Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Owner of Troubled Festus Nursing Home Admits Stealing Medicaid Funds

Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Owner of Troubled Festus Nursing Home Admits Stealing Medicaid Funds

Article excerpt

ST. LOUIS * How did conditions get so bad at a Festus nursing home last summer that the state needed to rescue 60 residents?

That question was finally answered in federal court on Wednesday. The owner admitted he stole more than $667,000 from Medicaid and spent much of it on strippers, gambling, pet care and country club fees.

Johnnie Mac Sells, 52, pleaded guilty on Wednesday in U.S. District Court to two counts of health care fraud. The accusations were first made public at the hearing. He could face 37 months in prison at sentencing, set for July 25. He also will have to pay back the money.

A Post-Dispatch investigation in September showed how Benchmark Healthcare, a nursing home on Highway TT, became a dirty and dangerous place as Sells, its president, faced a mountain of debt.

Bills went unpaid. The phones were shut off. Paychecks bounced. Trash piled up. Flies swarmed. And food deliveries stopped.

A patient advocate described the situation as "a disaster."

Missouri state health officials went to court in July to put Benchmark into emergency receivership. They backed down when food deliveries resumed, but in a follow-up visit in August, inspectors found that four residents were not getting medicines they needed for congestive heart failure, epilepsy and schizophrenia because pharmacy bills had not been paid in months.

On Sept. 13, the state finally took the rare step of closing the nursing home and relocating 60 residents to other facilities.

In court Wednesday, prosecutors revealed that for three years starting in 2013, Sells stole a large portion of funds provided by Medicaid for Benchmark residents, jeopardizing their health. During periods of 2014 and 2015, Sells used Benchmark's debit card to pay $185,000 at adult entertainment clubs and $15,000 on pet care. He also spent $4,500 at casinos and $12,000 at his country club.

He wrote company checks and made wire transfers totaling $439,000 into his personal accounts, separate from "the substantial salary that he was paid by Benchmark. …

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