News Article Details

Medicaid fraud charges filed in Centria autism investigation

Detroit Free Press - 11/3/2018

Nov. 02--A former employee of Centria Healthcare, believed to be the nation's largest provider of autism therapy, has been charged with two felony counts of Medicaid Fraud False Claims, after investigators say she forged billing records for care she didn't provide.

The charges are punishable by up to four years in prison. The criminal charges brought by the Michigan Attorney General's Office are the first sanctions to result from the ongoing probe of the Novi-based company, although the accused is being prosecuted as an individual, not as an employee of the company where she used to work.

Christine Leonard, 52, of Swartz Creek is free on personal bond after being arraigned Friday in East Lansing District Court. Attorney General spokeswoman Lauren Houck wouldn't comment on why the company wasn't charged, other than to say: "The case was charged based on the evidence."

"Billing for services not rendered is fraud, pure and simple," Attorney General Bill Schuette said in a statement. "Billing for therapy not provided to an autistic child is particularly intolerable."

The Free Press reported in February that former company executives had accused the company of fraud and other wrongdoing. Their claims included many instances of improper Medicaid billing, including allegations that there is frequent billing for services not provided. Company officials deny any wrongdoing and they've sued the former executives for defamation. That case is pending.

Leonard did not immediately return a message left at her home.

"Centria commends the Michigan Attorney General's Office for their role in prosecuting the fraudulent behavior of this individual," company spokesman Sean Smith said in an email. "Centria is proud to have assisted the proper authorities and we are glad to see the matter resolved."

The charges are against Leonard as an individual and not the company, though the Attorney General's Office Health Care Fraud Division continues its investigation into Centria, Schuette said.

The alleged fraud happened in Lapeer County, but the charges were filed in Ingham because of special venue provision in the False Claims Act, Houck said. The conduct related to two bills in June and July of 2016 for $150 and $200, she said.

The charges are the latest bad news for the fast-growing company.

Earlier this month, the Free Press reported that Doris Owens, a former Centria therapist, had pleaded no contest to a child abuse charge in Macomb County after video captured her taunting, dragging, pushing and swatting a 5-year-old girl during an autism therapy session in March.

The company said it fired Owens after the incident, which it said was isolated.

Owens' plea came as Macomb County was in the process of dumping Centria as a therapy provider for Medicaid patients with autism. Other counties, including Lapeer, also have ended service agreements with Centria.

Centria remains a market leader in the most common form of autism therapy, applied behavioral analysis, which helps children with autism learn life skills. The company was growing so fast that last year, it was awarded an $8-million state grant to build a new headquarters in Farmington Hills, contingent on the creation of 1,200 new jobs.

But the Michigan Economic Development Corporation later rescinded the grant after the Free Press reported the Attorney General's investigation.

John Wisely is a member of the Free Press Investigations team.

Contact John Wisely: 313-222-6825 or jwisely@freepress.com. On Twitter @jwisely

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(c)2018 the Detroit Free Press

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