By Lecia Bushak
Forty-nine Russian diplomats were charged with massive health care fraud after attempting to garner health benefits meant for the poor by providing inaccurate information about their incomes.
Both former and current Russian diplomats, along with their families, received up to $1.5 million in benefits since 2004 from a Medicaid program that is meant to provide for a low-income demographic — families that are making $3,000 a month or less. However, only about eleven of the diplomats are still currently living in the U.S., and no arrests have been made yet due to diplomat immunity.
According to the AP, FBI agent Jeremy Robertson discovered a pattern of false Medicaid applications from these particular diplomats and undertook an investigation lasting over a year. He found that the diplomats and family members reported their household income lower than it actually was, while they simultaneously spent thousands on watches, jewelry, designer clothing, and vacations. Federal policy allows certain qualified immigrants, such as lawful permanent residents (LPRs), refugees, and other protected immigrants access to Medicaid.
“Diplomacy should be about extending hands, not picking pockets in the host country,” said U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara in a news conference in NYC, according to the AP. “[W]e would be prosecuting and making arrests… [if it wasn’t for diplomat] immunity,” Bharara continued, meaning that diplomats are exempt from legal punishment. Typically, however, diplomats can be expelled from a country if they commit crimes. “Being a diplomat does not give you the right to commit health care fraud,” George Venizelos, head of the New York FBI office, said according to the AP. “The defendants selfishly took advantage of a health care system designed to help the unfortunate.”
Russian Health Care Fraud In The U.S.
This isn’t the first time the U.S. has charged Russians living on American soil with health care fraud. In 2012, a crime ring of Russian doctors and other medical professionals located in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, was charged with stealing over a quarter million dollars from insurance companies. They reportedly ran nine clinics throughout New York City — in the Bronx, Brooklyn, and Queens — that provided excessive, costly medical treatments like physical therapy, acupuncture, X-Rays, pain management, and psychological services. “[The details of the case]…cast an unflattering spotlight on how immigrants from the former Soviet Union have often dominated such schemes in the city,” a New York Times report stated. The same report noted that Brighton Beach, which has a huge Russian immigrant community, has one of the highest rates of health care fraud in the nation, according to federal statistics.
And Russia has, in turn, accused the U.S. of “politically motivated” prosecution of its citizens. Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a law that bars certain Americans from Russia, including a few U.S. Justice Department officials. Attorney Preet Bharara, who brought both the Brighton Beach health care charges as well as the diplomat charges, is one of the officials barred from Russia.
“Obviously, particularly in Soviet times, but even nowadays, Russia still has a large amount of red tape and bureaucratic systems that are parasitic and hostile, almost designed to make you pay bribes,” Professor Mark Galeotti, an expert on Russian organized crime at New York University, told the Times. “So from cradle to grave, they have been used to that.”