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Fraud probe targets Puerto Rico doctors

By DANICA COTO

Associated Press Writer

Thursday Aug 2, 2007

5:01 PM ET

U.S. federal agents arrested dozens of doctors accused of obtaining medical licenses through fraud or bribery, carrying out sweeping raids across Puerto Rico Thursday.

A federal grand jury indicted 88 doctors following an investigation into members of the U.S. Caribbean territory's medical licensing board, who allegedly altered low-scoring tests to certify unqualified candidates.

The doctors, mostly Puerto Ricans who studied medicine in the Dominican Republic, Mexico or Cuba, paid board members bribes of as much as $10,000, according to the indictment.

At least 75 were practicing medicine in Puerto Rico, including some at hospitals or emergency rooms, authorities said.

The arrests began near dawn. Some suspects — including Pablo Valentin, a former executive director of the licensing board — were seen on television being led away by local police and agents of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

The Drug Enforcement Administration also is checking pharmacy records to determine whether the suspects prescribed medications, which could prompt felony charges as violations of the Controlled Substances Act, spokesman Waldo Santiago said.

Most of the suspects failed the licensing exam multiple times. One man who earned a medical degree in Spain failed the exam 16 times between 1974 and 2001 before he was granted a medical license in 2002, according to the indictment.

"We cannot allow doctors who obtained their license in an irregular way to practice medicine," said Rosa Perez Perdomo, Puerto Rico's Health Department secretary. "The health of Puerto Ricans has to be protected at all costs."

She called it "a very unfortunate situation," but said the fraudulent doctors' patients would have no shortage of alternatives among legitimate health care providers in Puerto Rico, where about 10,000 doctors serve a population of 4 million.

At least five U.S. states recognize Puerto Rican medical licenses — Arizona, Florida, New York, Texas and Virginia — but Perdomo said none of the suspects were known to have practiced medicine on the U.S. mainland, according to Puerto Rico's medical licensing board.

The Arizona Medical Board said it requires all physicians to pass a U.S. licensing exam before they are issued a state license.

In many of the alleged fraud cases, an intermediary would approach a candidate who received a failing test by mail and offer to connect them with board officials who could help, authorities said.

Yolanda Rodriguez, a former board secretary who also was indicted, allegedly received the exams from the intermediaries, cut-and-pasted passages from passing exams, and photocopied the doctored exams for submission as authentic versions, according to court documents.

The defendants face charges including mail fraud and making false statements to Medicare.

If convicted, most face prison sentences of five to 20 years, said interim U.S. Attorney Rosa Emilia Rodriguez.

The Puerto Rican legislature has been questioning members of the board as part of a fraud investigation that began in May.

The board's president, Milton Carrero, said the federal indictments have persuaded the board to expand an internal probe as well, scrutinizing licenses issued before 2001.

"There were people inside who defrauded the confidence of everyone," said Carrero, who was chosen as president after Puerto Rico's governor began removing four members for negligence. He said new security measures have been taken, including the installation of cameras in the room where medical licenses are kept.

"There is no doubt that changes at the licensing board are happening and will continue to happen," Carrero said.

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