KXAN Austin

After lying about thousands of patients’ life expectancy, hospice care owner sentenced to prison, $120M fine

FILE - Hospice care patient

AUSTIN (KXAN) — A hospice care owner told thousands of people they had less than six months to live, enrolled them in hospice programs and even sent chaplains to some of them to receive last rites. He lied, a federal jury in McAllen determined in November 2019. He was sentenced to 20 years in prison and ordered to pay $120 million in restitution on Wednesday.

The people Rodney Mesquias, 48, of San Antonio, defrauded included patients with Alzheimer’s and dementia, according to a release from the Department of Justice. Mesquias was CEO of the Merida Group, a health care company that had dozens of locations throughout Texas.

“Mesquias funded his lavish lifestyle by exploiting patients with long-term, incurable diseases by enrolling them in expensive but unnecessary hospice services,” said Acting Assistant Attorney General Brian C. Rabbitt of the Justice Department’s Criminal Division. According to a DOJ release, he used the money to buy a Porsche, expensive jewelry and luxury clothing, real estate and tickets for sporting events. It said he held “lavish parties” at Las Vegas night clubs and invited doctors who later gave him “medically unnecessary patient referrals.”

Mesquias was convicted of one count of conspiracy to commit health care fraud, conspiracy to commit money laundering, conspiracy to obstruct justice, six counts of health care fraud and one count of conspiracy to pay and receive kickbacks. A man officials describe as a “co-conspirator,” Henry McInnis, 48, was convicted on all but the kickbacks charges.

According to Special Agent in Charge Miranda L. Bennett, Mesquias paid kickbacks to physicians, falsified medical records and enrolled patients in “hospice care that prevented them from accessing curative care.” Bennett works for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Inspector General’s Dallas Region.

Officials say the scheme involved $150 million in false claims between 2009 and 2018.

“Hospice services require patients to be suffering from a terminal illness expected to result in death within six months. Not only were patients not in such circumstances, they were walking, driving, working and even coaching athletic sporting events in some instances,” a DOJ release said. “However, Mesquias and others kept patients on services for multiple years in order to increase revenue.”

The DOJ says his case was one of the first criminal hospice fraud prosecutions it had brought to a federal jury. McInnis will be sentenced at a later date, according to a release, and two other co-conspirators have pleaded guilty and are waiting to be sentenced. Francisco Peña, 82, of Laredo, acted as a medical director for Merida Group and was mayor of Rio Bravo when he also pleaded guilty to charges, according to KXAN sister station KVEO. He died in November 2019.