BIRMINGHAM, Ala. - A former Huntsville physician now faces federal charges for illegally prescribing controlled substances and with healthcare fraud. Shelinder Aggarwal, 48, was the nation's highest Medicare prescriber of opioid painkillers at the height of his practice.
A two-count information filed in U.S. District Court, the U.S. Attorney’s Office charged Aggarwal with one count of distributing a controlled substance outside the scope of professional practice and not for a legitimate medical purpose in July 2012, and with one count of conspiring to execute a health care fraud scheme against Medicare and Blue Cross Blue Shield of Alabama between Jan. 1, 2011, and March 31, 2013.
Prosecutors also filed a plea agreement with Aggarwal in which he agrees that he will plead guilty to the charges and forfeit his former clinic on Turner Street Southwest in Huntsville, along with $6.7 million. Aggarwal earlier repaid $2.8 million to Medicare and $45,843 to Blue Cross following audits, according to his plea agreement. The agreement stipulates a 15-year prison sentence. A federal judge must accept the terms of the agreement before it is final.
Aggarwal surrendered his Alabama medical license in 2013, along with his Alabama and federal Drug Enforcement Administration certificates to prescribe controlled substances, after the Alabama Board of Medical Examiners initiated an investigation.
“Shelinder Aggarwal treated his medical license like a license to deal opiate drugs,” Vance said. “He also defrauded Medicare and Blue Cross Blue Shield of more than $9 million dollars by performing drug tests he never used to treat his patients. Thanks to this prosecution, Aggarwal is no longer a drug dealer masquerading as a doctor. His pill mill is closed, he must repay the money he stole from health insurers, and he will serve time for his crimes,” she said. “I am grateful to our prosecutors and the investigators who brought this individual to justice.”
“Aggarwal was trusted with resources to care for others and used that access to defraud the health care system, thus costing tax payers millions of dollars,” Stanton said. “In addition, he directly contributed to the opioid drug epidemic which is plaguing our nation, and potentially endangered the lives of his patients. I applaud the work of my agents and our partners to shut down Aggarwal’s pill mill and hold him accountable for his actions.”
Aggarwal was a pain management doctor who operated Chronic Pain Care Services in Huntsville. His medical practice was a pill mill, according to the charges and plea agreement. The documents state that in 2012, about 80 to 145 patients a day visited Aggarwal’s clinic, with him seeing the majority of patients and writing all prescriptions. Initial patient visits typically lasted five minutes or less, and follow-ups two minutes or less. The documents state that Aggarwal did not obtain prior medical records for his patients, did not treat patients with anything other than controlled substances, often asked patients what medications they wanted and filled their requests, prescribed controlled substances to patients who he knew were using illegal drugs, and did not take appropriate measures to ensure that patients did not divert or abuse controlled substances. The plea agreement summarizes an interaction with a patient, which was captured on video. In it, Aggarwal notes that the DEA viewed him as the “biggest pill-pusher in North Alabama” and that many of his patients were “dropping like flies, they are all dying.”
The documents cite the Prescription Drug Monitoring Program for Alabama, which tracks the dispensing of controlled substances, as well as Medicare data, to document Aggarwal’s prescribing practices.
According to the PDMP, Alabama pharmacies filled about 110,013 of Aggarwal’s prescriptions for controlled substances in 2012. That would equal about 423 prescriptions per day if he worked five days a week, and resulted in about 12.3 million pills. The PDMP rated Aggarwal as the highest prescriber of controlled substances filled in Alabama in 2012, with the next highest prescriber writing a third as many prescriptions.
Medicare data shows Aggarwal was the highest prescriber in the United States of Schedule II controlled substances under Medicare in 2012. Schedule II substances include the opioid painkillers oxycodone, oxymorphone, hydromorphone and morphine.
As to Aggarwal’s health care fraud scheme, he is charged with requiring patients to undergo unreasonable and unnecessary urine drug tests that he did not need or use in their treatment. According to the documents, the tests he ran depended not on patients’ treatment, but on how much he could bill for tests. Aggarwal often ignored urine test results showing patients were using illegal drugs, the documents state.
Between January 2011 and March 2013, urine drug tests accounted for about 80 percent of paid claims Aggarwal submitted to Medicare and Blue Cross, for a total reimbursement of $9.5 million. According to his charges and plea agreement, “Aggarwal’s primary motivation for testing patients’ urine specimens, and submitting those claims for payment, was financial gain.”
The FBI investigated the case, based partly on an investigation conducted by the ABME. Assistant U.S. Attorneys Chinelo Dike-Minor and Russell Penfield are prosecuting.
The above release came from U.S. Attorney Joyce White Vance's office with the Department of Justice.