Five arrested over 'sham hospices' alleged to bilk Medicare for over $15 million

FILE - A sign marks an entrance to the Robert F. Kennedy Department of Justice Building in Washington, Monday, Jan. 23, 2023. The Justice Department has been scrutinizing a controversial artificial intelligence tool used by a Pittsburgh-area child protective services agency following concerns that it could result in discrimination against families with disabilities, The Associated Press has learned. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky, File)
The U.S. Department of Justice has announced the arrest of five people who allegedly schemed to bilk Medicare for more than $15 million. (Patrick Semansky / Associated Press)

Federal officials announced that five people were arrested this week in Los Angeles over an alleged scheme to bilk the Medicare program of more than $15 million.

The U.S. Department of Justice said three of the San Fernando Valley residents who were arrested — Petros Fichidzhyan, also known as Peter; Juan Carlos Esparza; and Karpis Srapyan, also known as Tony Levy — were accused of running "sham hospice companies" and turning in fraudulent claims to Medicare for hospice services.

In an indictment unsealed this week, federal prosecutors alleged the three had sought Medicare payments for patients who were not terminally ill and hadn’t been cared for at the sham hospices. In some cases, the men claimed that the same patient had received care from more than one of the fake hospices, prosecutors alleged.

As part of the alleged scheme, the three defendants misappropriated the identifying information of doctors to claim those physicians had deemed hospice services necessary for patients, federal prosecutors said.

They also allegedly used the names and Social Security numbers of Russian and Ukrainian citizens who had left the U.S. to open bank accounts and sign leases, indicating that the "impersonated identities" were the owners of the hospice companies that they in fact controlled, according to the federal indictment.

Read more: End-of-life care has boomed in California. So has fraud targeting older Americans

The alleged scheme took place roughly between February 2019 and January 2023, the indictment said. Two other San Fernando Valley residents — Susanna Harutyunyan and her spouse Mihran Panosyan, who was also known as Mike Hope — were accused of working with the other defendants to launder the money.

Federal officials said that if convicted, all five defendants would face a maximum penalty of at least 40 years in prison. Fichidzhyan, Esparza and Srapyan would face an additional mandatory minimum of two years in prison for alleged identity theft.

An attorney representing Fichidzhyan did not immediately respond to a request for comment. The Times was unable to immediately identify representatives for the other defendants in court filings.

The case is being investigated by the FBI and the Office of Inspector General at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Federal officials said the arrests were part of a larger effort to crack down on hospice fraud in the L.A. area.

A Times investigation 3½ years ago found "audacious, widespread fraud" in the hospice industry. A state audit in 2022 echoed those findings, concluding that weak oversight had opened the door to "large-scale fraud and abuse." It warned of "hospice agencies using possibly stolen identities of medical personnel."

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.