some text Dr. Richard Burkich

A physician who relocated from Hixson to North Georgia over a previous medical licensing dispute has been sued for what federal attorneys charge are improper Medicare claims at Preventative Medicine Anti-Aging & Chelation, Inc., which operates in Ringgold and Atlanta.

In a false claims suit filed against Dr. Robert C. Burkich, the Department of Justice claims Burkich and his colleagues improperly billed Medicare for more than $3 million of chelation treatment even though Medicare pays for the treatment only in the rare instances of lead poisoning. Under the false claims act, Burkich's practice could be liable for treble damages, or more than $9 million. The lawsuit asks the court to impose civil penalties of $5,000 to $11,000 for each false claim the medical practice submitted to Medicare.

In a 71-page complaint filed in Atlanta, U.S. Attorney Byung J. Pak alleges that Burkish and other health care providers in his practice intravenously administered the chelation drug edetate calcium disodium (EDTA) to Medicare beneficiaries who were not suffering from lead poisoning as required for such Medicare-paid treatments.

"Since at least 2012, (Burkich an his colleagues) have knowingly presented claims to the United States in the form of bills for cherlation services to patients that do not meet the specified requirements of the American Medical Association," Pak said. "When healthcare providers falsely certify that the services they provide to patients are medically necessary, they deplete the resources available to Medicare beneficiaries that are actually in need of care."

Dr. Burkich admitted that he left Tennessee and relocated to Georgia because he felt that Tennessee restricted the use of EDTA to patients suffering from lead poisoning. He said he believed Georgia allowed EDTA to be utilized as an experimental treatment for a variety of conditions.

The Justice Department claims that Burkich advertised and administered EDTA as a treatment for a variety of conditions other than lead poisoning, such as heart disease, fatigue and osteoarthritis. But the regulators said that Medicare does not cover EDTA chelation therapy for alternative or experimental uses. 

The government lawsuit followed the filing of a qui tam suit by Dr. Stephen Barrett who made similar charges about the practices by Burkich. Barrett said his lawsuit was withdrawn within a few days, however, because the U.S. Attorney's office told Barrett that Burkich was already under investigation and therefore the suit by Barrett was not approvable for recovery payments under the False Claims Act.

Chelatin therapy is performed by administering the drug EDTA that binds to metallic particles or ions in the body and causes them to be excreted with urine. The EDTA drug is FDA-approved only for treating lead poisoning, but the lawsuit claims "the vast majority of practitioners who administer intravenous chelation in their offices are using it to purportedly treat cardiovascular disease, which Medicare will not pay. To get payment for the services, "chelationists "must use creative coding that attempts to disguise what they do," the suit claims.

Public health officials reported that in 2012 and 2013 there were no reported blood tests showing lead poisoning among patients 65 and older in the counties served by Dr. Burkich, even though Burkich and his colleagues billed Medicare for such treatment to 344 patients, according to the federal lawsuit filed last week.

The complaints were filed after an investigation by the Inspector General of Investigations in the region, Thomas W. South.

"We will not allow greed to impede beneficiaries' access to necessary, quality health services," Derrick L. Jackson, special agent in charge for the Office of Inspector General of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, said in a statement. "Our agents, working closely with our law enforcement partners, will continue to protect taxpayer dollars and vulnerable recipients of government healthcare programs."

No one returned calls Tuesday from the Preventative Medicine Anti-Aging & Chelation, Inc.

The false claims lawsuit against Burkich is not the first time the medical doctor has been in trouble with the law. In 2001, a Grand Jury in Chattanooga returned indictments against Burkich for his role in starting a dinner club called The Website which allegedly falsified the theft of automobiles to claim they were stolen for insurance purposes.

He had to perform 150 hours of community service and pay a $4,000 fine plus a $100 assessment.

Burkich lost his Georgia medical license in 2003 and his Tennessee medical license the following year. Tennessee reinstated his medical license in 2008, and Georgia restored his license in 2011.

Contact Dave Flessner or at 757-6340.

Story updated at 8:55 a.m. on Aug. 14: An earlier version incorrectly said that the Justice Department acted upon a petition by Dr. Stephen Barrett who also filed a lawsuit alleging improper Medicare payments for chelation treatments at the Preventative Medicine Anti-Aging & Chelation Inc. Barrett dropped that lawsuit after the U.S. Attorney's office said the Georgia medical practice was already under investigation for improper Medicare payments.