Why an unmarked van offered cash for DNA samples in low-income areas of Kentucky

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Someone in an unmarked white van will pay you for your DNA.

That’s the rumour that’s been circulating in the poorest neighbourhoods of Louisville, Ky., where a little bit of cash can go a long way.

Four individuals in an unmarked white van have been offering people US$20 to perform cancer screenings on them with a mouth swab, often outside soup kitchens and homeless shelters, witnesses tell Global News. These individuals allegedly collect people’s medical information and DNA to conduct cancer screening and promise that the expense will be covered through health insurance.

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One of these new cancer-screening tests can cost up to $2,000, according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine. Some Medicaid health insurance plans covers these tests, so they would reimburse that money to whoever conducts the test.

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In other words, a company testing for four types of cancer could earn several thousand dollars off one candidate who was paid $20 for a sample.

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Local TV station Wave 3 News first aired footage of the unmarked white van and its team last week. The footage shows people from the van collecting cotton swab tests and handing out cash.

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Louisville Coun. Barbara Sexton Smith is concerned the van operators might be preying on the city’s poor to cash in on their health benefits, DNA and other personal information. She also worries about the safety of contributors’ personal information.

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“Nobody is ever given a receipt. Nobody gets any paperwork. Nobody walks away with anything except $20 in cash,” Sexton Smith told Global News. She added that no one has received any test results since the van started visiting the area in late February.

An individual claiming to offer cancer screening, right, conducts test alongside a van in Louisville, Ky., in late March 2019. Courtesy of Tara Bassett

“They were hanging out at the soup kitchens swabbing people for something to do with cancer,” a local resident named Danielle told Global News.

“I found out they were giving out money, which we could have used … but I didn’t have my insurance card.”

Global News has identified the leader of the team as Norman Summers of Freedom Medical Labs LLC, a company based in Silver Spring, Md.

Social media posts on Summers’ Facebook page show he and three others paid several visits to Louisville for work between Feb. 26 and March 30.

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Summers identified himself by name at one of the van’s clinics last weekend, according to Tara Bassett, who works with the homeless at Bridgehaven Mental Health Services. Bassett said she’s also concerned about Freedom Medical Labs’ activities in the community.

Norman Summers is shown wearing a sweater with the words “Freedom Medical” on it, in this Dec. 2, 2018. Facebook/Norman Summers

Sexton-Smith provided Global News with photos of the Freedom Medical Labs sign, which lists Summers as the company’s primary contact. The email address and website listed on the sign do not appear to be active.

Summers did not respond to multiple attempts to contact him by phone and over social media.

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Maryland business records show Freedom Medical Labs LLC was founded in March 2018 by Robert Richardson of Silver Spring, Md. He did not respond to a Global News request for comment.

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Screening for genes linked to cancer

Freedom Medical Labs was allegedly offering a new DNA-based cancer-screening test approved by U.S. health officials last year.

Essentially, scientists can use a saliva sample to check a person’s DNA for the genetic markers linked to certain forms of cancer. These markers aren’t a guarantee that a person will develop cancer, but they can identify when a person should be checked more often for certain forms of the disease.

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The test is covered by some health plans in the U.S. and is also legal in Canada.

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Witnesses say Summers’ team only offered the test to customers of Passport Health Plan, the local low-cost Medicaid insurance provider.

Social media posts show at least two other people were offering $20 to collect samples in the Louisville area over the same period of time. These posts also implied they were connected to Passport Health Plan. However, it’s unclear if the posters were linked to Freedom Medical Labs.

These screenshots from Facebook show individuals offering $20 to take a medical test in Louisville, Ky. Facebook

“Passport Health Plan is in no way affiliated with this activity, and we urge caution for anyone who may come into contact with them,” company spokesperson Ben Adkins told Global News. He added that the company is working with local officials and law enforcement to investigate.

Passport Health Plan’s coverage booklet shows that recipients are completely covered for prostate, colorectal, breast and cervical cancer tests.

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Not the only operation

Freedom Medical Labs is one of at least four companies offering the new cancer-screening tests in several U.S. states. These companies hire independent contractors to canvas communities for people who are covered for the test through their health insurance. Recent news reports have described these contractors visiting assisted-living facilities and going door to door in other communities across the U.S.

Three contractors with rival companies said Freedom Medical Labs’ testing method was familiar but that it’s unusual for a contractor to pay for a sample. The contractors, who asked not to be identified, said they would normally set up their clinics at community centres, fairs and seminars.

“They wanted a certain number of swabs per week,” one former contractor said. “If you made that quota and you got over, you got paid extra.”

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Sexton Smith says she’s concerned that companies like Freedom Medical Labs might be collecting thousands of dollars in medical insurance payouts while targeting the disadvantaged.

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Homelessness and eviction rates are a major problem in Louisville, according to data from the state’s Metropolitan Housing Coalition. Some of the city’s most poverty-stricken neighbourhoods are in Sexton Smith’s district.

“The $20 means everything to these people because we have one of the worst shortages of affordable housing in the country,” Sexton Smith said. She says that money can pay a month’s rent of subsidized housing or pay for a family of three’s breakfast, lunch and dinner.

“Everybody lines up to get their $20,” she said. “It’s everything in the world.”

Louisville police say it’s not a crime to sell your DNA for cash, however local politicians and law enforcement are looking into the situation.

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