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Glenn Ferry ferrets out Medicare fraud

Ferry is special agent in charge of the L.A. office of the Health and Human Services Department's inspector general.

June 21, 2013|Los Angeles Times
  • Glenn Ferry finds organized crime in healthcare. Crooks see it “as a huge gold mine,” he says.
Glenn Ferry finds organized crime in healthcare. Crooks see it “as… (Don Bartletti, Los Angeles…)

The gig: Leading the fight against Medicare fraud in Southern California, Nevada, Arizona and Hawaii, Glenn Ferry is special agent in charge for the Los Angeles regional office of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' inspector general.

Scene of the crime: Ferry's first brush with crime-fighting came at age 7. On a trip to the grocery store with his mother in the Philadelphia suburbs, they stumbled upon a robbery in progress.

Within seconds, the police arrived and gunshots were shattering glass. Ferry recalls bags of money falling around them as the robbers tried to flee, unsuccessfully.

"My mother always says that's why I got into law enforcement," he said.

Personal life: Ferry, 48, is married with two teenage stepchildren. He recently took up running half-marathons and marked a personal best by finishing an Orange County event in less than two hours.

Washington intern: He is the youngest of seven children and the first in his family to earn a bachelor's degree. He graduated from Richard Stockton College in New Jersey. Like many young people, he didn't know what he wanted to do with his life. An uncle worked in radio so he pursued a degree in communications, but his heart wasn't in it.

He switched to criminal justice in college, and an internship at the U.S. attorney's office in Washington set him on his current path. For a few months he worked alongside federal prosecutors, visiting crime scenes and interviewing witnesses.

Trust your gut: After college, he returned home and took a job as an insurance adjuster. Ferry said he was earning about $15,000 a year checking into car accidents and slip-and-fall reports. But he was hungry for more.

He had stayed in touch with a friend who was an agent for Health and Human Services in Washington. An entry-level job with the agency came open in 1988, and Ferry jumped at the opportunity.

Initially, his parents weren't so sure about the move. "My dad said, 'Are you sure you know what you are doing?'" Ferry said. "The best decision I ever made was to move to D.C."

Take your lumps: Early on, Ferry had a lot to learn as a government agent. His supervisors didn't hold back in constant critiques of his witness interviews and investigative reports. "As a green agent, you need to be a sponge and open to criticism," he said.

Ferry transferred to the Los Angeles regional office in 1997 and started to climb the management ladder. As a supervisor, he saw the value of teamwork, particularly on lengthy and complicated investigations that could drag on for years.

Pick your spots: Soon after moving, Ferry was assigned to a major investigation involving Tenet Healthcare Corp., one of the nation's largest hospital chains. In 2006, Tenet agreed to pay more than $900 million to settle allegations of improper Medicare billing.

That case showed him the importance of employees setting priorities and avoiding the temptation to get pulled in too many directions on a large project.

"You only have so many resources so you have to focus on the two or three areas that are the most damaging to taxpayers," Ferry said.

From his Santa Ana office, Ferry now heads a team of 40 people across the region who work on cases involving Medicare and other public programs, such as Medicaid, the National Institutes of Health and even child-support enforcement.

Changing characters: Doctors and hospitals have been typical targets for investigation. Ferry said he and his agents are now dealing with the more dangerous element of organized crime in healthcare.

"You would be surprised at some of these clinics with high-powered rifles, semiautomatic handguns and machetes," Ferry said, describing what search warrants turn up.

In some cases, white-collar executives will team up with street-level offenders. One case last year involved Southern California hospitals paying recruiters to round up homeless people from skid row in downtown Los Angeles in order to bill Medicare and Medi-Cal for unnecessary treatments.

"I had to do a double take when you see the guy on the street corner working together with the hospital CEO," Ferry said.

He later presented that case to other agents across the country to alert them to the potential for similar schemes.

Harnessing big data: For years, some experts and lawmakers have criticized Medicare for being too slow to crack down on fraud and waste that cost the program an estimated $60 billion annually. But now, Ferry said, agents are able to respond much faster because of greater access to data on billing and payments.

Agents previously had to request information from outside contractors that process Medicare claims.

"That time delay could cause more money to go out the door," Ferry said. "The majority of physicians and medical providers are honest, but the small percentage do so much damage to us as taxpayers. These crooks see healthcare as a huge gold mine."

chad.terhune@latimes.com

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