ATLANTA — A Channel 2 investigation into suspected DNA testing insurance fraud has launched a state investigation as it mirrors federal allegations against a metro Atlanta laboratory and its owner.
In May, Althea Brown contacted the Clark Howard Consumer Action Center about a nearly $11,000 insurance charge for a DNA test she said she did not consent to having done.
Brown was a mental health patient of Dr. Eddie Beal, a longtime, prominent psychiatrist in East Point.
She said she was swabbed during a visit for a prescription refill, after telling the staff she was unable to provide them a urine sample for a routine check they wanted to run.
"I did not consent to a DNA test," Brown said.
Channel 2 investigative reporter Nicole Carr reviewed a January copy of Brown's DNA testing paperwork between Beal's office and Lab Solutions, an Atlanta-based blood and DNA testing lab. It came from records provided to Brown via her insurance company, Blue Cross Blue Shield.
Brown's name was misspelled, a "Signature on File" served as the signed consent for the DNA test and it was all in what appeared to be the same handwriting used to sign Beal's name.
"A 3-year-old can see what's wrong," Brown told Carr, explaining that Beal told her to contact his billing office when she complained about the explanation of benefits.
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"He did not explain anything to me when I asked him in session," Brown said. "Why the testing was done. …why is it costing $10,700, and he said it was a billing issue."
Beal's office initially dismissed Brown's claims of non-consent, saying in a statement to Channel 2 Action News that "Hopefully you understand that mental health patients sometimes misreport information to gain an audience…."
They later reiterated that stance, saying, "Sorry if that phrase troubled you, but schizoaffective-bipolar patients do sometimes create narratives that vary from reality."
The statements were signed "Office Staff," and also insisted that Brown had consented to the tests, saying they were medically necessary.
Through a spokesman, Lab Solutions told Channel 2 Action News that Beal's office signed the consent forms. Beal's office later told Channel 2 Action News a LabSolutions technician was responsible for the signatures.
High costs, a federal raid and indictment
Other metro Atlanta physicians confirmed that the costs for Brown's test were unusually high and would definitely require in-depth conversations with patients.
"That surprises me," said Tracey Marks, a metro Atlanta psychiatrist who said five years ago the test was, at maximum, $5,000. "I am surprised that it's increased since then, especially since there are more companies offering it."
Marks equated the depth of conversation physicians have with patients to a car-buying experience.
"Many patients I had did not want to do that, so I just didn't feel comfortable just leaving it like that and having them have this huge bill at the end," Marks said.
While LabSolutions and Beal's office pointed fingers as to who was responsible for the consent, Carr was contacted by a Lab Solutions employee via email. Cheryl Thompson, a lab scientist, wanted to see if Channel 2 could look into why the Northside Drive lab was being raided by the federal agents in mid-August.
"Next thing we know…many people burst through the doors and told us to put our hands up," Thompson recalled.
Thompson would soon lose her job, as pockets of employees were let go via quick staff meetings, and letters without explanation of any trouble.
Carr discovered the lab owner, Minal Patel, was being investigated by the feds in Florida on suspicion of insurance fraud and providing physician kickbacks and bribes in return for recruiting Medicare beneficiaries to LabSolutions.
Court documents show he was asking a federal judge to unfreeze his six bank accounts in order to pay lab employees. The request was denied, and Patel was later ordered to shut down along with other labs involved in a multi-state, federal roundup.
Patel is now facing insurance fraud-related charges and federal allegations that he used telephonic doctors to administer and bill unnecessary DNA tests to vulnerable patients, something Thompson said colleagues began to suspect when running samples shortly before the federal raid.
"They felt like people were just going to nursing homes and swabbing patients because all these patients—many of them were in their 90s and they were like, "'What in the world would these people need to get a genetic testing done for?'" Thompson said.
Thompson also agreed to review Brown's DNA consent form for Channel 2 Action News.
"I would say this off the top causes alarm to me," the lab scientist said, pointing to the portion of consent that said "signature on file."
"And that shouldn't be," Thompson continued. "A patient should sign each every time they're getting lab testing done."
The lab's original spokesperson told Carr he was no longer representing the lab following the federal indictment.
Steve Sadow, lead attorney in Patel's federal case, said the accusations "appear to be based on false or misleading statements" by people cooperating with federal investigators to get lighter sentences in their own cases.
"Genetic testing by LabSolutions was always done based on a doctor's written request," Sadow said. "At trial, we intend to show that the conduct of LabSolutions and Minal Patel was based on the advice of lawyers and that Mr. Patel had no intent to violate the law."
When Carr went to Lab Solutions in October, an employee turned around in the hallway after seeing a Channel 2 camera, and other employees locked outside doors and covered windows.
A man who simply identified himself as an employee asked Carr to leave the premises when she asked to speak with and pass along a message to the Patel family.
"We know you are just doing your job ...They'd like you to leave the property," he said.
Beal's office to audit patient consent, lab drops Brown's DNA testing bill
In October, Carr tried to contact Beal directly one last time before the Channel 2 investigation was set to air.
She went into the office, and was met by his daughter, Jennifer, who stood by the statements that Brown consented to the DNA tests, and they were signed off on by the lab tech.
But Jennifer Beal, who asked her face not be shown on television, said the office stopped contracting with Lab Solutions when Channel 2 Action News initially contacted them about the consent discrepancy.
"We're concerned just like you," Jennifer Beal said.
"I know my daddy didn't get any kickback from this, " she later added.
Beal said the office would run audits on patient consent to ensure this doesn't happen again.
Have the feds asked you guys any questions about the tests? Carr asked.
"Not yet, and I hope they don't," Beal replied. "They haven't….You all are the first people to look into it."
Dr. Beal soon returned Carr's message, marking the first time Channel 2 Action News was able to speak with him directly.
He said his office staff would schedule the on-camera interview Channel 2 Action News had requested for months, but several attempts to schedule that interview failed.
Meanwhile, Lab Solutions sent Brown a letter in September, weeks after the federal indictment. It outlined that she was indeed responsible for the DNA testing bill, but they'd decided not to pursue collection.
The letter wrongly stated that she'd consented to the test on Jan. 1. Records show the test was administered on Jan. 9 and ordered the next day.
Cox Media Group