If True That Foreign Diplomats in the U.S. Are “Eligible” for Medicaid — That’s Absolutely Bonkers!

— Domani Spero

In early December, Preet Bharara, the United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York, and George Venizelos, the Assistant Director-in-Charge of the New York Field Office of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (“FBI”), announced charges against 49 current or former Russian diplomats or spouses of diplomats employed at the Russian Mission in the United States for participating in a widespread fraud scheme from 2004 to August 2013 to illegally obtain nearly
$1.5 million dollars in Medicaid benefits. (See 49 Russian Diplomats/Spouses Charged With Picking Uncle Sam’s Pocket in Medicaid Scam).

On December 6, during the Daily Press Briefing, the State Department deputy spokesperson, Marie Harf said this:

“We routinely inform all foreign missions in the U.S. – most recently we did this in November – that we expect their personnel to maintain health insurance coverage. So under U.S. law, nonimmigrants, which diplomats fall under in this case, who meet certain eligibility criteria may apply for and receive federally funded medical care.”

Whaaat?!

Lest we get all excited, this is the same spokesperson, of course, who could not say what appropriate consular assistance is provided when an American citizen dies abroad.  Or who says from the podium that “It’s not for any State Department official to sign off on any arrests, right, even regarding a foreign diplomat.”  Whoops!  (We heard that the Special Agents of the Diplomatic Security Service toppled over in their swivel chairs when the clip aired on YouTube).

Then on December 14, UPI reported that “Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said “some of the diplomats accused of glomming on to the U.S. healthcare system were actually entitled to do so.”

Entitled to do so?  As in  a legal right or a just claim to receive it?

On December 16, Interfax also reported that Moscow is “already taking disciplinary measures in relation to the Russian diplomats accused in the U.S. of unlawfully receiving Medicaid benefits to cover the pregnancy and childbirth costs.”

The report quotes Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov saying, “This is a disciplinary offence, because, by being insincere in filing applications and citing inaccurate figures to receive some benefits, they violated the host country’s norms and rules, which a diplomat has no right to do. I’d like to stress once again: they are being subjected and will be subjected to disciplinary action.”  Now, the same report repeats this notion that some of the Russian diplomats were “entitled” to apply for such assistance due to their low income:

“We have looked into this. First, the allegation that none of them was entitled to this because they are foreigners is wrong. There are different laws in various states of the U.S. that allow for using Medicaid benefits by foreigners. Second, it is not quite true that the Russian diplomats’ incomes did not make them eligible for receiving such payments through Medicaid,” he said.

“We have studied the files of the said colleagues, and it turned out that at least some of them had salaries that entitled them to apply for such assistance from the U.S. fund at that moment. 

How bonkers is that?  That American taxpayers are subsidizing the health care cost of foreign diplomats in the United States.  Which part of this makes sense? Medicaid is a federally funded program designed to assist low-income families afford health care. And in this case, if the allegations are true, Russian diplomats took public assistance that would have been  helpful to low income Americans.

The big question now is — can we also call this foreign aid?

Screen Shot 2013-12-26

Extracted from Medicaid Renewal Form
(click image for larger view)

Now Congress wants to know Whiskey Tango Foxtrot is going on here. The SFRC is missing on this but U.S. Rep. Ed Royce (R-CA), Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, recently expressed “serious concern about foreign diplomats receiving, and reportedly defrauding, U.S. Government-funded benefits programs.” In his letter to Secretary Kerry, Chairman Royce requested a meeting plus written answers to the following questions:

1.      How will the Administration treat the 11 named defendants who, according to the U.S. Attorney, remain in the United States?  Will you ask the Russian government to waive their immunity so that they can be prosecuted?  If not, will the Department declare them persona non grata?

2.      How will the Administration treat the 38 named defendants who, according to the U.S. Attorney, no longer reside in the United States?  Will you request that they be extradited to stand trial?  If not, will the Department impose a U.S. visa ban on them?

3.      How will the Administration treat the unindicted co-conspirators at Russian diplomatic offices in the U.S. who allegedly advised and assisted the named defendants by supplying false documentation to New York officials in support of the fraudulent Medicaid claims?

4.      Will the Administration bill the Russian government for the Medicaid benefits its personnel fraudulently used?  If not, how will New York State’s Medicaid program be compensated for the loss?

5.      On December 5, 2013, Department of State Deputy Spokeswoman Marie Harf said, “We are still…reviewing the charges that were unsealed.”  How closely did the U.S. Attorney, Department of Justice, or Federal Bureau of Investigation cooperate with the Department of State during the investigation?  What steps did the U.S. Attorney take to coordinate with the Department of State before filing the complaint on November 18, 2013 or unsealing it on December 5, 2013?

This situation also raises a number of important questions about government programs that provide benefits to foreign diplomats.  I therefore would appreciate written answers to the following questions not later than January 13, 2014:

6.      On December 6, 2013, Department of State Deputy Spokeswoman Marie Harf stated that foreign diplomats in the United States “who meet certain eligibility criteria may apply for and receive federally funded medical care.”  What are the medical programs for which foreign diplomats may be eligible?  What are the eligibility criteria?  Over the last 10 years, how many foreign diplomats have used these programs?  What was the total cost of the benefits provided?  Please provide these data sorted by foreign diplomatic mission or international organization.

7.      Are foreign diplomats eligible for government-funded benefits other than Medicaid (e.g., Temporary Assistance to Needy Families or the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program)?  If so, which programs and what are the eligibility criteria?  Over the last 10 years, how many foreign diplomats have taken advantage of these programs?  What was the total cost of the benefits provided?  Please provide these data sorted by foreign diplomatic mission or international organization.

8.      Is the Administration aware of other cases where foreign diplomats fraudulently or inappropriately obtained Medicaid or other government-funded benefits?  Please provide the details of these cases, including the cost of any benefits that were inappropriately obtained.

9.      What is the Administration doing to ensure that foreign diplomats cannot inappropriately obtain government-funded benefits in the future?  Has the Administration asked relevant government benefit agencies to check their rolls for the names of foreign diplomats?  Does the Department regularly provide a list of foreign diplomats to relevant government benefit agencies?

And — if some foreign diplomats in the United States are “eligible” for Medicaid, how about some of their underpaid domestic workers, are they eligible, too?

Oh, for god’s sakes, maybe the State Department should just publish a handbook of freebies.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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49 Russian Diplomats/Spouses Charged With Picking Uncle Sam’s Pocket in Medicaid Scam

— Domani Spero

Well, this isn’t good.  The defendants are current or former Russian diplomats or spouses of diplomats connected with the Russian Mission in the United States.  The alleged widespread Medicaid fraud occurred from 2004 to August 2013. Apparently, approximately $1,500,000 in fraudulently received benefits were obtained by the defendants and dozens of other co-conspirators not named in the complaint in the last 9 years.

Via USDOJ:

Preet Bharara, the United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York, and George Venizelos, the Assistant Director-in-Charge of the New York Field Office of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (“FBI”), today announced charges against 49 defendants for participating in a widespread fraud scheme from 2004 to August 2013 to illegally obtain nearly half a million dollars in Medicaid benefits. Each of the defendants charged in the Complaint unsealed today is a current or former Russian diplomat or the spouse of a diplomat employed at either the Russian Mission to the United Nations (the “Mission”), the Russian Federation Consulate General in New York (the “Consulate”), or the Trade Representation of the Russian Federation in the USA, New York Office (the “Trade Representation”). The Complaint alleges that each of the defendants and their unnamed co-conspirators participated in a widespread scheme to illegally obtain Medicaid benefits for prenatal care and related costs by, among other things, falsely underreporting their income or falsely claiming that their child was a citizen of the United States.

Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara said: “Diplomacy should be about extending hands, not picking pockets in the host country. Here, as alleged, a multitude of Russian diplomats and their spouses ran a scam on a health care system designed to help Americans in need. As the Complaint alleges, the scam exploited a weakness in the Medicaid system, and the charges expose shameful and systemic corruption among Russian diplomats in New York.”

According to the announcement, each of the defendants was charged with one count of conspiracy to commit health care fraud and one count of conspiracy to steal government funds and make false statements relating to health care matters, which carry maximum sentences of ten years and five years in prison, respectively.

Apparently, of the 49 defendants, 38 no longer reside in the United States.  There are, however, still 11 currently in the country. According to USDOJ, five of those individuals are diplomats working at the Russian Mission to the United Nations in New York. Another five of those individuals are the spouses of the diplomats. One defendant is currently employed at the Russian Federation’s embassy in Washington, D.C., but at the time of the charged offenses, was employed at the Consulate.

According to the allegations in the Complaint unsealed on December 5 in the Manhattan federal court:

Medicaid is a largely federally funded program in the United States designed to assist low-income families afford health care. In New York State, the Department of Health administers the Medicaid program, and the New York City Human Resources Administration oversees the program and processes applications in New York City. In New York State, pregnant women can receive immediate prenatal care following a preliminary assessment of the pregnant woman’s, and, if applicable, her spouse’s, income. If the pregnant woman provides an income level that is higher than the Medicaid eligibility threshold, the provider will generally not process the Medicaid application. Proof of United States citizenship is not required for a pregnant woman to receive Medicaid benefits because the unborn child is presumed to acquire United States citizenship by virtue of being born in the United States. Once completed, the pregnant woman is entitled to Medicaid benefits pursuant to the original application until the 60th post-partum day, and the newborn child is entitled to benefits on the mother’s initial application until the child’s first birthday. Diplomats, their spouses and children are generally not entitled to Medicaid benefits except in cases of emergency.

While in the United States, the individuals employed by the Mission, Consulate, and Trade Representation are paid a salary by the Russian government, which is not subject to United States federal, state, or local taxes. Employees of the Mission and Consulate generally live in housing, the vast majority of which is paid for by the Russian government. The Mission and Consulate historically have also paid for the medical expenses of their employees, including hospital and doctor bills, as well as dental expenses. Each of the defendants named in the Complaint is a Russian diplomat who works or worked at the Mission, Consulate, or Trade Representation, or was married to such an individual. As a result of an international convention among multiple nations and a bilateral agreement between the United States and Russia, children born in the United States to Russian diplomats generally do not acquire United States citizenship.

The investigation revealed the widespread submission of falsified applications for Medicaid benefits associated with medical costs for prenatal care, birth, and young children by the defendants, which enabled the defendants to obtain Medicaid benefits that they were not otherwise entitled to receive. Approximately $1,500,000 in fraudulently received benefits were obtained by the defendants and dozens of other co-conspirators not named in the Complaint. In general, the defendants underreported their income to an amount below or at the applicable Medicaid eligibility level in order to qualify for Medicaid benefits. In support of the underreported income, the defendants generally submitted letters signed by employees of the Mission, Consulate, or Trade Representation, purporting to corroborate that the falsely underreported income was the true income amount. The defendants’ true income was often hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars more per month than what was falsely reported to Medicaid. Moreover, before, during, and after the time that the defendants received Medicaid benefits, several of the defendants opened credit card accounts in which they reflected salaries thousands of dollars higher than they reported to Medicaid.

[…]

Three other defendants falsely claimed that their children – Russian nationals residing in the United States pursuant to visas issued by the Department of State reflecting their Russian citizenship – were citizens of the United States in order to obtain Medicaid benefits for their children. To support these lies, a United States social security card was provided for one application, and both a United States Social Security Card and a birth certificate issued by the New York City Department of Mental Health and Hygiene was provided in support of another application.

[…]

Moreover, before, during, and after the time that the defendants applied for and received hundreds of thousands of dollars in Medicaid benefits, they spent tens of thousands of dollars on luxury items, including cruise vacations and purchases such as watches, shoes, and jewelry, at stores such as Tiffany & Co., Jimmy Choo, Prada, Bloomingdale’s, and Burberry.

If you want to read the official complaint, click here: Kuleshov, Mikhail et al. 13 MAG 2711 Complaint

Meanwhile, at the State Department, the Spokesperson said on 12/5: “We are still at the State Department reviewing the charges that were unsealed. We’re not yet in a position to speak to the types of specifics about what might happen. Obviously, there is a legal procedure that will be unfolding from this point.” Below is an additional back and forth during the Daily Press Briefing:

QUESTION: Well, does it concern you at all that employees of the Russian Government, while in this country, were involved in – allegedly involved in such a scam? Will you ask the Russian Government to repay what was – what they allegedly stole, for lack of a better word?

MS. HARF: Well, we’re still looking into the charges and the type of specifics in terms of reimbursement and all of that. We’re still – we don’t have any position on that yet. We’re still looking at the charges. And as we go forward, we may have more to share.
[..]

QUESTION: I would suggest to you that 49 is more than a handful, and this appears to have been going on over a sustained period of time. And it’s unlikely that the Russian Government was unaware that these people were –

MS. HARF: I don’t know if they were —

QUESTION: You’ve read the charges?

MS. HARF: I don’t know if they were —

QUESTION: I mean, they were buying incredibly expensive jewelry, taking these fabulous vacations. You would think —

MS. HARF: I honestly don’t know if they were aware. We don’t think this should affect our bilateral relationship with Russia. Quite frankly, there are too many important issues we have to work on together. The justice system will proceed in the way that it does here in the States, and we don’t think it should impact our relationship.

Quite frankly, this was an FBI undercover operation  that went on for about a year and a half.  So a little appreciation for the work done by law enforcement agents would not be too undiplomatic, is it?  The FBI agent’s statement also notes that of the 63 births to the Russian diplomats and their spouses in New York City between the years 2004 and 2013, 58 of those families, or 92% were allegedly paid for by Medicaid benefits. False letters from senior Russian officials were allegedly routinely annexed to the Medicaid applications. The Russian official signatories include a Deputy Trade Representative, a consul, an attache’ and a counselor, according to the complaint.

Now, can you imagine Elizabeth Jennings doing something like this?

WaPo is reporting that the Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov called the charges “no more than a cheap spin effort, no more than a desire to fulfill the order of Russophobic forces in the United States.” Also just so everyone knows, Ryabkov added that “We have many complaints about U.S. diplomats in Moscow, but we aren’t taking them into the public domain.”

This is now a diplomatic embarrassment. Friends at US Mission Russia, watch yourselves.

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