- The Washington Times - Monday, March 6, 2006

A prominent HIV physician in the District yesterday pleaded guilty in a scheme to submit phony Medicare bills in which he claimed he gave a one-time heart attack drug to a single patient more than 100 times.

Larry M. Bruni, 54, faces more than a year in prison when sentenced in May. He told a federal judge that he questioned but never investigated the legitimacy of his office’s pattern of Medicare billings from 2001 to 2003.

“It struck me as an awful lot of money for the work I’d been doing lately,” Bruni told U.S. District Judge Reggie B. Walton.

More than $150,000 for bogus services landed in bank accounts under Bruni’s name, and the money was used to pay his rent, utilities and personal expenses, according to prosecutors.

In the 1980s, Bruni forged a reputation as one of the District’s most outspoken and aggressive HIV doctors, well known for his clinical trials, according to local HIV/AIDS advocates.

Bruni also was plaintiff in a federal lawsuit filed in 2000 against the District’s election board over a local referendum concerning the medical use of marijuana.

Federal authorities probed Bruni’s Medicare billing for a drug called Reteplase. The heart-attack drug almost always is administered once, usually only in hospitals, said Virginia Cheatham, assistant U.S. attorney.

Yet claims submitted by Bruni’s office charged the Medicare program with injecting a single patient several times a day in a home setting, court records show.

If the claims were true, prosecutors said the patient — who also was an office worker for Bruni — almost certainly would have bled to death.

Bruni admitted guilt under a legal provision called “willful blindness,” meaning he knew there was a high probability that criminal activity was taking place but never did anything about it.

Another person was identified in charging documents that detailed the scheme, but federal authorities yesterday declined to identify the person or whether he or she will also face charges.

Bruni, who has since relocated to Albany, N.Y., and his attorney, Michael L. Fayad, declined to comment after the plea hearing.

According to a search warrant affidavit filed by the Office of Inspector General for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Bruni’s office charged Medicare for using 118 units of Reteplase on one patient and three units on another person.

“If a healthy patient, one who is not experiencing a heart attack, were to be given Reteplase, then this drug could cause the patient to bleed to death,” the affidavit states.

Not all of the Medicare claims submitted by Bruni’s office were paid, prosecutors said.

Bruni’s Reteplase claims totaled more than $500,000, and Medicare ultimately paid $154,832 to Bruni for “services which were never provided,” according to court filings.

Bruni has faced legal difficulties in the past. In 1995, a jury awarded more than $4 million to a former patient who said Bruni gave him HIV drugs for years, although he was HIV negative.

Yesterday, he said he wasn’t aware of the details of the phony billing scheme until last year.

“I didn’t know that Reteplase was the cause of this fraudulent billing until I got a call from the special agent,” he said.

He also said personal problems played a role in his decision not to flag the phony claims.

“My relationship was breaking up, and I was having to leave my home,” he told Judge Walton.

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