The text message from the chief executive of MorseLife Health System, a luxury nursing home in West Palm Beach, Fla., was unambiguous.
“Of course go after the billionaires first,” the CEO wrote to the facility’s fundraisers in December 2020, explaining who should get priority for scarce coronavirus vaccine shots intended for residents and staffers.
He advised: “Do not be weak be strong you have the opportunity to take advantage of everyone who needs the shot and figure out what they have and what we can go after . . .”
“I’ll go for the billions,” he promised.
Eighteen months later, MorseLife has agreed to pay $1.75 million to settle claims that it defrauded a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention program that sought to steer limited vaccine doses to the most vulnerable Americans in late 2020 and early 2021, according to the Justice Department, which released excerpts of the text messages. The CEO goes unnamed by the government, which is customary, but MorseLife records identify him as Keith Myers, who recently received annual compensation of about $1.5 million, according to a tax filing. Myers did not respond to emails, text messages and a phone call seeking comment.
A spokeswoman for MorseLife, Rebecca Houck, issued a statement saying, “MorseLife strongly denies the allegations set forth by the government but chose to settle this matter to avoid the expense and distraction of protracted litigation.”
The Washington Post revealed in January last year that the facility had directed vaccine doses earmarked for residents and staffers of long-term care facilities to wealthy donors and board members. Multiple people who did not live at the facility, a nonprofit that promises a “five-star senior lifestyle,” described being vaccinated at the invitation of the CEO. “He asked me if I wanted to have a vaccine,” one donor said. “I’m one of the people who has given him some money.”
Houck did not address follow-up questions about what donors told The Post or evidence quoted in the government’s release.
After The Washington Post’s revelations, Republican Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis directed the state’s chief inspector general to conduct an investigation in conjunction with the state health department. People familiar with the case said agents with the inspector general’s office at the Department of Health and Human Services also began conducting interviews.
Justice Department officials said Thursday that the case demonstrated the consequences for those misusing “vital pandemic relief programs for their own financial gain.”
“This specific vaccination program was designed to protect some of the nation’s most vulnerable individuals at a critical time when the covid-19 pandemic was devastating that population,” Brian Boynton, the head of the Justice Department’s Civil Division, said in a news release about the settlement.
The Justice Department said MorseLife facilitated the vaccination of ineligible people by falsely characterizing them as nursing home staffers and volunteers. All told, 567 of the 976 people vaccinated at a Dec. 31, 2020, clinic were ineligible to receive the shots under guidelines for the federal nursing home program, according to the Justice Department. At the time, elderly residents of MorseLife facilities and caregivers had yet to receive the shots, their relatives told The Washington Post last year, speaking on the condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal against family members.
It wasn’t immediately clear whether Florida authorities are still investigating. Although states had broad authority over eligibility in the early phases of the vaccination campaign, the program for long-term-care facilities is administered by the federal government, which contracted with pharmacies to prioritize the immunization of people at highest risk for coronavirus infection. The Justice Department said MorseLife’s misuse of the doses exposed it to liability under the False Claims Act.
Myers appears to have retained his role as the facility’s CEO, according to his LinkedIn profile and recent statements. LeadingAge Florida, an industry group based in Tallahassee, identified him as a “friend” in a tweet on Thursday expressing praise for MorseLife.
The Post reported last year that many of the donors who received early vaccinations at MorseLife were members of the Palm Beach Country Club. The then-chairman of the club’s foundation, David S. Mack, a New Jersey real estate developer, and his brother Bill, also a real estate mogul, “assisted” MorseLife with its vaccination campaign, a spokesman said at the time.
David Mack also is vice-chairman of MorseLife’s board, according to tax filings. The Justice Department’s release did not name Mack but said the vice chairman of the board “and his brother” were allowed “to invite approximately 290 people to the vaccination clinic, none of whom lived or worked on the MorseLife campus and most of whom did not volunteer on MorseLife’s campus and had no prior affiliation with MorseLife.”
“A significant number of these invitees were members of the same country club as the vice chairman and his brother, and some of the invitees flew to Florida just to get vaccinated at the clinic,” the release said.
A MorseLife Foundation strategy document quoted by the Justice Department stated that “[t]his group was ‘recruited’ by [vice chairman and his brother] and owe allegiance to them at least as much as they owe it to us.”
The document described plans to “use that allegiance to effectively get significant gifts from that group in a short amount of time.”
The Mack brothers, through a spokesman, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.