CHICAGO — The Minnesota Attorney General's Office filed a consumer-protection lawsuit Wednesday against a nationwide chain of coronavirus testing sites for "deceptive and fraudulent practices."
The suit alleges the Illinois-based Center for COVID Control and its primary lab, Doctors Clinical Lab, collected samples from Minnesotans for coronavirus testing but either failed to deliver test results or delivered test results that were false or inaccurate, according to the complaint reviewed by USA TODAY.
The company and its lab "provide inaccurate and deceptive test result information to Minnesota consumers and have fraudulently reported negative test results to consumers that never completed COVID-19 tests," according to the complaint. Some test results listed "the wrong test type and false dates and times for when samples were collected from consumers," the complaint said.
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The Center for COVID Control, which says it has more than 300 locations nationwide and collects more than 80,000 tests a day, is also under investigation by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, and the Illinois Attorney General's Office.
The Oregon Department of Justice is investigating the company on suspicion of Unfair Trade Practices Act violations. Multiple state health departments, as well as a coalition of regional Better Business Bureau offices, are looking into the company.
The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services has documented numerous "deficiencies" at the company's main lab, Doctors Clinical Lab, which has been reimbursed more than $124 million from the federal government's COVID-19 uninsured program, according to public data. Private health insurers also paid the lab.
The Center for COVID Control "is owned and/or managed" by Illinois residents Akbar Syed and Aleya Siyaj, the complaint says. In recent months, the couple has purchased a number of luxury vehicles and a $1.36 million mansion.
A Center for COVID Control spokesperson did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the complaint.
The Minnesota complaint jointly charges the company and lab on four counts, including false advertising, failure to obtain a certificate of authority from the Minnesota Secretary of State and multiple violations of the Prevention of Consumer Fraud Act and the Uniform Deceptive Trade Practices Act.
According to the complaint, Center for COVID Control and Doctors Clinical Lab staff "represented to the federal government that Minnesota consumers with private or public insurance were actually uninsured."
The company and lab instructed employees to examine consumers' reported insurance information and to select the appropriate insurance from a drop-down menu with a limited list of companies, including a "default" option of "uninsured," according to the complaint.
The drop-down menu did not contain "most, if not all," Minnesota insurance companies, so the company and lab instructed employees to simply select "uninsured," which the company and lab used to support submitting a claim to the federal government for reimbursement, according to the complaint.
"Defendants, through owner Siyaj, instructed employees to 'streamline' data entry by entering the name of a patient and immediately hit a series of keys that would input defaults for the remaining entries, including defaulting a patient’s insurance information to 'uninsured,'" the complaint says.
The company and lab's Director of Operations also instructed employees to "begin falsely post-dating samples, in order to make them appear to be more recent than they actually were, and to continue sending such samples to the lab for processing," the complaint says.
"If a consumer called multiple times, employees were instructed to falsely tell consumers that the test result had been inconclusive and that they needed to take another test," the complaint says, allowing the company and labs to bill for the test and to encourage patients to take another test for the company to bill.
The complaint includes several reports of people receiving test results without ever taking a test. One account alleges a person filled out the testing site’s online form Jan. 2 but left the site before getting tested since the line was too long. That night, the person received an email with the results of a rapid antigen test, which were negative.
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The Minnesota Attorney General's Office is seeking injunctive relief, civil penalties of up to $25,000 per violation, fees and restitution and disgorgement for Minnesota consumers, Assistant Attorney Jason Pleggenkuhle said in a press conference Wednesday.
"Even though these were free sites, there are out-of-pocket losses for Minnesota consumers," Pleggenkuhle said. "Lots of consumers we've heard from had to go obtain tests elsewhere, sometimes paying for tests elsewhere, missing work because they can't show up at work. So there's additional restitution for consumers at issue in the case."
The Center for COVID Control's principal and mailing address is in Rolling Meadows, Illinois. The company says it "primarily uses" Doctors Clinical Lab as a clinical testing vendor partner. According to public records, the lab is registered with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration at the same Rolling Meadows address.
The Center for COVID Control launched in 2020. The company began offering pop-up testing sites in Minnesota in late fall 2021, according to the complaint. There were at least eight sites operating in Minnesota, Assistant Attorney General Noah Lewellen said.
The Minnesota Department of Health began receiving complaints in December, and the department "observed that it had not received any COVID-19 test results" from the company or lab, the complaint says.
"We brought action as quickly as we could," Pleggenkuhle said.
Last week, the company announced a nationwide "one-week pause on all operations," running through Friday, Jan. 21. In Minnesota, the company is switching to only providing rapid antigen tests at home for self-testing, Lewellen said. The Minnesota Attorney General's Office "will monitor the situation to see if that changes," he said.
The office would not comment on if a criminal investigation is pending.
"Here's what I will tell you, we are investigating all avenues for accountability," Attorney General Keith Ellison said.
Ellison thanked Minnesota residents for coming forward with complaints, as well as the media for "shedding light" on the situation.
"I want to encourage people who know or who have information about these companies to continue to come forward, whether you are a consumer or former employee," Ellison said.
Meanwhile, the Illinois Attorney General's Office has opened an investigation and "will follow evidence and tips where they lead," spokesperson Tori Joseph told USA TODAY Wednesday.
"We have contacted the company to demand that it immediately stop engaging in any deceptive or fraudulent conduct relating to impermissible charges or when testing results will be received, and to confirm that it is in compliance with Illinois’ law," Joseph said.
Joseph added: "While we are committed to conducting our investigation as efficiently as possible, our first priority is a thorough investigation that will result in an outcome that best protects Illinois residents."
Told about the Minnesota complaint Wednesday, Christina Morales, 29, a former Center for COVID Control employee who spoke with USA TODAY about her time working at the main office, said, "Finally."
"I am glad people are speaking out and understand how serious this is," Morales said.
If you have more information about the Center for COVID Control or Doctors Clinical Lab, contact reporter Grace Hauck at email@example.com. People can also contact the Minnesota Attorney General's Office at 651-296-3353.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Center for COVID Control faked test results, Minnesota AG lawsuit says