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U.S. authorities have charged 49 Russian diplomats and their spouses with conspiracy to commit healthcare fraud, alleging that they stole $1.5 million from the American government via a years-long Medicaid scam.

According to a criminal complaint made public today, the former and current diplomats lied about their income and citizenship status in order to qualify for the health benefits, which they used towards pregnancy care, births, and post-natal medical needs. They were also charged with conspiracy to steal government funds and make false statements relating to health care matters, reports the Associated Press. The complaint notes that medical costs associated with 92 percent of births to Russian diplomats (58 out of 63, from 2004 to 2013) were illegally covered by the U.S. government. 

The FBI conducted an 18-month investigation which led to the charges, and found that the families spent tens of thousands of dollars on luxury goods and vacations while exploiting Medicaid funds. Only 11 of the diplomats charged are currently in the United States. The State Department would need permission from the Kremlin to prosecute the defendants, as they are protected by diplomatic immunity.

The entire incident sets up the potential for diplomatic strife between Moscow and Washington, which have not had a good year relations-wise. (See also: Snowden, Syria, Adoptions, Iran ...

The New York Times calls the incident an "unusual twist in what has become a familiar criminal storyline in New York." The Times says that Medicaid fraud in New York has historically been prevalent among immigrants from the former Soviet Union: 

Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, the center of New York City’s Russian-speaking immigrant population, has one of the highest rates of health care fraud in the nation, according to federal statistics. An analysis of data from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, the federal agency that regulates those two programs, shows that more health care providers in the Brighton Beach ZIP code are currently barred from the programs for malfeasance than in almost any other ZIP code in the United States.

Last week, a California-based company that operates nursing homes agreed to pay $48 million over allegations that it had committed Medicaid fraud for more than a decade. 

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.

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