News 4 Investigates: St. Louis medical ethics professor on probation for Medicare fraud

Published: Feb. 16, 2023 at 10:33 PM CST
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ST. LOUIS (KMOV) -- Students at a St. Louis medical school are questioning why they were never informed that their medical ethics professor had a felony conviction for something unethical.

Dr. Annessa Blackmun has a lot to say in lessons posted on her YouTube channel, “Dr. Annessa Said Sow.” It’s what the St. Louis area podiatrist turned university professor isn’t talking about, a felony for Medicare fraud, that had one student turn to News 4 Investigates.

“I just don’t want this to continue with the deceit and with her getting away with it,” said the student, speaking to News 4 Investigates anonymously. “I’m terrified of backlash, terrified, terrified that they will even dismiss from school because of this.”

The student takes classes at Ponce Health Sciences University. It’s a for-profit university based in Puerto Rico and recently opened a campus near downtown St. Louis. It offers a medical school and a master’s program, which is typically taken by students trying to get into medical school or other professional programs.

According to the student, many students take classes online and some attend classes on campus. One of the student’s courses includes medical ethics taught by Blackmun. The student claims Blackmun’s unethical past was never mentioned to them, and they want to know why.

When asked why they contacted News 4 Investigates, the student responded, “I think it’s important to say something because they have been deceiving us for a very long time.”

Blackmun’s picture is one of the first you’ll see on Ponce Health Sciences University’s website. Her biography on the school’s website says she is a practicing doctor and assistant professor. One of her listed classes is medical ethics. Blackmun’s biography does not say that she’s currently on probation for a federal felony for Medicare fraud.

According to a federal indictment, while Blackmun treated patients at several St. Louis-area nursing homes, she billed Medicare for “false reimbursement claims.”

In March 2018, Blackmun pled guilty to one count of Medicare fraud. She was sentenced to five years of probation and ordered to pay back more than $82,000 in restitution.

Federal investigators claim Blackmun worked for Chicago-based Aggeus Healthcare. In a separate case, the now defunct medical group was accused in court records of billing for services they knew patients didn’t need and making millions in the process. Multiple executives were sentenced to prison and ordered to pay back a combined total of nearly $10 million.

Ponce Health Sciences University leaders wouldn’t talk to News 4 Investigates. Instead, President and CEO Dr. David Lenihan sent a page-long statement writing, “We knew of Dr. Annessa Blackmun’s legal background when she was hired. We also know that she is a talented physician and professor who’s been given a second chance to train tomorrow’s most dedicated physicians.”

News 4 Investigates learned nothing requires schools to disclose a professor’s background.

“I can understand if you are an ethics professor and you’re like ‘I did this, learn from my mistakes,’ and you’re upfront about it, that’s fair. But she acted like she never did anything wrong,” the student said.

News 4 Investigates started searching records and learned the felony conviction led to Blackmun not being able to practice medicine in Illinois anymore. Her license was “indefinitely suspended.”

Blackmun can still practice medicine in Missouri. The Missouri Board of Registration for the Healing Arts oversees medical licenses. A federal felony is something a doctor can lose their license over in Missouri. The Board of Registration for the Healing Arts would not comment on Blackmun’s case or say if it was aware of her felony conviction. A spokeswoman sent the following statement:

“Notifications of a licensee being charged with a felony charge can be received multiple ways, including a licensee self-reporting the information, via written complaints from an individual, referrals from other state boards, or other state agencies.

During a licensee’s renewal, they are required to answer a series of questions, including, “Since your last application, have you been arrested, charged, indicted, found guilty, or entered a plea of guilty, an Alford plea of no contest, or plea of nolo contendere, in a criminal prosecution in any state, federal, or municipal court, whether or not a sentence was imposed, including suspended imposition of sentence or suspended execution of sentence, except for minor traffic violations? Alcohol related traffic violations must be reported.”

News 4 Investigates spent weeks trying to reach Blackmun through emails, calls, and even stopping by the university. Blackmun never responded.

The statement from Ponce Heath Sciences University said, " She has acknowledged the mistake, taken responsibility, and is moving forward. That is the kind of character that motivated us to open Ponce Health Sciences University. She took responsibility, which is a great lesson for our students.”

News 4 Investigates keeps asking Ponce Heath Sciences University why it didn’t tell students about Blackmun’s past. The university didn’t include that answer in its statement.

“Disclosure is a huge part of education and really medicine in general,” said Dr. Michael Walls, the national president of the American Medical Student Association (AMSA).

AMSA is an advocacy group known for helping students.

“I do think it’s definitely something that needs to be disclosed at the very least,” Walls said. “Doesn’t necessarily change the content of the course but I think it gives students the opportunity to reflect on who they’re hearing it from and making sure there’s no intrinsic bias.”

While Walls is calling for accountability, he says that’s all students can do. When asked how to make sure this doesn’t happen, Walls responded, “Unfortunately, I don’t really know if there’s an easy way for students to know that ahead of time. Occasionally through word of mouth, you can hear about some weird things that professors have done in the past.”

While nothing can change the past, the Ponce student speaking to News 4 questions the education they paid for.

“In total, I’m paying about $80,000,” the student said. “They’re not the only program out there, we could have gone to a different program, spent our money elsewhere without being tricked like this.”

Blackmun’s probation ends in March 2023.

News 4 Investigates asked other local medical schools if they have any professors with felony charges. One university responded and said that they don’t and that they actively check staff members’ backgrounds.

A Ponce Health Sciences University spokeswoman told News 4 the university now plans on telling students about Blackmun’s past, and has already done so. The student News 4 talked to said they haven’t heard that yet.