Arrests made in nursing fraud ring

The Associated Press
Tuesday July 09, 2002

LOS ANGELES — State Justice Department officials arrested more than 70 people in the last three months in a probe of a fraud ring that allegedly infiltrated the state’s nursing assistant testing system and issued assistant certificates to unqualified people. 

As a result of the scheme nursing homes throughout the city unwittingly hired dozens of unqualified nurse assistants, officials said. State health officials have so far revoked 124 certificates for nursing assistants. 

“It’s a new crime of opportunity,” said Deputy Attorney General Mark Zahner. “There are people out there so motivated by greed that they take advantage of the job situation and the elderly and infirm. They don’t care that they’re putting lives at risk by sticking people in nursing homes under false pretenses and putting them into a position to really hurt somebody.” 

More cases are likely to surface. The California Department of Health Services and the Justice Department confirmed that other probes were under way but declined to reveal specifics, the Los Angeles Times reported Monday. 

The fraud was made possible in part by a shortage of certified nurse assistants, who perform 70 percent of all hands-on patient care while earning the least of all nursing staff — on average $9.17 per hour in 2000. 

Seventy-six people have been charged so far with paying for a nurse assistant certificate and then using the credential to find work at nursing homes.  

Officials expect another 20 or so arrests before the investigation is closed. 

Two of the key figures in the case, Juan Carlos Cano, 25, and Carole Ann Lopez, 40, pleaded no contest last month to felony charges that they orchestrated the scheme. Both were sentenced to 300 days in jail and five years’ probation, and together they owe nearly $100,000 in fines and restitution. 

Cano, a licensed vocational nurse, recruited non-English-speaking Latinos to take the state-mandated, English-only test, authorities said. For a fee of as much as $500, “applicants” took the exam at South Orange County Community College, where Lopez, a registered nurse, taught classes and proctored the certified nurse assistant test for a private company contracted by the state. 

Lopez doctored the scores before sending them to the Department of Health Services, which unwittingly issued certificates based on the bogus results. Over the course of a year, the “proctor and doctor” scheme netted the pair more than $32,000. 

The scheme was found out when a nursing home administrator called authorities at DHS questioning how an employee who didn’t read or speak English passed the test.