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Webster City doctor pleads guilty to making false statements about Medicare claims

Federal courthouse, Northern District of Iowa in Cedar Rapids

CEDAR RAPIDS – A Webster City doctor who made false statements to the United States Attorney’s Office about Medicare claims that the doctor had billed for his nursing home patients pled guilty today in federal court in Cedar Rapids.

Dr. Joseph X. Latella, age 76, from Webster City, Iowa, was convicted of one count of making false statements relating to health care matters.  At the time of the offense, Dr. Latella operated a private practice in Webster City, and he also was the Hamilton County Coroner and the medical director for multiple nursing homes in the Webster City area.

Dr. Latella admitted in a plea agreement that, in June 2018, the United States Attorney for the Northern District of Iowa was conducting a civil investigation about concerns that Dr. Latella was “upcoding” claims submitted to Medicare and Medicaid and billing for more intensive visits with patients at Webster City area nursing homes than he had performed.  The United States Attorney’s investigation indicated that Dr. Latella was billing over 93% of his nursing home visits to Medicare under the most intensive and expensive claim code.  For these claims to be valid, a doctor typically must spend 35 minutes at the patient’s bedside and on the patient’s facility floor or unit.  Medicare paid more than $94 for these claims, but would only have paid no more than $32 if the least expensive claim code, for routine ten minute visits, had been billed.  In July 2016, a Medicare contractor sent Dr. Latella a letter warning him that his billing patterns were significantly more expensive than other doctors.

In July 2018, Dr. Latella submitted sworn written answers to the United States Attorney, in which Dr. Latella falsely declared that, with respect to certain Medicare claims in 2017 and 2018, he had spent approximately 35 minutes for each of 12 patients’ care at two nursing homes.  With respect to one particular date in October 2017, Dr. Latella falsely swore he “started visiting the nursing home patients at 7:30 a.m. and completed my visits with each patient at approximately 5:30 p.m.”  In truth, a federal agent had conducted in-person surveillance of Dr. Latella on that date, and Dr. Latella only was on site at the first nursing home for a total of 47 minutes and did not visit the second nursing home at all on that date.  The administrator of the first nursing home estimated that Dr. Latella spent approximately five minutes with each nursing home patient during his visits to that nursing home.

Dr. Latella made further false statements about claims in January and February 2018, which the Medicaid Fraud Control Unit discovered through videotaped surveillance.  For example, Dr. Latella billed nine claims for services allegedly provided to nine Medicare patients, on February 2, 2018, at a nursing home, but the surveillance showed that Dr. Latella was only on site at the nursing home for a total of 14 minutes.

In total, Dr. Latella admitted that, between January 1, 2014, and November 30, 2018, he submitted 1,140 false claims to Medicare, which were not justified, and he was paid $107,980.59 by Medicare for those claims.  Dr. Latella also admitted that he caused Medicaid to make unjustified payments in the total amount of $9,218.73 for these claims.  As a part of his plea agreement, Dr. Latella has agreed to pay no less than $107,980.59 to Medicare and $9,218.73 to Medicaid for economic losses caused by his commission of the offense.

Sentencing before United States District Court Chief Judge Leonard T. Strand will be set after a presentence report is prepared.  Dr. Latella remains free on bond pending sentencing.  Dr. Latella faces a possible maximum sentence of five years’ imprisonment, a $250,000 fine, and three years of supervised release following any imprisonment.

The case is being prosecuted by Assistant United States Attorney Tim Vavricek and was investigated by the Department of Health and Human Services, Office of the Inspector General, and the Iowa Medicaid Fraud Control Unit.

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