2 charged with fraud in GET-THIN Lap-Band surgery business

LOS ANGELES (AP) — A 37-count federal indictment charges two Southern California doctors with fraudulently billing health insurers for millions of dollars for procedures related to the 1-800-GET-THIN Lap-Band surgery business, the U.S. Attorney's Office said.

Julian Omidi, 49, of West Hollywood and Mirali Zarrabi, 55, of Beverly Hills, were arrested Wednesday and both pleaded not guilty to the charges in U.S. District Court.

The indictment alleges a scheme that involved requiring prospective patients to undergo sleep studies that were falsified to show an additional "co-morbidity" reason such as sleep apnea to gain approval for elective weight-loss surgeries. Other information such as heights and weights was also falsified, according to prosecutors.

Prosecutors allege there were more than $250 million in fraudulent bills and GET THIN received at least $38 million for Lap-Band procedures. The Lap-Band is a device placed around the stomach in what is also known as bariatric surgery.

Giant 1-800-GET-THIN billboards were once common along Southern California freeways. Past lawsuits and public documents showed it was a marketing company that steered patients to a network of outpatient clinics.

The federal indictment contains charges of mail fraud, wire fraud, false statements, money laundering and aggravated identity theft involving activities between May 2010 and March 2016. It also names two corporations, Surgery Center Management LLC and Independent Medical Services Inc., which are both controlled in part by Omidi, whose medical license was revoked in 2009, the government said.

 According to the U.S. Attorney's Office, Omidi partly controlled the GET THIN network and established procedures requiring each patient to have at least one sleep study and used commissions to give employees incentives to make sure they occurred. Even when insurance companies did not authorize surgeries, GET THIN still submitted bills of approximately $15,000 each for the studies and received payments.

Zarrabi's role, according to the indictment, was allowing his electronic signature to be used by GET THIN to make it appear he reviewed and interpreted the sleep studies even though he knew the reports were being altered. He also allegedly was paid for use of his electronic signature on prescriptions for devices to treat sleep apnea although he did not review the prescriptions.

Prosecutors said companies victimized included TriCare, Anthem Blue Cross, UnitedHealthcare, Aetna and Cigna, among others.

Acting U.S. Attorney Sandra R. Brown said patients were also harmed by being subjected to unnecessary medical procedures.

About four years ago, the government seized more than $110 million in funds and securities from individuals and entities involved in the alleged scheme and will seek forfeiture of the funds through the criminal case and civil process.

A telephone message seeking comment from Omidi's attorney, Maureen Jaroscak, was not immediately returned Thursday. City News Service reported that Zarrabi's attorney, Thomas O'Brien, declined comment Wednesday.

(Copyright 2018 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

Photo: Getty Images

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