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Thursday, Aug. 25, 2011 02:37 pm

Doctors charged with bilking Medicaid and Blue Cross

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It didn’t take an FBI investigation for dieters to suspect that something might be amiss with Dr. Gautam Gupta.

“He is an actual MD, but in all honesty seems to be a pill dispenser,” wrote a patient who goes by the name Joolz on phentermine.com, a website devoted to users of an appetite suppressant. “The nurses do a few tests on you…EKG, heart ultrasound and blood work. However, you leave that day with Phen before they have the results of the bloodwork.”

Joolz wrote her assessment in 2006, five years before the U.S. attorney’s office in Springfield charged Gupta and his associate, Dr. Rakesh Wahi, with fraud on a massive scale, alleging that the two physicians conspired to bilk the government and Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Illinois by performing unnecessary tests on hearts and thyroids while allowing unqualified assistants to hand out drugs. Furthermore, prosecutors contend, patients received drugs without anyone checking test results.

The insurance company, which paid the physicians $22 million they didn’t deserve, was the biggest loser, according to prosecutors. The doctors received another $2.8 million from the Medicaid program administered by the Illinois Department of Healthcare and Family Services, according to an indictment issued in June. The scheme lasted seven years, prosecutors say.

Gupta, who advertised heavily on radio and television, voluntarily withdrew as a Medicaid provider last year, seven months after federal agents served a search warrant at his offices. He has disappeared and is believed to be in India, according to Springfield attorney Dan Fultz, who is representing Wahi.

“He has left his wife and two young children in Chicago, as I understand it – flew the coop,” Fultz said.

Patrick Hansen, assistant U.S. attorney who is prosecuting the case, would not confirm whether Gupta has been tracked overseas.

Wahi appeared as scheduled in U.S. District Court in Springfield on Aug. 15, where he pleaded innocent and asked U.S Magistrate Judge Byron Cudmore for permission to travel to Paris late this month to present a paper at an academic conference. Cudmore approved, providing that the doctor assigns more than $100,000 in retirement accounts to the government to ensure his return, with a trial set to start Oct. 4.

“If the defendant were going to run, I think he would have run already,” Hansen told the judge.

Wahi travels from his home in West Virginia to treat patients in the Chicago area, where eight offices devoted to weight loss continue to operate, Fultz said. Formerly called Nutrition Clinic, the business is now called ThinFast MD, with a website that informs prospective patients that patients are given Phentermine, Didrex, Tenuate and Phendimetrazine, all appetite suppressants, as well as Xenical, a fat blocker, at costs ranging from $5 to $15 per week for each drug.

Fultz said that the business has been sold and that Wahi works as a contract employee. However, the doctor’s name appears as the author of a generic letter welcoming new patients at the ThinFast MD website, which has an address of guptaweightloss.com.

According to a July 13 notice posted on the website, ThinFast MD no longer accepts patients with Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Illinois. No one at Thinfast MD would elaborate.

“No comment,” said a woman who did not identify herself before hanging up on a reporter who called the office in Rockford, where Gupta once lived. “And please don’t call back. It is now owned by another doctor.”

Januari Smith, spokeswoman for the Illinois Department of Health and Family Services, said that both Wahi and Gupta are no longer eligible to receive Medicaid reimbursements in Illinois.

Mary Ann Schultz, spokeswoman for Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Illinois, said that the insurer is cooperating with the investigation but declined further comment when asked about the case via email.

Hansen could not say how a weight-loss clinic could rake in nearly $25 million over the course of seven years before authorities got suspicious.

“I wish I had a good answer for you,” Hansen said. “We do the best we can with the resources we’ve got.”

Hansen said that the investigation began with the state’s Medicaid fraud division in central Illinois. Investigators have been combing through files since serving search warrants at Gupta’s offices in January of last year, Hansen said.

“We looked at a lot of paper and talked to a lot of people,” Hansen said.

Contact Bruce Rushton at brushton@illinoistimes.com.

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