Florida nursing home company settles COVID vaccination program fraud allegations for $1.75 million

by Ben Vernia | July 1st, 2022

On June 30, the Department of Justice announced that West Palm Beach-based MorseLife Health System, Inc., had agreed to settle allegations arising from a federal program to vaccinate long-term care residents and staff. According to DOJ’s press release:

The Justice Department announced today that MorseLife Health System Inc. (MorseLife) has agreed to pay the United States $1.75 million to resolve its potential liability under the False Claims Act for facilitating COVID-19 vaccinations for hundreds of individuals ineligible to participate in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) Pharmacy Partnership for Long-Term Care Program (LTC PPP), a program specifically designed to vaccinate long-term care facility (LTCF) residents and staff when doses of COVID-19 vaccine were in limited supply at the beginning of the CDC COVID-19 Vaccination Program. MorseLife is a not-for-profit corporation located in West Palm Beach, Florida, that oversees health care facilities on its campus, including a nursing home and an assisted living facility.

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The CDC announced the launch of the LTC PPP in October 2020. Because the LTCF population was at the highest risk of COVID-19 infections, the CDC created the LTC PPP to prioritize vaccinations of that population as quickly as possible and while vaccine availability was limited. Under this program, the CDC engaged with pharmacy partners to provide “end to end” management of the COVID-19 vaccination process, including conducting on-site vaccination clinics at the nursing homes and other LTCFs. Over 8 million vaccine doses were administered to LTCF residents and staff through this program.

MorseLife enrolled in the LTC PPP and scheduled its first vaccination clinic at MorseLife on Dec. 31, 2020 (the vaccination clinic) for residents and staff of the Joseph L. Morse Health Center, a skilled nursing facility on MorseLife’s campus. The settlement resolves allegations that MorseLife knew that the LTC PPP covered only LTCF residents and staff, but nevertheless invited and facilitated the vaccination of hundreds of ineligible persons at the clinic by characterizing them as “staff” and “volunteers,” many of whom MorseLife targeted for donations. Specifically, the United States alleged that MorseLife (1) characterized board members as “staff,” (2) directed the organization’s fundraising arm to invite donors and potential donors to the vaccination clinic, and (3) allowed the Vice Chairman of the MorseLife Health Systems Inc. Board and his brother to invite close to 300 ineligible individuals to receive the vaccine at MorseLife. 

First, MorseLife allegedly invited members of MorseLife’s various boards of directors to the vaccination clinic and characterized them as “staff.” The vast majority of these individuals were donors to MorseLife. In addition to actual board members, MorseLife invited emeritus board members, as well as board members’ spouses, children, family members and friends to the vaccination clinic. In one instance, MorseLife’s CEO sent a text message to an ineligible individual stating, “I will find you when you come in the morning and we’re going to make you an employee of Morse . . . Guarantee you get the vaccine.” In all, MorseLife facilitated the vaccination of 128 ineligible board members, and their family and friends (along with the other ineligible persons described below).   

Second, MorseLife’s CEO allegedly directed the MorseLife Foundation, the organization’s fundraising arm, to invite donors and potential donors to the vaccination clinic, encouraging Foundation employees to take advantage of the vaccination opportunity to target billionaires and millionaires for donations. For example, in one text message MorseLife’s CEO stated: “Of course go after the billionaires first hell we’re taking care of their life what the hell do you think you little boys and girls in the foundation go for the 25,000 I’ll go for the billions; I’m a little disappointed in the foundations mentality; I have delivered you 350 of the richest people in the country and you’re still thinking $25,000 gift . . . . Do not be weak be strong you have the opportunity to take advantage of everyone who needs the shot and figure out what they have and what we can go after and what their affinity [sic] as that’s what I would do [sic] I was running the foundation.”

Third, MorseLife’s CEO allegedly allowed the Vice Chairman of the MorseLife Health Systems Inc. Board and his brother to invite approximately 290 people to the vaccination clinic, none of whom lived or worked on the MorseLife campus and most of whom did not volunteer on MorseLife’s campus and had no prior affiliation with MorseLife. A significant number of these invitees were members of the same country club as the Vice Chairman and his brother, and some of the invitees flew to Florida just to get vaccinated at the clinic. As reflected in a MorseLife Foundation strategy document, “[t]his group was ‘recruited’ by [Vice Chairman and his brother] and owe allegiance to them at least as much as they owe it to us;” “[w]e allowed these people to be vaccinated mostly because [Vice Chairman and his brother] wanted us to;” “[t]hese prospects understand that and owe allegiance to [Vice Chairman and his brother] for arranging for them to get the vaccine;” and [w]e should use that allegiance to effectively get significant gifts from that group in a short amount of time.” The United States alleged that MorseLife falsely characterized donors and potential donors who had no previous affiliation with MorseLife, but were invited by the Foundation or the Vice Chairman and his brother, as “volunteers” for purposes of the LTC PPP.

Ultimately, the United States alleged that of 976 persons vaccinated at the Dec. 31, 2020, clinic, 567, or more than half, were ineligible to participate in the LTC PPP.   

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The case apparently arose from a government investigation, rather than a qui tam lawsuit brought by a whistleblower.

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