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Doctor Sentenced for Defrauding Insurance Companies : Courts: Psychiatrist admits taking part in a weight-loss program and submitting bills for non-covered treatment.

March 21, 1995|NICHOLAS RICCARDI | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A psychiatrist was sentenced Monday to six months at a halfway house for falsifying documents at Van Nuys Community Hospital to bilk insurance companies out of hundreds of thousands of dollars in payments for weight-disorder treatments.

Barry Smolev, 48, a former chief psychiatric resident at UCLA Medical Center who now has a private practice in West Los Angeles, was sentenced by U.S. District Judge Terry Hatter Jr. on one count of mail fraud.

Although Smolev could have been sentenced to up to 41 months in a halfway house for the offense, he was given credit for surrendering to authorities although no warrant had been issued for his arrest and for his agreement to help in the investigation of others who authorities believe are involved, said Assistant U.S. Atty. Ronni MacLaren.

"It was very important to the government to have a key player like Mr. Smolev assisting us," MacLaren said.

To date, however, no charges have been filed against anyone except Smolev.

Smolev allegedly worked in conjunction with A Place for Us, founded by Janet Greeson, a best-selling self-help author who has vigorously denied any wrongdoing.

A Place for Us has been under investigation by the U.S. Attorney's Office since late 1992 and has been named in several civil suits by insurance companies which allege that weight-disorder treatments, which were not eligible for insurance reimbursement under their policies, were disguised as therapy for "major depression," which was covered.

The civil suits allege that A Place for Us touted itself as a weight-loss program, then steered clients into hospitals where therapists falsified their records to qualify the hospitals for insurance payments.

"Telemarketers would describe the program to prospective patients, tell them that the program would be provided at no cost to the patients," MacLaren said. "Once the patients got to the hospital, the treating psychiatrist would admit them under the diagnosis of major or severe depression."

She said that "Dr. Smolev was just at one" of those hospitals, others of which are situated in Florida and Nevada.

A Place for Us had thousands of patients during its peak years from 1989 to 1991, and most of them received free airfare to their destination hospitals and enjoyed free outings to Disneyland and Universal Studios--all in a therapy regimen whose average cost to insurance companies was $30,000 to $40,000, investigators said.

According to court papers filed in support of the civil suits, many of the patients were flown in from out of state--allegedly to better conceal their condition from their in-state insurers. The hospitals submitted claims to the insurers and then paid the program a flat fee for each patient, a civil suit said.

Smolev was the A Place for Us liaison at Van Nuys Community Hospital from January to October, 1991, when he severed the relationship, said Mark Beck, his attorney.

After federal authorities began investigating A Place for Us, Smolev had Beck call the U.S. Attorney's Office in Los Angeles in 1993 and offer to surrender, MacLaren said. Smolev pleaded guilty to mail fraud in April, she said.

She would not say how much money was involved in Smolev's case, nor what prompted him to surrender.

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