for more complex surgeries, such as multi-level spine fusions, that they did not need.

Sabit also admitted that the financial incentives provided to him by Apex and his co-conspirators caused him to “over instrument” his patients (meaning Sabit used more spinal implant devices than were medically necessary to treat his patients) in order to generate more sales revenue for Apex, which resulted in serious bodily injury to his patients.

The Michigan case was investigated by the FBI, HHS-OIG and ICE. The California case—which was subsequently transferred to the Eastern District of Michigan—was investigated by the FBI and HHS-OIG. The Michigan case is being prosecuted by Assistant U.S. Attorneys Regina R. McCullough and Philip A. Ross of the Eastern District of Michigan. The California case was brought as part of the Medicare Fraud Strike Force, under the supervision of the Criminal Division’s Fraud Section and the U.S. Attorney’s Office of the Eastern District of Michigan, and is being prosecuted by Senior Trial Attorney Jonathan T. Baum and Trial Attorneys Dustin Davis and Blanca Quintero of the Criminal Division’s Fraud Section.

Sabit is also a defendant in two civil False Claims Act cases brought by the Department of Justice in the U.S. District Court of the Central District of California.

Since its inception in March 2007, the Medicare Fraud Strike Force, now operating in nine cities across the country, has charged nearly 2,100 defendants who have collectively billed the Medicare program for more than $6.5 billion. In addition, the HHS’s Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, working in conjunction with the HHS-OIG, are taking steps to increase accountability and decrease the presence of fraudulent providers.

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