Crime & Courts

Jury acquits SC chiropractors in BlueCross BlueShield case

Federal jury acquits SC chiropractors of health care fraud conspiracy
Federal jury acquits SC chiropractors of health care fraud conspiracy

After an eight-day trial, a federal jury has acquitted two chiropractors of conspiring to cheat BlueCross BlueShield of South Carolina out of hundreds of thousands of dollars.

The chiropractors, John Pienkos II and Alexander Tomovski, both of Conway, faced up to 10 years in prison if they had been convicted.

“This case serves as a reminder that everyone in this country is innocent until proven guilty,” the chiropractors’ lawyers said in a statement.

“The investigation of this matter and the trial have come at great physical, emotional and financial expense to these two men and their families,” said defense lawyers Deborah Barbier, Mark Moore and Ian Duggan, all of Columbia.

In an interview Friday, Barbier said the federal probe, which lasted several years, had devastated the chiropractors’ once-thriving business.

“When the word got out they were under investigation — in a lot of peoples’ minds that means they are guilty — people stopped coming to their clinic,” Barbier said.

During the trial, Pienkos and Tomovski both took the witness stand and — blinking back tears at times — testified in their own defense, their lawyers said.

In all, more than 30 witnesses testified, including the chiropractors’ employees and former patients. Other evidence included bills and patients’ records.

The case was a rare trial defeat for the U.S. Attorney’s office in Columbia and the FBI, one of whose agents testified. In recent years, almost all federal criminal cases made in South Carolina have resulted in guilty pleas or convictions.

“We respect the jury’s verdict. We also appreciate the hard work and diligent efforts of our law enforcement partners and trial team in this investigation,” the U.S. Attorney’s office said in a statement.

The trial was held in Florence before U.S. District Judge Bryan Harwell. The jury deliberated about eight hours before delivering a verdict. The assistant U.S. attorneys prosecuting the case were Winston Holliday and Will Lewis.

According to the charges, the two chiropractors conspired from 2012 to 2016 to carry out a scheme whereby patients covered by BlueCross BlueShield made multiple visits to their clinic until they reached the coverage limits of their health insurance, “regardless of medical necessity.”

Under the scheme, the government alleged, the chiropractors were able to excessively bill Columbia-based BlueCross BlueShield of South Carolina at least $399,000.

Defense lawyers said the charges were “baseless allegations.” Moreover, government investigators harassed witnesses and mischaracterized their testimony in grand jury proceedings, they said.

BlueCross BlueShield is a major employer and provider of health insurance in South Carolina. The company has about 9,000 employees in the state.

Chiropractors specialize in therapy for back, neck and other aches by massages and physical manipulation of the body. Technically, they are not medical doctors, but they undergo extensive training and must be licensed.