The COVID-19 pandemic marks an intersection between public health and public safety. While dramatic strides towards the betterment of public health are essential, the public must be aware of how their safety could be compromised, and in turn take proper measures to protect their information and finances. On April 1st, TAF warned against the possibility of a rise in COVID-19 fraud across the country, including fake cures, phishing emails, and investment scams. Moreover, the race to find solutions to the current COVID-19 pandemic has greatly altered the landscape of American healthcare over the past couple of months. With the urgent push for a strong testing and contact tracing system, taxpayers have to be aware of ways in which this new public health crisis could be exploited in order to commit acts of fraud.
Cynthia Lucas, of the National Health Care Anti-Fraud Association, stated in a report by AARP about fraudulent testing sites emerging across the country that “where there is fear, there are dollars to be made.” While there is a sense of immediacy among the American public to keep themselves healthy and at the same time return to a sense of “normalcy,” it is important to safely pursue treatments and tests with guidance from government agencies such as the FDA and CDC.
The possibilities for fraud are already coming into focus. On June 9th, according the Department of Justice, the president of the Arrayit Corporation, Mark Schena, was charged with “alleged participation in schemes to mislead investors, to manipulate the company’s stock price and to conspire to commit health care fraud in connection with the submission of over $69 million in false and fraudulent claims for allergy and COVID-19 testing.” Moreover, Schena touted “an unproven COVID-19 test,” according to the Justice Department’s Criminal Division’s Assistant Attorney General Brian A. Benczkowski. The DOJ described this as the “first criminal securities fraud prosecution related to the COVID-19 pandemic.” This charge demonstrates the ways in which medical companies may utilize the public demand for tests and cures in order to enrich themselves.
Therefore, whistleblowers are more important than ever. In order to expose these schemes, it will take a robust effort in order to provide accountability for actions undertaken by private corporations during the course of the pandemic. However, whistleblowers must be protected as they call out fraud. A major step forward towards protecting whistleblowers was taken on June 15th with the introduction of the COVID-19 Whistleblower Protection Act by Sen. Kamala Harris.
This Act specifically aims to protect government funds put into use by the CARES Act, and in turn strengthen whistleblowers and government oversight. According to the National Law Review, “these provisions…would protect Americans who call out wrongdoing, protect against all retaliation, and establish a safe, secure, and anonymous process for whistleblowers’ claims to be investigated by OSHA.” This is especially important given that OSHA reported a total of 1,754 COVID-19 related claims as of June 18th.
Emma Bass is the current Public Interest Advocacy Fellow at Taxpayers Against Fraud Education Fund.