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Chiropractor Convicted of Chelation Fraud

Stephen Barrett, M.D.

On February 1, 2002, following a four-week trial, chiropractor Thomas R. Lawrence was convicted of 36 counts of mail fraud wire fraud, false claims, and money laundering resulting from the submission of more than $200,000 worth of false claims to Medicare. The jury found that Lawrence had submitted the claims from Biological Medical Center, Inc., a clinic he formerly owned and operated at 2222 East 18th Avenue in Denver. The claims were submitted for chelation therapy, in which EDTA and other substances are administered in a series of intravenous infusions. Intravenous chelation is a recognized treatment for some cases of poisoning with heavy metals such as lead. However, Lawrence provided it for purposes that Medicare considers "experimental" and does not cover.

The 1999 federal grand jury indictment charged Lawrence with deliberately misrepresenting the services provided at Biological Medical Center, knowing that Medicare would not cover chelation therapy for treating cardiovascular disease or the other generalized conditions for which patients sought treatment at the clinic. Rather than submitting claims under the correct code for chelation therapy, he pretended that he was treating patients suffering from "heavy metal toxicity" and received payments under billing codes for "intravenous infusion therapy" performed by, or under the direct supervision of, a physician.

The indictment also alleged that Lawrence submitted claims to Medicare under the Medicare provider number assigned to Dr. Lauren E. Mitchell, a Longmont, Colorado osteopath who worked at the clinic under a contract with Lawrence to give the appearance that the services were rendered by Dr. Mitchell or one of Dr. Mitchell's employees. The government contended at trial that Dr. Mitchell did not employ Lawrence and did not directly supervise him at the clinic. Dr. Mitchell died in Longmont, Colorado on November 8, 1997, at the age of 81.

The indictment also alleged that Lawrence billed Medicare for office examinations by a physician, when, in fact, he was the only person administering to the patient, and that he caused Medicare to be billed for laboratory tests that Biological Medical Center did not perform. The money laundering counts stem from Lawrence's use of a bank to promote the fraudulent scheme. Lawrence deposited the proceeds of the scheme at Norwest (now Wells Fargo) Bank and then used the funds to pay Dr. Mitchell and the clinic's rent, bookkeeping, accounting and advertising expenses.

The jury found Lawrence guilty on 4 counts of wire fraud, 14 counts of mail fraud, 5 counts of submitting false claims to the United States and 13 counts of money laundering. Two mail fraud counts contained in the indictment were dismissed by the court during trial.

In May 2002, Lawrence was sentenced to six years in federal prison and ordered to pay a special assessment of $3,600 plus the total amount ($118,000) he collected from Medicare.

The case was investigated by the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Office of the Inspector General for the Department of Health and Human Services and was prosecuted by Assistant United States Attorneys Kathleen Tafoya and Michael Theis.

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This article was revised on January 13, 2004.