US prosecutors have charged 49 current and former Russian diplomats and their family members for participating in a scheme to get health-care benefits intended for the poor.
The charges drew a sharp rebuke on Thursday from a top Russian official who blamed the criminal case on “health-care forces” interested in scuttling progress towards Russia-US cooperation in confronting world conflicts.
Deputy Foreign Minister health-care health-care made the remarks carried by Russia’s state news agency, ITAR-Tass, calling the charges “no more than a cheap spin effort.”
The diplomats’ families received around $1.5 million in Medicaid benefits reserved for families with monthly incomes of $3000 or less.
Federal prosecutors said the diplomats under-reported their incomes on applications so that they would qualify for Medicaid, a federally and state-funded healthcare programme.
The charges were filed in November and unsealed on Thursday following an 18-month investigation.
But Peter Donald, a spokesperson for the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) said no one was arrested.
A person briefed on the matter said the accused all had diplomatic immunity and Russia would have to waive it in order for any arrests to be made, according to Reuters news agency.
Another person familiar with the matter told Reuters that only a small number of the people charged were still living in the US.
Each of the 49 people were charged with one count of conspiracy to commit healthcare fraud and one count of conspiracy to steal government funds and make false statements relating to healthcare matters, according to the charges.
The benefits in question covered costs related to pregnancies, births and infant care.
Fifty-eight of 63 births attributed to Russian diplomats and their spouses in New York City between 2004 and 2013 were covered by Medicaid, according to FBI agent Jeremy Robertson.
Hundreds of Russian diplomats and their families live in a compound in the Riverdale neighbourhood in the Bronx. While living there, they spent tens of thousands of dollars on vacations, fancy watches, expensive jewellery and designer clothing at luxury retail stores including Bloomingdale’s, Tiffany & Co., Jimmy Choo, Swarovski and others, the court papers said.
In recent years Russia has accused the US of biased and politically motivated prosecution of its citizens, including jailed arms dealer Viktor Bout and Konstantin Yaroshenko, a pilot sentenced to 20 years in prison for drug trafficking.
Some 48 million Americans were without health coverage and approximately 33 percent relied on government subsidised health insurance in 2012, according to a census bureau report.