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Crookston Times - Crookston, MN
  • N.D. man ordered to pay $74,000 in Medicaid fraud case

  • A North Dakota man accused of lying about his mother's finances so she would qualify for Medicaid benefits was ordered Monday to reimburse the government for her expenses and pay a civil fine.
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  • A North Dakota man accused of lying about his mother's finances so she would qualify for Medicaid benefits was ordered Monday to reimburse the government for her expenses and pay a civil fine.
    Authorities say Donald Hochhalter, 65, of New Leipzig, understated the value of his mother's assets so she would qualify for government payments when she moved into a nursing home. He pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of making false statements.
    Hochhalter's plea agreement calls for him to repay about $37,000 the government spent on his mother's care. He was assessed a civil penalty of about $37,000.
    "Medicaid is designed to help those in need," U.S. Attorney Timothy Purdon said in a statement. "Because it is funded by a combination of federal and state funds, it is in everyone's interest to prevent fraud and abuse of the system."
    Defense attorney Justin Vinje said Hochhalter was confused about the ownership of certificates of deposit that were in his and his mother's names. Vinje said "at no time" did his client intend to defraud the government, but prosecutors needed only to prove a false statement.
    "The law seems a bit strict, but I suppose that most people confronted with this accusation will claim that some type of mistake has been made," Vinje told The Associated Press. "Without the need to prove an intent to defraud, the government has an easier time making its case."
    Special Assistant U.S. Attorney Matthew Greenley said in an interview that Hochhalter knew what he was doing when he filled out the paperwork and he "knowingly and willfully" checked a box labeled "no" when asked if he knew his mother had assets above the threshold for Medicaid eligibility.
    "We wouldn't have pursued criminal charges if we didn't think there was intent," Greenley said.
    Cliff Rhodes, an administrator with the North Dakota Department of Human Services, said prosecutors are not in the habit of prosecuting people who make honest mistakes on applications for government assistance.
    "This really isn't meant to scare them into not applying," Rhodes said. "Honestly they are given a lot of information and help by the county staff on eligibility when they are filling out these forms."
    U.S. District Judge Daniel Hovland sentenced Hochhalter to six months of probation. The charge carried a maximum penalty of a year in prison and five years of probation.
    Unlike many cases where restitution and fines are ordered, Hochhalter has the ability to pay the penalty, Vinje said.
    "Don strikes me as the epitome of thrift," the attorney said. "He lives in a modest trailer home. He does not have a computer or email. He does not have a cellphone. He lives very simply and frugally."
    Assistant U.S. Attorney James Thomas, who handled the civil portion of the case, said his office has placed a "renewed focus" on health care fraud cases and when appropriate will work with "both the criminal and civil side to get a good result."
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