LOS ANGELES (CN) — A Southern California pharmacist will spend 15 years in federal prison following her conviction for defrauding the U.S. military health care plan Tricare out of more than $11 million.
Sandy Mai Trang Nguyen, 42, of Irvine, was also ordered to pay restitution to Tricare at her sentencing hearing Monday in federal court in Los Angeles.
U.S. District Judge Otis Wright II initially leaned toward a lower sentence, and the government had asked for no more than 10 years at the hearing, but the judge abruptly changed his mind when Nguyen declined to speak at the advice of her lawyer.
"I look forward to hearing from your client," the judge told her lawyer, Michael Khouri, earlier in the hearing. "We all know people are more than the crimes they commit."
But Khouri said Nguyen wouldn't make a statement, as defendants often do in a bid for leniency, because it might undermine the appeal of her conviction if she accepted responsibility at her sentencing. The lawyer argued Nguyen should be sentenced to only home confinement because, he said, she had been innocent bystander and hadn't profited from the fraud scheme ran by others.
A jury convicted Nguyen this past November on 21 counts of health care fraud and one count of obstructing a federal audit. She was the head pharmacist at Irvine Wellness Pharmacy in Irvine, which under her supervision filled about 1,150 compounded prescriptions for pain, scarring and migraines that Tricare reimbursed for tens of thousands of dollars per prescription.
Nearly all of the prescriptions were bogus and sent to the pharmacy by so-called marketers who were paid kickbacks of as much as 50% of the reimbursements the pharmacy received from Tricare.
"This was no shrinking violet caught up in someone else's scheme," Wright told her lawyer in rejecting his argument that Nguyen was an innocent bystander with just a minor role in the scheme. "She was a willing and active participant — she was the pharmacist in charge."
The government says Nguyen knew the prescriptions were purportedly written by physicians in states other than where the beneficiaries lived, that multiple members of the same families received the same medications, and that the same prescriptions were written for members of different patient populations, including a 13-year-old boy in Chicago who got the same prescription as an 86-year-old woman in Orange County who happened to be Nguyen’s grandmother.
"This scheme could not have worked unless defendant was involved because, unlike the other participants of this criminal scheme, defendant was a licensed pharmacist who was entrusted with abiding by the law," prosecutors said in their sentencing memorandum.
Nguyen was also convicted for obstructing a federal audit by providing bogus, cut-and-pasted prescriptions to cover-up Tricare’s effort to validate millions of dollars paid for the same prescriptions.
Her attorney described her as a devoted wife and mother of two children who just went to work and filled prescriptions she believed were properly approved.
"This is the first she's been involved with the law," Khouri said. "She's not just a defendant — she's a mother, and a wife and a human being. She's the most important person in the lives of the people she's with every day."
But even if the judge appeared moved by the lawyer's plea, that changed quickly when he was told Nguyen wouldn't speak at the hearing. Wright denied her request for bail while she appeals her conviction and sentence and instead ordered her to be remanded to custody straightaway.Follow @edpettersson
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