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Thursday night, the Illinois Attorney General announced that the Center for COVID Control is closed due to pending investigations. All the testing sites were closed on January 14, facing state and federal inspections.
The company was set to reopen some sites on Friday, however, the leaders have decided to remain closed for the “foreseeable future,” after they were contacted by the Illinois Attorney General. Therefore, it is not clear when the company will reopen testing sites.
The company is based in Rolling Meadows but boasts 300 locations around the United States. The Center for COVID Control has been paid over $124 million to process more than 400,000 tests.
Pending Investigations Into the Center for COVID Control
In recent weeks, the Center for COVID Control has come under intense review. Earlier this week, the Minnesota Attorney General filed a lawsuit against the company. On Saturday, the FBI joined the Illinois Attorney General’s Office, and others from across the United States, in the investigation by searching the suburban headquarters in Rolling Meadows.
The federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services stated that the Illinois lab has the most violations and requested the Center for COVID Control close its doors.
According to Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raoul:
Complaints have ranged from testing results being delayed or not received at all, to results being provided to individuals who were never administered a test, to tests being stored improperly, and staff incorrectly using [personal protective equipment] and face masks.
Last week, Block Club published an 81-page report from the Centers of Medicare and Medicaid Services that showed “deficiencies” and “non-compliance” at the company’s lab, called Doctors Clinical Lab. It was slated for “immediate jeopardy” after investigators noticed the lab’s mistakes led to the wasting of tens of thousands of PCR tests, workers were not processing the rapid tests correctly, and among other infractions, the lab was not storing the test samples properly. These are only a few of the issues listed in the report.
Allegations Being Faced by the Center for COVID Control
Former employees of the Center for COVID Control told Block Club they were instructed to lie to people, keep tests in unrefrigerated bags, and bill the tests to the federal government when the customer had private insurance.
A spokesperson for the Illinois Center for COVID Control denies the allegations and states that employees are focusing on their training and complying with regulations, even though they have experienced challenges with the recent surge.
In late 2021, the company acknowledges it struggled with the Omnicron surge due to operational strains and customer service challenges, according to spokesperson Russ Keene. He wrote in an email Wednesday that the leaders of the company voluntarily called for a seven-day pause on collections nationwide. This was in order to reset operational aspects of the Center for COVID Control and ensure accurate tests are being conducted.
Former employees state the company was struggling to keep up and had issues months before the Omnicron variant was first detected in the U.S. on November 26.
Possible Misallocation of Funds?
In the meantime, company leaders spent $1.36 million on a home, and they have boasted online about purchasing cars, such as a Ferrari, for $3.7 million. Akbar Syed, a leader for the Center for COVID Control, bragged about the money he could spend on luxury vehicles thanks to “COVID money.”
The Rise and Fall of the Center for COVID Control
In December 2020, the Center for COVID Control was registered with Illinois by CEO Aleya Siyaj. By spring, the company had only a few testing sites and was able to get results to people within a few days, according to former employees.
However, in the past few months, the number of testing sites has grown immensely to hundreds. Some of these testing centers are independently owned under the umbrella of the company. The PCR samples are sent to the Doctors Clinical Lab, which is owned by the company and is located in Rolling Meadows, along with the Center for COVID Control headquarters.
Former employees claim that as more testing centers opened, the lab became overwhelmed and issues began to arise. Currently, the lab and center are undergoing several investigations.
On December 8, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services reported that the lab could not accurately collect PCR samples without more personnel. Additionally, Doctors Clinical Lan did not have enough freezers and over 41,000 tests went without being processed.
The allegations assert that the lab did not run quality control tests on the machine used to analyze the samples, workers did not follow the guidelines for the rapid tests, governmental authorities were not properly informed of test results, and the report concluded that confidentiality was not maintained throughout the testing and reporting process.
Block Club states that many states’ attorney general’s offices heard complaints about the company and their lab. The Better Business Bureau (BBB) is also looking into complaints about the Center for COVID Control, according to the president of the agency’s Chicago division, Steve Bernas. The BBB has rated the company with the lowest grade possible – an F.
Representatives from the Illinois Attorney General’s Office and the Illinois Department of Public Health also stated they are investigating complaints against the Center for COVID Control.
The Minnesota Attorney General’s office reports they have filed a lawsuit against the company for falsified results, not sending some people their results, and some people receiving late test results, while others did not receive any outcome at all.
Possible Fraudulent Billing Practices at Center for COVID Control
Questions have also been raised about the billing practices of the company. The Doctors Clinical Lab bills insurance companies for the tests or seeks reimbursement from the federal government to make money. Block Club reviewed some insurance statements, and in several instances, the company billed insurance companies $325 for a PCR test, $50 for a rapid test, $50 for collecting a person’s sample, and $80 for a “supplemental fee.” Additionally, the testing sites are paid by the lab for providing samples.
Syed presented employees with a video in January. In the video, he says they will discontinue the PCR tests but continue the rapid tests for $5. However, he says they will continue to make $28.50 off each rapid test. Whenever money flows between the provider and any type of “patient” there is cause for concern, according to CEO of Taxpayers Against Fraud Jeb White.
The statute prohibits organizations from receiving money in exchange for things like referring patients or patronage to a lab.
Allegations About the Company From Employees
A group of former employees expressed concerns as soon as they started with the Center of COVID Control. The company’s working conditions worsened as it expanded.
Former employee Christine Morales states her concerns began when they received more tests than they could process in a day. Unprocessed tests were placed in trash bags and left around the office. Eventually, the company purchased biohazard bags but samples were left unrefrigerated for days. Morales states that by December, it was difficult to walk around the office due to all the trash bags. It was common for staff to have five or six bags behind their desks to process, and they were a week behind getting tests completed.
Former employees report the samples went so long without being refrigerated, Lack of refrigeration would kill the samples leaving a false negative result.
Inspectors from the Illinois Department of Public Health came into the office and employees were instructed to load the bags of specimens into a U-Haul parked out back, states Morales. Other bags were placed in a backroom.
The week of December 10, an employee was going through specimens and found that some were dated as far back as November 26. The employee wrote in an affidavit that she was told the samples went too long without being refrigerated and were “dead.” Therefore, she reached out to a manager to learn what to do with them.
She was told to record the data and send the dead samples to the lab to be tested anyway. Additionally, the manager instructed her to change the dates on the samples so they would appear recent.
When people reported to the call center that they had not received their test results, employees were told to explain to them that their test was “inconclusive.” This practice was done even when the samples had not yet been tested in the lab. People were told to have another test.
Other people called to ask why the Doctors Clinical Lab had found them negative for COVID, while another lab found them to be positive, according to Morales.
And I’m thinking, ‘Oh my God, these people are positive. They’re just not getting their test run at the right time. Their test is a dead sample, most likely, because it was sitting out for hours and days. This is ridiculous,’ the former employee said.
Normally, employees would gather data about a patient, including insurance information, and fill in missing details. However, when they were backed up, they were told to pull up what they had, “save and print,” without verifying any of the data or adding the missing information.
This lack of action would cause the bill for the test to automatically go to the government, even if the person had private insurance. Morales left in December and states the “save and print” resolution had been a common action since August. On a busy night, they would have up to 7,000 “save and prints.’
Additional Issues Reported by Former Employees
Former employees state there were times the computer software malfunctioned preventing workers from accessing a client’s information, therefore, workers were unable to properly bill insurance companies. There were times when data had to be entered manually. The only information employees collected from the client was their name, birth date, and email address. This would automatically bill the government for the COVID test, even if the client had private insurance. The money for the test would come from the COVID Relief Fund.
In an affidavit, the former employee wrote:
I would estimate that I selected the HRSA COVID-19 relief fund for over 90 [percent] of the COVID-19 PCR tests I entered into the [Center for COVID Control] database, because the consumers (from across the country) did not enter any insurance information, entered partial insurance information, or entered insurance information about a provider that was not available for me to select from the drop-down menu of” the database.
Complaints From Clients
People across the United States who were tested at the Center for COVID Control sites have raised questions concerning a multitude of issues.
- Dirty sites
- Long lines
- Crowded rooms
- Employees not wearing gloves and masks
- Employees charging for free tests
- Clients told to say they do not have insurance
- Receiving timely results
- Giving accurate results
- Results that did not make sense
On December 22, Robert McNees of Rogers Park went to a site with his family. When they arrived they witnessed that the site was “chaotic” and “overcrowded.” Additionally, they were not given any instructions. The family decided to leave without taking or returning the tests. Five hours later, they received an email with negative results for each family member.
At a chain in Kalamazoo, Michigan, Kristen Wylie tested five times over a two-week period. On December 20, her partner tested positive for COVID with a rapid test. They both tested negative days later, however, when they went to another pharmacy, they were informed their test results were positive.
Jacob Bennett took a rapid test in the Lakeview area on December 21. He has still not received his results. He reports:
It’s not useful if they don’t give you the results that were promised. I don’t have any reason to think that the actual testing is problematic — but not getting a result defeats the entire purpose.
A woman in Denver took a rapid and a PCR test at a Center for COVID Control site in Colorado. On October 18 her rapid test came back positive. However, the company she worked for required results from a PCR test. When the woman called the center for her results, she was on hold for an hour and a half before she was able to speak to someone. Once she spoke with a worker, she was essentially told “we don’t know.”
A week later, she received a negative result. However, the test she took at a state-run site read positive. Out of the three tests she took that week, the only negative result came from the Center for COVID Control. Her concern is other people are not taking multiple tests, therefore, they could be spreading the virus unknowingly.
Making Money From COVID
Morales states that the company did not discuss slowing down or expanding its staff. A few more employees were added to the team but not enough to handle the caseload. Tests were taking five more days to process. The company grew quickly, but it did not hire the staff to accommodate the expansion.
Another former employee said there were “issues” taking calls from clients. Additionally, more workers were hired but not enough.
Leaders of the Center for COVID Control openly talked about the money they made from the tests. At one point, they were bringing in $1 million a day, according to Morales and another former employee.
In an affidavit, a former employee wrote:
I heard [Syed] talking to one of the … managers about how he made $4 million that week, and I heard them discussing which new cars they were planning to buy. I felt disgusted to hear [Syed and the Center for COVID Control] were making so much money from COVID-19 testing, when the samples were so often not processed or not processed accurately.
Syed has posted regularly on social media about purchasing luxury cars with “covid money.” In November, Siyaj bought a $1.36 million home. Syed has posted about purchasing several expensive vehicles including a $3.7 million Ferrari.
There is a post showing Syed on a car auction site bidding $400,000 on a Lamborghini. Someone asked him what he did for a living. His August 17 response:
My axe throwing lounges were forced shut by the gov due to covid,. So I opened up a covid testing site than bought the lab and now i have 65 sites.
Syed has publically posted on social media about purchasing luxury cars with COVID money several times.
On December 20, Syed was criticized because a client had been waiting two weeks for test results. He responded by saying they were ready for the surge now and requested a second chance.
The Center for COVID Control still advertises PCR tests on their website, however, they are only conducting rapid tests to keep up with the demand. Syed told site owners with the Center for COVID Control that the lab cannot continue the PCR tests due to high demand. On January 6, Syed posted a video from his wedding video business account on YouTube. He said they had to cease the PCR tests because the company was overwhelmed. In the video, he states the company was doing 10,000 PCR tests a day.
Written by Jeanette Vietti
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