CHICAGO — FBI agents searched the suburban headquarters of the Center for COVID Control on Saturday.
The company, which has been paid more than $124 million from the federal government and oversees a chain of COVID-19 testing pop-ups, is facing a slew of state and federal investigations.
USAToday reporter Grace Hauck was first to report the FBI search.
“The FBI was conducting court-authorized law enforcement activity in Rolling Meadows,” FBI spokeswoman Siobhan Johnson said in an emailed statement. “Department of Justice policy prevents the FBI from commenting on the nature of any investigations that may or may not be occurring.”
The Illinois Attorney General’s Office is “working with the FBI and other law enforcement partners,” spokeswoman Annie Thompson said in an emailed statement.
“Attorney General Raoul is absolutely committed to protecting residents from those who attempt to profit off of the deadly COVID-19 pandemic,” Thompson said in an emailed statement. The agency “will not comment on ongoing investigations as we work to hold accountable individuals who engage in unlawful conduct.
The Center for COVID Control and its lab, Doctors Clinical Lab, are based out of suburban Rolling Meadows. It had more than 300 locations around the United States, including more than 140 in Illinois.
“For the past several weeks, Center for COVID Control has been in communication with a number of regulatory and law enforcement agencies regarding the company’s operations,” a Center for COVID Control spokesman said in a statement. “Federal law enforcement agents executed a search warrant at the company’s main office as part of what appears to be a similar investigation.
“Although we cannot provide specific comments regarding ongoing investigations, the company intends to fully cooperate with all government inquiries, and remains committed to providing the best service possible to our patients.”
The company and its lab have come under intense scrutiny in recent weeks.
The Minnesota Attorney General’s Office filed a lawsuit against the company and lab last week, the Illinois Attorney General’s Office and Illinois Department of Public Health are investigating them, the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid have cited the lab at the highest level of violations and other states have ordered the company to close testing sites.
The company closed its pop-up locations in Illinois for the “foreseeable future” after the Illinois Attorney General’s Office contacted its representatives, that agency announced last week.
“Complaints have ranged from testing results being delayed or not received at all, to results being provided to individuals who were never administered a test, to tests being stored improperly, and staff incorrectly using [personal protective equipment] and face masks,” Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raoul said in a statement last week. “Although the company voluntarily suspended operations, my office contacted company officials to demand that the Center for COVID Control immediately stop engaging in any fraudulent or deceptive conduct, particularly with respect to the delivery of testing results or billing.”
On Jan. 13, Block Club revealed an 81-page report from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services that detailed “deficiencies” and “non-compliance” at the lab used by the company, Doctors Clinical Lab. It was cited for “immediate jeopardy,” the most serious infraction, with inspectors noting the lab had made mistakes that led to wasting tens of thousands of PCR tests, workers not correctly processing rapid tests and the lab not properly storing test samples, among other problems.
Former employees of the Center for COVID Control have also told Block Club they were told to lie to customers, keep tests in garbage bags, unrefrigerated, around the office and bill tests to the federal government, even when customers had private insurance.
And numerous people from across the United States have said they never got test results from the company, their results were badly delayed or their results didn’t make sense.
A spokesperson has denied employees’ allegations and said the company has been challenged by the latest surge in cases, but is now focused on training employees and complying with regulations.
“Center for COVID Control has acknowledged operational strains and customer service challenges largely beginning in late 2021 during the Omicron variant surge,” spokesperson Russ Keene said in an emailed statement Wednesday. “To address those emerging concerns company leaders voluntarily called for a seven-day national pause of local collection site operations to reset all operational aspects of the company and ensure accurate testing services continue to be made available to patients across the country.”
Former Center for COVID Control employees said the company struggled to keep up with tests and had issues for months before Omicron was detected in the United States.
While that confusion unfolded, the leaders of the company bought a $1.36 million home and posted online about buying cars worth hundreds of thousands of dollars — including saying they bought a Ferrari that cost $3.7 million. Akbar Syed, who represents himself as a leader of the company, posted that he was able to buy luxury cars thanks to “covid money.”
Experts and officials have also raised questions about the company and its lab’s billing practices.
Numerous people who got tested through the Center for COVID Control have said they were told to indicate they do not have insurance when registering, which would mean the federal government had to reimburse the lab for those tests. Former employees also said there were numerous instances where they’d mark a person as not having insurance, even if they did.
That’s “very troubling,” Jason Pleggenkuhle, Minnesota’s assistant attorney general, said when that agency’s lawsuit was announced.
The agency’s staffers would not comment on if they’re conducting a criminal investigation into the company’s billing practices.
“Here’s what I will tell you: We are investigating all avenues for accountability,” Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison said at the time.
Doctors Clinical Lab, the lab Center for COVID Control uses to process tests, makes money by billing patients’ insurance companies or seeking reimbursement from the federal government for testing. Insurance statements reviewed by Block Club show the lab has, in multiple instances, billed insurance companies $325 for a PCR test, $50 for a rapid test, $50 for collecting a person’s sample and $80 for a “supplemental fee.”
In turn, the testing sites are paid for providing samples to the lab to be processed, said a person formerly associated with the Center for COVID Control.
In a January video talking to testing site operators, Syed said the Center for COVID Control will no longer provide them with PCR tests, but it will continue supplying them with rapid tests at a cost of $5 per test. The companies will keep making money for the rapid tests they collect, he said.
“You guys will continue making the $28.50 you’re making for the rapid test,” Syed said in the video.
Any time there is money flowing between a provider to any kind of patient, it raises concerns about the United States’ anti-kickback statute, said Jeb White, CEO of Taxpayers Against Fraud, a nonprofit dedicated to fighting fraud.
The statute prohibits organizations from receiving money in exchange for things like referring patients or patronage to a lab.
“At the very least, it is worth a heightened level of scrutiny to see if there is any quid pro quo playing out here,” White said.
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