A prominent Maryland doctor overseeing coronavirus testing at Baltimore-Washington International Marshall Airport and other sites in Anne Arundel and Prince George's counties was indicted on Tuesday, accused by federal prosecutors of overcharging Medicare and other insurers by more than $1.5 million.
Ron Elfenbein, 47, has been a frequent guest on local and national television news during broadcasts about coronavirus testing, treatments and vaccines. At an August ribbon-cutting for the new clinic inside BWI, Gov. Larry Hogan, R, presented him a citation for his efforts during the pandemic.
Now federal prosecutors say that under Elfenbein's direction, clinics billed Medicare and other insurers for coronavirus tests in combination with "more lucrative, but medically unnecessary" services, according to a grand jury indictment. These services "were purportedly of a 30-minute or longer duration, or involving moderate or high levels of medical decision-making, but did not in fact occur as represented," the indictment said.
The indictment alleges Elfenbein knew many patients were being seen for less than five minutes but directed staffers to bill for the higher-level services anyway, saying they were "the 'bread and butter' of how we get paid."
A lawyer for Elfenbein, Mike Lawlor, disputed those accusations. "In the early days of the pandemic, Dr. Ron Elfenbein rallied his doctor's office in a time of global fear, to be a leading provider of coronavirus testing and treatment in the community" Lawlor said in an email. " . . . A trial in this case will prove not only that Dr. Elfenbein is innocent of the charges hastily brought by the government, but that during a time of unprecedented need, Dr. Elfenbein and his staff saved the lives of numerous Marylanders."
The indictment, which charges Elfenbein with three counts of health-care fraud, identifies him as an owner and medical director of Drs ERgent Care, a company that also does business under the names First Call Medical Center and Chesapeake ERgent Care.
Drs ERgent Care was started in 2015 and listed as its "principal office" the home address of Maryland Del. Sid Saab, R-Anne-Arundel, who was listed as registered agent, corporate records show. The next year, the address changed and Elfenbein became registered agent.
Saab, who attended the ribbon cutting at BWI, in January listed himself in a mandatory financial disclosure as part owner of Gambrills Medical Management, which, according to the disclosure, manages First Call Medical Center Gambrills. The latter company operates the BWI clinic, according to records maintained by the Maryland Board of Public Works. The clinic, inside the main terminal near Concourse C, offers emergency care, coronavirus testing and vaccinations, as well as other services.
A LinkedIn page for Saab, a state delegate since 2015, lists him as co-owner of a fitness center, president of a real estate company and chief executive of a firm involved in "precious metal recycling" tied to the same Gambrills address as First Call Medical Center. Dan Hazelwood, a spokesman for Saab's political campaign, said Saab had no comment.
A job listing during the past year associated with First Call Medical Center for someone to supervise a center offering monoclonal antibody infusions, a coronavirus treatment, said the position would report to Saab and Elfenbein.
A member of the House Health and Government Operations Committee, Saab recently filed to run for state senate. He said in the financial disclosure: "First Call Medical Center had a contract with the Department of Health related to coronavirus testing and treatment."
He holds between 25% and 49% of Gambrills Medical Management, according to his disclosure. "Neither Gambrills Medical Management nor First Call received any funds from the State. I did not participate in any negotiations with the State," the disclosure said.
Connor Ferguson, whose LinkedIn page lists him as managing partner of First Call Medical Center, cautioned a reporter when reached by phone Friday: "Just be very careful - because it's an independent company, with Dr. Elfenbein - in implicating First Call, so that's all I'll say. Because he operates a professional corporation under Drs ERgent Care."
Asked if he could clarify what he meant, he replied, "Nope. Bye."
No one at Drs ERgent Care or the related companies, other than Elfenbein, has been charged or accused of any crime.
Elfenbein graduated from SUNY Upstate Medical University's College of Medicine in New York in 2000. He ran unsuccessfully for General Assembly in 2006 and 2010, and sought to fill a vacated seat in 2015.
Before the pandemic, First Call Medical Center had about 20 employees at one location, according to an article Elfenbein was interviewed for in Upstate Medical University's alumni journal. As of October, the company had about 200 employees at two urgent care centers, three coronavirus testing centers, two monoclonal antibody infusion centers and a coming mobile testing unit, the article said.
"COVID-19 has impacted everybody," Elfenbein told the journal. "We were able to be forward-thinking to provide needed public health services. In the process, that allowed us to grow as a business and provide about 180 new jobs, which is a great thing."
After opening the first monoclonal antibody infusion site, the article said, the company was approached by federal and Maryland health officials to run a second monoclonal site and rapid-testing center outside FedEx Field next to a state-run PCR testing facility. "As of October, we were receiving 15% of the state allocation of monoclonal antibodies," Elfenbein told the journal.
In announcing Elfenbein's indictment, the Maryland U.S. attorney's office said he was among 18 people across the United States indicted in alleged fraud schemes that resulted in over $149 million in COVID-related false billings to federal programs and theft from assistance programs.
"It is unconscionable that this defendant sought to line his own pockets during a global pandemic by grossly overbilling Medicare and other insurers for these vital health care services during a time of national crisis," FBI Special Agent in Charge Thomas Sobocinski said in a news release. "If the allegations against Dr. Elfenbein, and the 17 others that were charged today are proven, they should be ashamed of their conduct and will be held accountable for their criminal actions."
If convicted, Elfenbein would face a maximum of 10 years in federal prison for each of the three counts. The indictment says he was "aided and abetted by . . . others known and unknown to the Grand Jury," but it did not name any of them.