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Birmingham-area doctors indicted for role in pill mill

Brandon Moseley

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Wednesday, federal authorities announced that Birmingham area doctors and their co-conspirators were indicted for $7.8 million in health care fraud, unlawful drug distribution and money laundering

The March indictments were unsealed Wednesday, charging four people in connection to a $7.8 million health care fraud conspiracy at a Birmingham clinic, and charges that the husband and wife physicians who operated the clinic used it, in part, as a “pill mill.”

U.S. Attorney Jay E. Town, FBI Special Agent in Charge Johnnie Sharp Jr. and Drug Enforcement Administration Assistant Special Agent in Charge Bret Hamilton announced the charges.

The 44-count indictments returned charges against Dr. Patrick Emeka Ifediba, 59, and his wife, Dr. Uchenna Grace Ifediba, 53. The Shoal Creek couple both had medical degrees from the University of Nigeria, Faculty of Medicine. They were licensed to practice medicine in Alabama, and each obtained a Drug Enforcement Administration registration number, which authorized them to issue controlled substance prescriptions. The Ifedibas were doctors of internal medicine. They were not pain management specialists or allergists.

Patrick Ifediba’s sister, Ngozi Justina Ozuligbo, 48, of Trussville, and Clement Essien Edio, 60 of Hoover, were also indicted in the health care fraud conspiracy. It brings other charges against the various defendants, including unlawful drug distribution conspiracy and money laundering conspiracy.

A federal judge unsealed the 44-count indictment following Patrick Ifediba’s arrest.

“The opioid crisis in the United States accounts for the deaths of tens of thousands of Americans every year,” Town said. “Physicians who pocket millions while taking advantage of patients, many of whom are addicted to opioids, and unnecessarily drive up health care costs for both patients and insurance providers, knowingly sacrifice the efficacy of care for greed.”

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Town said, “Physicians who engage in this illicit practice will soon be trading their white coats for prison stripes.”

“The FBI and our partners will continue to pursue and bring to justice those who violate their Hippocratic Oath for greed and needlessly destroy lives, families and communities,” Sharp said.

“DEA has dedicated an entire enforcement group to investigating drug dealers who hide behind medical degrees in the state of Alabama, and as long as we have doctors in this state who base their decisions on profits versus best medical care, we will continue to do so,” Hamilton said. “DEA agents and task force officers have been investigating the Ifedibas and their coconspirators for three years. This is a testament to the dedication and patience of these investigators and should be a warning to any medical providers who would resort to fraud and illegal prescribing.”

“As alleged, the indictment describes schemes motivated by unbridled greed in which the doctors allegedly used their prescribing authority to force unwilling, but ultimately opioid-dependent, patients to submit to unnecessary allergy testing and treatment in exchange for narcotics prescriptions,” said Assistant U.S. Attorney Mohammad Khatib. “Such conduct is not only anti-medicine; it is a crime for which justice demands a serious response.”

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The charges all stem from the defendants’ association with Care Complete Medical Clinic, a private clinic at 1300 Bessemer Road in Birmingham that provided allergy and pain management services. The indictment charges that the four defendants stole millions of dollars from health care programs by fraudulently billing for allergy treatments and services. Apart from the health care fraud conspiracy and scheme, Uchenna Ifediba is further charged with one count of false statements in connection with health care matters.

Drs. Patrick and Uchenna Ifediba also are charged as part of an unlawful drug distribution conspiracy. The husband and wife team churned out prescriptions for schedule II controlled substances – opioid painkillers – for no legitimate medical purpose in order to maximize personal financial gain, according to the indictment. The pair also faces one count of maintaining drug-involved premises for allegedly operating CCMC, in part, as a pill mill. Patrick Ifediba also faces 14 counts, and Uchena Ifediba, five counts, of unlawful distribution of controlled substances.

Patrick Ifediba and Ozuligbo are further charged as part of a money laundering conspiracy. Among other violations, the siblings moved the proceeds of CCMC’s unlawful health care fraud and pill mill scheme in order to hide the illicit nature of the funds, according to the indictment. Dr. Patrick Ifediba faces an additional three counts of concealment money laundering, and four counts of engaging in monetary transactions in criminally derived property valued at more than $10,000. The indictment charges Uchenna Ifediba and Ozuligbo with three counts and one count, respectively, of concealment money laundering.

The charges of conspiracy to commit health care fraud and health care fraud both carry maximum penalties of 10 years in prison and a $250,000 fine. Making false statements related to health care matters carries a maximum penalty of five years in prison and a $250,000 fine. Conspiracy to distribute controlled substances and distribution of controlled substances both carry a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison and a $1 million fine. Maintaining drug-involved premises carries a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison and a $500,000 fine. Money laundering conspiracy and laundering of monetary instruments both carry a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison and a $250,000 fine. Engaging in monetary transactions in criminally derived property worth more than $10,000 carries a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison and a fine of $250,000, or twice the amount of the criminally derived property involved.

The FBI and DEA investigated the case, which Assistant U.S. Attorneys Khatib and Jim Weil are prosecuting.

These 44 counts are merely indictments. Defendants are presumed innocent until proven guilty by a jury of their peers.

These are federal indictments. Under the Alabama criminal code, physicians are immune from being prosecuted for drug dealing so local police, district attorneys and the Alabama Attorney General’s office are powerless to stop drug dealing doctors. State Representative Christopher John England, D-Tuscaloosa, introduced legislation to end that criminal immunity for doctors in Alabama law. England’s bill passed the House; but was defeated in the Senate after the powerful Alabama Medical Association opposed the legislation.

Alabamians have the highest rates of opioid use in the entire world, according to a recent study.

If you have prescriptions from the Ifedibas or their clinic, you probably need to get a second medical opinion.

Brandon Moseley is a senior reporter with over nine years at Alabama Political Reporter. During that time he has written 8,297 articles for APR. You can email him at [email protected] or follow him on Facebook. Brandon is a native of Moody, Alabama, a graduate of Auburn University, and a seventh generation Alabamian.

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Economy

New unemployment claims increased again last week

It is the highest number of new claims recorded in a single week since July.

Micah Danney

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(STOCK PHOTO)

There were 14,084 new unemployment claims filed last week, up from 10,986 new claims the previous week, according to the Alabama Department of Labor.

The number of new claims was the highest in a single week since July.

Of last week’s claims, 11,124 were related to COVID-19, representing 79 percent. Of the previous week’s claims, 80 percent were related to COVID-19.

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Congress

SPLC responds to arrest of man carrying Confederate flag inside U.S. Capitol

Kevin Seefried and his son, Hunter, face multiple charges connected with their alleged part in the deadly Capitol riot.

Eddie Burkhalter

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Widely shared images of a white man carrying a Confederate flag across the floor of the U.S. Capitol during last week’s deadly attempted insurrection is a jarring reminder of the treasonous acts that killed more than 750,000 Americans during the Civil War, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center. 

“Just as defeated Confederate soldiers were forced to surrender the Civil War and end their inhumane treatment of Black people, the rioter who brazenly carried a Confederate flag into the Capitol has been forced to surrender to federal authorities,” said Lecia Brooks, chief of staff at the Southern Poverty Law Center, in a statement Friday following the arrests of Kevin Seefried, 51, and his 23-year-old son Hunter.

Seefried, the Baltimore man allegedly seen in those photographs carrying the Confederate flag, and his son are charged with entering a restricted building and violent entry and disorderly conduct on Capitol grounds. Hunter is also charged with destroying government property.

“Incited by the President’s disinformation campaign, the rioter’s decision to brazenly roam the halls of Congress clinging to this painful symbol of white supremacy was a jarring display of boundless white privilege,” Brooks’s statement reads. “Despite the revisionist history promoted by enthusiasts, his disgraceful display is proof that the Confederate flag clearly represents hate, not heritage.”

Brooks added:

 “Over 750,000 American lives were lost because of the Confederacy’s treasonous acts. We cannot allow more blood to be shed for efforts to split our Union. January’s immoral coup attempt is an embarrassment to the United States, and we call on the federal government to prosecute these insurrectionists to the fullest extent of the law.”

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An affidavit detailing the charges states that videos taken during the riot show both Seefrieds enter the Capitol building through a broken window, that Hunter helped break, at about 2:13 p.m.

Both men on Jan. 12 voluntarily talked with FBI agents and admitted to their part in the riots, according to court records. 

The elder Seefreid told the FBI agent that he traveled to the rally to hear Trump speak and that he and his son joined the march and were “led by an individual with a bull horn.” 

There were numerous pro-Trump attendees at the rally and march to the Capitol who had bull horns, according to multiple videos taken that day, but at the front of one of the largest groups of marchers with a bull horn was far-right radio personality Alex Jones, who was walking next to Ali Alexander, organizer of the Stop the Steal movement. 

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Alexander in three separate videos has said he planned the rally, meant to put pressure on Congress voting inside the Capitol that day, with Rep. Mo Brooks, R-Alabama, and Arizona U.S. Reps. Paul Gosar and Andy Biggs. Alexander is now in hiding, according to The Daily Beast

Congressman Brooks’s spokesman told APR on Tuesday that Brooks does not remember communicating with Alexander. 

“Congressman Brooks has no recollection of ever communicating in any way with whoever Ali Alexander is. Congressman Brooks has not in any way, shape or form coordinated with Ali Alexander on the January 6th ‘Save America’ rally,” the statement from the congressman’s spokesman reads. 

Jones and Alexander can be seen leading the march in a video taken and posted to Twitter by freelance journalist Raven Geary. 

“This is history happening. We’re not giving into globalists. We’ll never surrender,” Jones yells into his bullhorn as they marched toward the Capitol. 

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Health

Alabama officials working to ID missed COVID-19 deaths

It will be some time before we can truly understand the death and destruction caused by COVID-19.

Eddie Burkhalter

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Reported deaths have skyrocketed in recent weeks as ADPH reviews death records to ensure no COVID deaths are missed. Several hundred deaths remain undated. (ADPH DATA/APR GRAPHIC)

The Alabama Department of Public Health has reported 598 COVID-19 deaths over the past three days, one of the highest three-day totals since the pandemic began. But many of those deaths happened weeks, and even months, ago — evidence of the work ADPH is doing to ensure all deaths caused by the disease are counted.

Despite the common myth that many COVID-19 deaths are of people who didn’t actually die from the disease, the opposite is often true. The death toll is likely an undercount. The Alabama Department of Public Health since Nov. 11 has been working to make sure those who died from the disease, or from illnesses brought on by it, are properly classified as such. 

At least 5,945 people have died from COVID-19 in Alabama as of Thursday, according to ADPH.

At least 792 Alabamans died from COVID-19 in December, making it one of the deadliest months since the start of the pandemic, and as new deaths are reported, the total is likely to grow.

At least 1,118 deaths have been reported in January, but the vast majority of those reported deaths actually occurred in December or earlier. Only 106 actually occurred in January, though many of the reported deaths remain undated.

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It takes some time for ADPH to review medical records and verify a death is caused by COVID-19, and the department reports deaths in two ways: In the first, the death is reported on the day ADPH confirms the death as being from the disease. In the second, ADPH reports the date on which the death actually occurred. Confirmation can take weeks, or longer.

The U.S. on Tuesday recorded more COVID-19 deaths than on any other single day during the pandemic, at 4,327, according to Johns Hopkins University. There have been at least 384,204 COVID-19 deaths in the U.S., but that figure is likely an undercount, according to medical experts. 

“Generally, we would expect COVID to be listed on the death certificate, but that might not necessarily be the case,” said Dr. Karen Landers, assistant state health officer at ADPH, speaking to APR recently. “So it is possible they could still be determined to be a COVID death as a result of comorbidities that were triggered or made worse from the viral infection.” 

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The CDC and the CDC’s National Notifiable Diseases Surveillance System guidelines state that 30 days after a COVID-19 diagnosis a person is presumed to have recovered, which means that if that person were hospitalized for more than 30 days and dies, it’s possible that their death won’t be classified as from COVID-19 by the workers who input that data into the system. 

ADPH has a team of workers who review those databases and medical records to determine if a death was in fact due to COVID-19, or medical complications as a result of the disease. That team includes a primary care physician who handles the adult cases, an OB-GYN who reviews cases of pregnant women and Landers herself, who deals with deaths of juveniles, Landers said. 

Landers said those staff members are going back through death certificates and medical records and looking to see if the person did have COVID at some point, and what role that might have played in their death. 

“We made this commitment under Dr. Harris’s direction that we would look very meticulously at each one of these because, again, it’s still a learning process about this virus,” Landers said, referring to Alabama State Health Officer Dr. Scott Harris. “It is extremely important for us to be accurate in terms of the data so that we can capture, what is the mortality rate, why did people die from COVID-19 and what are the contributory factors to COVID-19?” 

Landers dispelled an often-mentioned myth that there’s money to be made by incorrectly identifying deaths as COVID-19. 

“We’re not gonna get paid any more money in the Alabama Department of Public Health for one death or 10 deaths,” Landers said. “Data accuracy is important from the standpoint of knowing, okay, how deadly is this disease?”

Dr. Jeanne Marrazzo, director of UAB’s division of infectious diseases, told APR last month that during recent shifts at the hospital she learned of a patient who came in with severe COVID-19 pneumonia in late November and progressively worsened, requiring ICU care.

“They continue to deteriorate. They get what we call ARDS or adult respiratory distress syndrome,” Marrazzo said. “They’re in the unit for another 10 to 12 days,  then, like many people who are persistently on the ventilator they get what’s called a nosocomial pneumonia.” 

 “So now you’re taking care of somebody who’s in an intensive care unit. They’re getting multiple antibiotics. They can get complications from the antibiotics that we can’t prevent, and you are now trying so hard to keep them going, and hopefully alive,” Marrazzo said. 

The hope is always that someone will improve and be released before the 30-day timeline, Marrazzo said, but hospital stays of more than 30 days are not uncommon. 

“What if on January 2 they have a cardiac arrest, or they have an episode of septicemia or septic shock from an infection that they acquired as a consequence of being so sick and in the ICU?” Marrazzo said. “That COVID diagnosis that drove them into the hospital so long ago, may not show up on their death certificate, and so attributing deaths to COVID is going to be a real skill, as we look at this surveillance from these databases.” 

“So Dr. landers is absolutely correct,” Marrazzo said. “And it’s another reason that I think the toll of this pandemic on our families, our communities, everybody, is really not going to become clear until we’ve had a chance to get our heads above water and go back and look at some of these sources.” 

ADPH in a statement on Tuesday said the department continues to review a large number of deaths. 

“At this time, two-thirds of the deaths have been reviewed and ADPH expects this will take a few more weeks to complete. This may result in additional death numbers which are historic and do not reflect recent mortality due to COVID-19,” the statement reads.

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Legislature

Alabama lawmaker will attend her 19th COVID funeral

Rep. Barbara Drummond: “This virus has exposed the skeletons of not only Alabama but across the nation.”

Josh Moon

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When it comes to the tragedy of the COVID-19 virus, Rep. Barbara Drummond is more familiar than most. On Friday, Drummond will attend the funeral of a 56-year-old friend who died from coronavirus. It will be her 19th funeral this year for a close friend or family member who has died from the virus.

Drummond joined the Alabama Politics This Week Podcast to discuss the devastation she’s witnessed from the virus, and how it has exposed serious inequalities around the state and country.

“This virus has exposed the skeletons of not only Alabama but across the nation,” Drummond said. “The disparities not only in health care. But in education. In income. When you look at the African American communities that are affected by this virus, they are food deserts. People can’t get healthy foods. They can’t get access to quality health care. That’s what’s going on here.”

Drummond said that for too long, poor communities in this state have been vilified and thought of as deadbeats who don’t want to work, but in reality, they are stuck in a perpetual cycle of poverty due to a lack of basic resources and access to quality education, health care and job opportunities. 

“I hear people say all the time that people in this community don’t want to work,” Drummond said. “Nothing could be further from the truth. They don’t have the opportunity to support themselves and their families most of the time. If you think about it, you don’t know anyone who grew up dreaming of being poor.”

Drummond also discussed the upcoming legislative session and the Democrats’ plans to address some of the devastation from COVID. However, that work can’t be done until the Republican leadership that controls both houses establishes a workable plan to conduct the state’s business in a safe manner. 

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Drummond said she’s been in contact with leaders and has heard details of the plan. She’s not exactly comfortable. 

“I would not be honest to sit here and say I have no fears in going for the session,” Drummond said. “But I will go in with the recommendations of the CDC and the common sense that my mom raised me with. I will go because we have work to do and that work is very important to our state, especially now.”

You can listen to the entire interview with Drummond at the Alabama Politics This Week website or on Apple Podcasts, Google Play, Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts.

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