COLUMBIA — The owner of several medical equipment companies in Mount Pleasant and other parts of South Carolina was charged Tuesday as part of a federal investigation that zeroed in on nearly $1 billion in alleged Medicare fraud.
Sherri Lydon, U.S. attorney for South Carolina, revealed the alleged scheme that included kickbacks, overseas call centers and prescriptions obtained by doctors via telemedicine.
It also reportedly included millions of dollars in neck, arm and back braces that were billed to Medicare.
Andrew Chmiel, 43, of Mount Pleasant was one of the 24 people charged as part of the months-long criminal investigation playing out in 17 federal courthouses across the country.
More than 80 search warrants were executed as part of what federal prosecutors are calling "Operation Brace Yourself."
The investigation originated in South Carolina but ended up including investigators from the FBI, the Internal Revenue Service, and the Department of Health and Human Resources.
"White-collar crime is not a victimless crime," Lydon said. "Ultimately, it is the taxpayers who will pay for higher health care premiums and out-of-pocket costs that result from fraud on our Medicare system."
Chmiel and other owners of medical equipment companies in the United States are accused of purchasing Medicare patient prescriptions from call centers located overseas and billing federal taxpayers for unnecessary medical services.
The foreign call centers did the work of luring in Medicare patients with advertisements, according to federal prosecutors. Then the call centers allegedly paid kickbacks to telemedicine companies and doctors who prescribed medical braces to patients they never actually examined.
Those ready-made patients were then handed over to people like Chmiel at a price. He allegedly made his money by shipping leg, wrist or neck braces to patients and billing Medicare for the equipment.
Federal prosecutors also allege Chmiel paid kickbacks to the call center. Bart Daniel, Chmiel's attorney, did not immediately return a call seeking comment.
The alleged scheme was a money-maker for Chmiel. According to the indictment, he charged Medicare more than $216 million through his businesses in Mount Pleasant, Greer, Taylors, North Charleston and five other states.
The federal prosecutors are now seeking to claw back money from Chmiel. To do that, they are looking to seize his home in Mount Pleasant and his Ferrari and two Mercedes.
"These individuals were motivated by greed," said Matthew Line, a special agent with the IRS. "These defendants in this case concocted an elaborate scheme to exploit the U.S. health care system."
The goal of the investigation, Lydon said, was to "dismantle every aspect of this fraudulent scheme" from the advertising to the physicians writing prescriptions to the medical equipment companies that billed Medicare.
"This fleecing of America was a massive scheme, which took a coordinated team effort to take down this criminal network," said Jody Norris, a special agent with the FBI.