A cardiologist who ordered patients to undergo unnecessary open heart surgery and performed risky tests and procedures in order to reap fraudulent payments from Medicare and private insurers has been sentenced to 20 years in a US federal prison.
Dr Harry Persaud, 56, from Westlake, Ohio, may have put lives at risk and threatened people’s health while making more than $7m from manipulating patients’ “sacred trust”, federal investigators found.
Some patients were injected repeatedly with radioactive material for heart tests they did not need, with Dr Persaud saying the results showed they needed surgery. Others were given bypass operations or stents for imaginary problems, the FBI said.
“This is the worst kind of healthcare fraud you can have and is the toughest I’ve seen – and I’ve seen some really bad stuff,” Justin Shammot, supervisory special agent with the FBI’s Cleveland office, told the Guardian on Monday.
Dr Persaud also faces losing his medical license and a hearing in January to decide on restitution to the companies he defrauded. Lawsuits from several patients are under way. He was sentenced on 18 December, having been found guilty in a federal criminal trial in Cleveland in September, although he is not in custody, rather awaiting a date from the Federal Bureau of Prisons to begin his incarceration.
“The thing that bothers me most is the trust that the patients put into their relationship, believing that someone like Dr Persaud is going to provide them with the best medical care they can, and in this case that just did not happen,” Shammot said.
Dr Persaud was convicted of fraud, falsifying documents and money laundering, after ordering and performing inappropriate treatment between 2006 and 2012, the FBI said. His tactics included over-billing insurance companies and the government’s Medicare program.
He also subjected patients to unnecessary medical procedures. The FBI said he performed unneeded nuclear stress tests and recorded false results in order to justify catheterization, in which a tube is inserted in a blood vessel via the groin, arm or neck and into the heart, as a further diagnostic test. He then falsely recorded that patients were suffering blockages.
Dr Persaud inserted cardiac stents in patients who did not need them and sent patients for bypass operations performed via open heart surgery, so he could perform follow-up tests and bill for them, investigators found.
“These procedures do have consequences,” Shammot said. “When they are appropriate, the risks are outweighed by the benefits, but [if] you are performing nuclear stress tests and giving patients stents that were not medically necessary … there are all kinds of risks associated with these, including taking medications for the rest of your life.”
Patients testified at Dr Persaud’s sentencing. One woman told the court his practices may have contributed to the death of her husband. A man told the court that the unnecessary stent Dr Persaud put in his heart acts as a ticking time bomb on his health and he lives in fear of complications.
Dr Persaud remained defiant, according to a local report.
He was described as having been born in London and graduating in 1983 from St Mary’s Hospital Medical School at the University of London. He could not be reached for comment. A request for comment from his attorney was not immediately returned.
FBI special agent Stephen Anthony said: “This doctor violated the sacred trust between doctor and patient … He ripped off taxpayers and put patients’ lives at risk.”
Dr Persaud’s practices were investigated by both the FBI and the Department of Justice. He worked in private practice but had privileges at three hospitals in the Westlake area, a suburb of Cleveland. The hospitals cooperated with inquiries.
Shammot said Dr Persaud’s crimes were not picked up by staff working with him because it was a very complicated case, but eventually a doctor noticed that test results and some referrals for additional procedures were suspicious.
Shammot said: “He had convinced his patients to really trust him and he led them to believe that if they had not had these services that it’s likely that they could possibly die.”
Dr Persaud perpetrated the fraud on dozens of patients ranging from those in their 40s to those into their 80s or even 90s, Shammot said.
“We put so much faith in the medical system and this shakes everyone.”