SPRINGFIELD, Mo. — A lawmaker facing multiple federal charges related to medical fraud has been removed from committee assignments in the state Capitol and could be forced from office.
State Rep. Tricia Derges, who runs multiple health clinics for low-income patients in the Ozarks area, has been indicted by a grand jury on charges of felony wire fraud, illegal distribution of controlled substances and making false statements, federal prosecutors revealed this week.
Derges, R-Nixa, pleaded not guilty in her initial appearance Monday afternoon and was released without bond. Her case is set for jury trial March 22, though that could be delayed. Documents show she is being represented by Springfield-based attorney Stacie Bilyeu.
In a news conference after the plea was entered, Tim Garrison, the U.S. Attorney for Missouri’s Western District, laid out the case against her.
His presentation centered on allegations that Derges marketed and sold a “regenerative” stem cell treatment that didn’t actually have any stem cells.
Making matters worse, Garrison said, she knew the truth about the treatment but made false claims about it anyway, even claiming at one point it could help with COVID-19.
The indictment says patients lost a total of nearly $200,000 to the alleged scheme, and it charges Derges with eight counts of wire fraud for selling the treatment to five people, each of whom spent thousands of dollars on it.
It was not clear whether the treatment helped or hurt any of the patients who received it, but Garrison said the investigation focused on another issue.
“It’s simply about the right to know whether the substance their health care provider is injecting into their bodies are in fact what their health care providers tells them it is,” he said.
The indictment also charges Derges with 10 counts of illegal distribution of controlled substances for prescribing Oxycodone, a narcotic painkiller, and Adderall, a treatment for ADHD, without seeing the patients receiving them.
The grand jury said that because she was the only person at her clinics who could prescribe those controlled substances, it was standard practice for her fellow assistant physicians to see a patient and then tell Derges what to prescribe without her ever seeing the patient herself.
The indictment also charges Derges with lying to federal agents investigating the case when she told them the “stem cell treatment” actually had stem cells and that she had not used the treatment on a patient suffering from urinary incontinence.
Together, the felony charges carry a possible sentence of hundreds of years in prison and millions of dollars in fines. A felony conviction also could force Derges from office and bar her from seeking office again in Missouri.
“The defendant abused her privileged position to enrich herself through deception,” Garrison said. “This grand jury indictment exposes her deception and holds her accountable for her actions.”
Derges did not respond to a request for comment, but she posted a defiant message on Facebook hours after her initial appearance.
“I am here, holding my head up because that’s what you do when you have done NOTHING,” she wrote. “Never before have I seen anything like this. This is what comes after years of doing nothing but help people. Keep prayers coming.”
She did not give any indication of how the indictment will affect her service in the House, but Speaker Rob Vescovo, R-Arnold, took her off committees Monday afternoon.
Her clinics were expected to remain open.
The indictment is a twist after years of positive acclaim.
A little over a decade ago, Derges sold a candle business to enroll in medical school in her 50s. She graduated from Caribbean Medical University in Curaçao in the spring of 2014.
She hit a stumbling block when she was unable to secure a spot in a residency program – a must to become licensed as a physician in the state – but opened a clinic for the poor in north Springfield in 2016 anyway.
Lift Up Springfield allowed patients to pay for services with a $5 donation or nothing at all if they couldn’t afford it.
She recruited licensed volunteers to care for the patients while she managed things and sought a special “assistant physician” license allowing her to provide primary care to “medically underserved” areas with a full physician’s supervision.
When she was denied the license on technical grounds, she successfully advocated for a change in the law that turned things around.
By mid-2017, Lift Up Springfield had served more than 7,000 patients, and Derges was receiving national recognition for her work.
She then opened Ozark Valley Medical Center in Ozark, which offered inexpensive care to a broader population, and continued to win awards, including the 2018 Humanitarian Award given out by business and religious leaders each year.
But around that time, according to the indictment, she also began obtaining amniotic fluid – which supports a fetus in its mother’s womb – from the University of Utah that she would market as a regenerative stem cell treatment.
At one point in 2019, the indictment says, the university’s director of cell therapy and regenerative medicine explicitly told Derges that the fluid was “acellular,” meaning it had no cells at all, but she continued to insist otherwise.
The indictment describes how she administered the treatment to patients with hip pain, back pain, lung disease and erectile dysfunction in the months that followed.
One such patient found Derges at one of her seminars, while others found her by looking at Ozark Valley Medical Center’s website, where the clinic advertises itself as a leader in regenerative medicine.
Federal agents found her in April after she made an appearance on KOLR 10 in which she suggested the treatment could be part of a protocol to treat COVID-19.
That same month, she wrote on Facebook that “this amazing treatment stands to provide a potential cure for COVID-19 patients that is safe and natural.”
Garrison said Monday that an investigation into her remarks ultimately found that they “were part of a broader pattern of misleading and deceiving patients and potential patients” about the treatment she was selling.
In the meantime, though, Derges ran for the Missouri House and won a four-way primary for the Republican nomination in her eastern Christian County district in August.
She was unopposed in the November general election and took office early last month.
She filed a bill to further empower assistant physicians and appeared in good spirits in social media posts.
About a week ago, though, she posted on Facebook asking for prayers to deal with an unnamed “evil” with the “sole purpose of intentionally destroying” her life.
On Sunday night, she complained about “criminal injustice” and suggested she was being targeted for her good works.
“I actually thought that I was making a difference,” she lamented in a post Sunday night. “What I didn’t account for was how much satan would fight back (sic).”
“One thing I was not taught,” she continued, “is that there are those that don’t care what you do, who you help, their entire focus is to literally stop and destroy so that you are unable to do anything.”
The post elicited an outpouring of support from friends, family and a few fellow Republican lawmakers.
On Monday morning, Derges posted a painting of David and Goliath from the Bible and cast herself as David.
“I don’t think there has ever (been) a more appropriate picture that will depict this day,” she wrote. “Despite this ‘Goliath’ I will keep helping those in need and standing for the rights of all of us. Lies and twisted words mean nothing.”
Follow Austin Huguelet on Twitter: @ahuguelet