TAMPA, FL — As dozens of federal investigators descended on a professional office building in Largo, FL last month, leasing manager Terry Velivasakis was just beginning his work day in the building’s main office.
“I look up and the entire lobby is filled with FBI agents,” Velivasakis told us just a few days later. “It was a shock,” he said.
By early afternoon, agents from the FBI and Department of Health & Human had confiscated boxes of evidence and computers from nearly a dozen medical supply companies inside, according to Velivasakis.
“I assumed it all to be on the up and up,” he said about the companies which started leasing space in his building about a year-a—half ago. That’s when a man, who he said appeared to be in his 30’s, first approached him looking for office space.
“We showed him a couple of spaces and he was like, I’ll take them all,” he said.
One-by-one the companies moved in, eventually taking up nine offices on two floors of the building.
When asked what he knew about the companies, Velivasakis replied, “the way I understand it, this company would provide knee braces, this company would provide hip braces, whatever brace you need that's what they would provide,” he said.
Now the feds are investigating. A press release issued last month said they had seized millions of dollars and froze assets while executing search and seizure warrants at 20 different medical supply companies in the Tampa Bay area as part a “conspiracy.” The raids were part of a national investigation into Medicare fraud involving medical supply companies and telemarketing companies suspected of exploiting the elderly and defrauding taxpayers by sending Medicare recipients medical equipment they didn’t need, want or order but were all paid for through Medicare reimbursements. It’s a story we’ve been following for months.
With hidden cameras, we found one staffed with just one person answering the phones. Boxes piled high with leg braces filled the back portion of the office and, what appeared to be, a patient fitting area. Yet the sole worker told us patients never go there, instead everything is handled over the phone.
Dyann Bertrand showed us inside a box her mom recently received in the mail.
“There’s a knee brace, a wrist brace, another wrist brace, another knee brace and another one,” she said while showing us all the medical braces. “If she put all this on, she’d look like a robot,” said Bertrand.
When asked if her mother ordered the braces Bertrand said no. Bertrand also said her 91-year-old mother didn’t need the braces or want them but yet she received them and Medicare, ie taxpayers foot the bill for it all.
We tracked the box of braces sent to Bertrand’s mother to an office in Holiday, FL where we found more than a dozen more medical supply companies that were also raided by the feds last month and started by the same players, according to the building’s owner David Spezza.
“They’ve both always been very professional. I know this has been very hard on them,” Spezza told us.
State business record link Schuyler Poppe and Kelly Wolfe to, at least, 50 medical equipment companies primarily in the Tampa Bay area including the businesses we visited in Holiday and Largo that were all raided by the feds last month. Another one we found recently set up right across the street from a county Sheriff headquarters.
To date, neither have been charged with any crimes.
Florida property records show Wolfe owns two waterfront homes in Clearwater including a million-dollar Gulf-front townhome she purchased last year.
Brian Albritton is a former U.S. Attorney in Florida’s Middle District and used to prosecute Micare fraud cases. Now he works to defend companies accused of fraud.
”If you don’t have patients but yet it’s made to appear that patients in fact are coming then that, itself, is a badge of fraud,” he told us.
While charges have not been filed, he says the volume of medical supply companies linked to the same players is suspicious.
“Just the sheer number of them defies normal economic expectation,” he said. “That’s not normal practice,” Albritton said.
We found Wolfe and Poppe back at one of the complexes where state records show several medical supply companies opened offices in the last year or so and several were raided by the feds. It’s also a complex where, state records show, Wolfe runs a medical supply billing and consulting office.
Neither Wolfe or Poppe agreed to speak with us about the raids, the medical supply businesses or any investigation they may be the subject of.
“It seemed like they're business model was get the company started, get it up and running and sell it to another person,” said Velivasakis.
State records also show some of the medical supply companies are no longer registered to Poppe or Wolfe. Instead, it appears the companies changed hands to new owners or operators crossing both coasts of Florida. A few are listed as being based in California. We attempted to reach out to them. Of those we were able to contact, none of them agreed to speak to us on the record, a few hung up on us shortly after we identified that we were journalists.
The majority of these medical supply companies shut down after their visit from the feds. But the bigger problem is this, more medical supply companies are finding a home in Florida and profits in taxpayers. For those companies operating with the wrong intentions, victims can be left at the mercy of who’s behind the next box of medical goods they didn’t want, need or order but arrived anyway on their doorstep.
“Somebody has to put a stop to it. It’s just not fair, it really isn’t,” said Dyann Bertrand.