Disabled doctor pleads guilty to stealing $150,000 in Medicaid
A quadriplegic doctor once celebrated for helping patients persevere through physical challenges similar to his own pleaded guilty yesterday to billing New Hampshire Medicaid for more than $150,000 in services he never received.
But Robert Seung-Bok Lee will likely spend little time, if any, at the state prison, where his attorney argued it would cost more to care for Lee’s medical needs than the 48-year-old man ever stole from the state. A Merrimack County Superior Court judge yesterday strongly recommended the former Johns Hopkins instructor serve his term on home confinement, and he pushed back the commencement of Lee’s two- to four-year sentence until Oct. 1 to coordinate such an arrangement with corrections officials.
“I’m not making any promises,” Judge Larry Smukler told Lee at his sentencing. “I don’t want this to be construed as a promise. But my guess is you would probably go on administrative home confinement, if not immediately, within a very short period of time.”
A prosecutor from the state attorney general’s office had asked for Lee to serve his sentence at the state prison, and he told the judge that Lee should pay for a portion of the steep costs associated with his incarceration himself. Attorney Sarah Blodgett called Lee a liar who billed for services on 400 separate occasions over more than eight years while he wasn’t living in New Hampshire.
“The defendant was not somebody who was stealing to put food in his mouth or in the mouths of his family members,” the prosecutor said. “He was living the high life. In June of 2006 he bought a $700,000 waterfront condo in Baltimore. . . . Bank records show that he traveled. He bought theater tickets when he was in Boston. He ate out at expensive restaurants. He got hair cuts at fancy salons.”
Lee first started billing for medical services – at the time, legally – in 1994 while a student at Dartmouth Medical School in Hanover, Blodgett said. Lee has been a quadriplegic since he was 18 after dislocating one of his cervical vertebrae in a gymnastics accident just days after earning a spot on Korea’s Olympic gymnastics team, according to a 2005 article in Johns Hopkins Medicine magazine.
Under a state program that allowed Lee to be responsible for hiring, firing and supervising his own care attendant, Lee began billing for services through Granite State Independent Living, a statewide agency that provides personal care services to people with disabilities. Then in 2003, Lee moved to Maryland.
According to Blodgett, he continued submitting time cards claiming the same caretaker he had employed in New Hampshire was still working for him 40 hours each week in Maryland.
That man told officials from the attorney general’s office that he had once considered moving to Maryland to care for Lee. At the time the two men set up a bank account, Blodgett said.
The move never materialized, but Lee kept the bank account open and had his Medicaid checks deposited there, she said. Bank records show Lee would then withdraw money from the account in the caretaker’s name and deposit it directly into his personal account, Blodgett said.
Granite State Independent Living did try to cut Lee off once, the prosecutor said.
In 2006, the group attempted to terminate his services because of his out-of-state residency, but Lee hired an attorney and fought back, Blodgett said.
“He submitted an affidavit where he swore that he intended to return to New Hampshire when he finished his residency,” she said. “He also swore that when he was in New Hampshire, he lived with his aunt at an address in Hanover.”
Blodgett said Medicaid investigators found that Lee has no relation to the people in that home. He used the same address on his driver’s license, she said. She also said the caretaker Lee was claiming to employ at some point became aware of the scheme and asked him to stop, a request Lee ignored.
The scheme came to an end in November 2011 when a Medicaid fraud analyst posing as a representative from Granite State Independent Living met Lee as he got off a plane at the Manchester airport. Lee told the analyst that while he was still living in Maryland, he considered New Hampshire to be his primary residence, Blodgett said.
Lee, who was working then as a part-time instructor in the Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, actually requested an increase in the hours he could bill during that meeting, Blodgett said. At the time he was billing 63 hours per week but requested seven more, she said.
When the Medicaid fraud investigator identified himself, Lee admitted to his crimes, Blodgett said. Over eight years, he had billed the state for more than 15,000 hours of service on 400 timecards, Blodgett said.
“Judge, this is what 400 timecards looks like,” Blodgett said yesterday, pointing to a stack of folders nearly a foot tall. “The defendant made the decision over 400 separate times to steal from the New Hampshire Medicaid program. He did not stop when he got married and his wife started performing those services for him. He did not stop when his daughter was born. . . . He stopped when he was caught.”
Lee’s attorney, Kevin Sharkey, disputed yesterday that Lee was living a life of luxury while committing fraud, saying he has attempted to sell the waterfront condo but hasn’t yet because it has depreciated in value. Instead, Sharkey said Lee is renting the condo while his family lives in a smaller apartment. Sharkey said Lee is “horrified by his own actions” and is personally committed to paying full restitution.
Lee made a sizeable start yesterday, turning over $110,000 in restitution to the attorney general’s office. Sharkey said much of that amount was pledged by friends and family members. The judge ordered Lee to pay the remaining $40,000 by Nov. 14.
Sharkey asked Smukler to consider Lee’s long history of community service before deciding on a sentence. But the attorney also asked the judge to consider the cost associated with incarcerating someone with Lee’s medical needs.
Sharkey said Lee can’t sit in a wheelchair for more than three hours at a time, is unable to sleep for more than four hours and has a catheter that needs to be changed regularly. A specialized wheelchair would cost the state up to $15,000, the attorney said.
“That’s not the only piece of specialized equipment that needs to be provided, not as a luxury for my client but in order for him to live. In order for him to be okay on a daily basis,” said Sharkey, who added that the prison would likely need to hire extra staff to care for Lee.
After taking a short break to consider the options, Smukler agreed Lee should serve his sentence on home confinement, an arrangement that would require him to move from Maryland, where he resides, to New Hampshire. Lee had expressed regret for his actions in a brief statement to the judge, and Smukler noted that he has taken accountability with his large restitution payment. But Smukler added that Lee didn’t stop his actions on his own accord.
“Look, this was not you succumbing to an impulse and then saying, ‘Oh my goodness, what have I done?’ This was a scheme that went on for years. And the state is absolutely right that it would be going on today if you had not been caught,” the judge said.
According to a 2005 article in the Baltimore Sun, Lee worked as a resident at Johns Hopkins. But it’s unclear whether he ever was licensed to work as a doctor. He does not hold licenses to practice in either New Hampshire or Maryland. And yesterday, his attorney said Lee will never be able to work as a doctor following his conviction.
Following his arrest, Lee was placed on an administrative leave at Johns Hopkins. A spokeswoman did not return a request for comment on Lee’s status there.