Doctor who pleaded guilty in fraud scheme returning to India

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by Matt Breslow
The Stamford Advocate

June 30, 2005

After being spared prison time yesterday, a Norwalk doctor who bilked Medicaid and private insurers through a free child vaccine program will return to her native India rather than face deportation.

Dr. Suvarna Shah, 63, of 5 Pier Way Landing, Westport, who pleaded guilty in May 2004 to health-care fraud and tax evasion, was sentenced yesterday in federal court in Hartford to three years of probation and fined $10,000.

The pediatrician retired from her practice -- located on Mott Avenue in Norwalk -- Tuesday and plans to leave the country within 30 days, according to her attorney.

U.S. District Judge Christopher Droney sentenced Shah at a hearing in which she tearfully addressed the court and apologized several times. Shah expressed remorse, saying she had disappointed her patients, their parents and her family and friends.

"I don't have a good explanation for what I did," Shah said.

The word "temptation" could be used, she said, and told Droney she was "truly sorry" for her actions.

Shah -- who paid about $1.2 million in restitution and penalties to the U.S. and state governments, the IRS and private insurers -- was one of two Norwalk doctors who pleaded guilty last year to orchestrating similar scams.

Shah and Dr. Jorge Elias, sentenced in September to two years of probation and fined $30,000, received hundreds of thousands of dollars from 1997 to 2002 by billing Medicaid and private insurers for vaccines they received for free. Shah's tax evasion occurred from 1996 to 2001.

The fraudulent billings Shah and Elias submitted involved Vaccines For Children, a joint state and federal program designed to ensure all children get vaccines regardless of ability to pay. Participating doctors can recover a small fee to offset administrative expenses associated with an inoculation, but agree not to bill Medicaid or any other third party for the cost of the vaccines.

Shah and Elias were the primary-care providers for 70 percent of the 4,600 children in Norwalk insured by Medicaid or Husky, the state's low-income health insurance for children, officials said last year.

Arguing against incarceration for his client, Shah's attorney, William Bloss of Bridgeport, said she had dedicated her life to treating the less fortunate. Although insurance companies cut ties with Shah after her guilty plea, she did not turn away anyone whose care was not covered, Bloss said. Shah kept her practice open even though it was losing money, he said, because she felt an obligation to care for her patients.

Droney said in sentencing Shah that he considered her dedication to serving needy patients -- a subject several supporters discussed at the hearing -- and the "dear price" she has already paid. Shah will be further punished by being forced out of the country and separated from friends, family and patients, Droney said.

In a memorandum filed last week, the government recommended Shah receive a prison sentence of 18 to 24 months. Shah's conduct reflected "an arrogant belief that (she) was simply above the law," according to the filing, dated June 23. The document anticipated the defense's plea for leniency based partly on Shah's work with the poor.

"This argument is based upon the premise that by choosing to practice in this patient population, the defendant has foregone the financial benefit of serving wealthier clientele," the filing states. "The argument would carry more force, however, had the defendant not intentionally engaged in conduct designed to supplement her income through illicit means."

Assistant U.S. Attorney David Sheldon, who represented the government at yesterday's hearing, made no verbal argument and simply referred to the sentencing memorandum.

Supporters who spoke on Shah's behalf included a local colleague, her office manager, parents of patients and Shah's daughter, Nina Mack, who broke down crying and said her mother was a selfless person who was fundamentally good. More than one speaker recalled that Shah treated all patients the same way, regardless of economic status.

Standing before Droney yesterday, Shah said she loved taking care of children, regardless of their race, ability to pay or whether they had insurance. Shah said she left India 36 years ago and her parents and husband are deceased. In returning to India, she faces separation from her three grown children, a grandchild and close friends, she said.

Shah said she lost her practice, while her clientele -- including second- and third-generation patients -- lost their doctor. Now they must start over with new physicians, she said.

"For that also I am truly and very sorry," Shah said.

Shah said she arranged for the Norwalk Community Health Center to take patients of hers who couldn't find another doctor. Shah said she is actively transferring patients and trying to make the transitions as smooth as possible.

Though she will suffer the consequences of her actions for the rest of her life, Shah said a "silver lining" will be the work she expects to perform in India, at an organization that treats underprivileged children.

Shah must perform 200 hours of community service per year while on probation.

Bloss said the requirement was enforceable, despite Shah's imminent return to India, because she could be denied temporary visits to the United States if she didn't comply.

Speaking to reporters after the sentencing, Bloss said his client will leave the country of her own accord within 30 days rather than be taken into custody for deportation.