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Six physicians are accused in referral kickback scheme

The doctors, along with an office manager, are accused of taking money to refer patients to a Clearwater laboratory.

By JOE HUMPHREY

© St. Petersburg Times, published July 21, 2000


TAMPA -- A federal grand jury has indicted six doctors and an office manager as part of an ongoing investigation into alleged kickbacks paid by a Clearwater medical laboratory for Medicare patient referrals.

The doctors, from Pinellas, Pasco and Hernando counties, are accused of steering nearly $1.4-million in Medicare business to the Clearwater Clinical Laboratory several years ago in exchange for $400,000 in kickbacks.

The Clearwater laboratory, which is no longer in business, has been characterized by the FBI as "the largest payer of illegal kickbacks in the Pinellas County area."

The indictments unsealed Thursday stem from Operation Takeback, a national effort targeting health care providers paid illegal bribes, rebates or kickbacks for referrals.

The charges are the latest involving the Clearwater laboratory, which was raided by federal authorities in June 1998. In a 68-count indictment, three laboratory executives and five doctors were charged with offering or accepting kickbacks. In 1999, when the indictment was unsealed, Assistant U.S. Attorney Gary Montilla said more charges were expected.

In April of this year, the laboratory owners and a manager all pleaded guilty to offering kickbacks. A week later, a jury found two of the five doctors guilty of taking kickbacks.

Thursday's indictments detail 117 kickbacks allegedly given to the six doctors and office manager.

Dr. Fernando Larach of St. Petersburg and his office manager, Habib "Phil" Aschi, each are charged with 36 counts. The indictment said they accepted $291,000 between December 1995 and May 1998 in exchange for referrals. In some cases, payments were disguised as lease payments for equipment or consulting fees, the indictment said.

Dr. Norman Howell of Brooksville, Dr. Nickolas Collucci of Spring Hill and Dr. Jose Grau of Hudson each face 10 counts of accepting kickbacks totaling $80,100.

A third indictment charges Dr. Efstathious Mark Varidin of St. Petersburg with accepting eight kickbacks and Dr. Raymond Zimmerman of Palm Harbor with accepting seven. They are charged with accepting a total of $38,000 from the laboratory.

All seven are also charged with conspiring to defraud the Medicare program and other health care programs, such as the Department of Defense's civilian program, TRICARE. None of the doctors could be reached for comment Thursday night.

If convicted.

Larach and Aschi could be sentenced to 185 years in prison and a face a $9.2-million fine. Howell, Collucci and Grau each could face 45 years and $2.2-million in fines. The rest could each face 40 years and $2-million in fines.

U.S. Attorney's Office spokesman Steve Cole said it's likely more charges will surface.

"This is an ongoing investigation and it's not over till it's over," he said. "And it's not over."

-- Times researcher John Martin and information from Times archives contributed to this report.

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