Medical Fraud a Growing Problem

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By Carrie Johnson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 13, 2008

MIAMI -- All it took to bilk the federal government out of $105 million was a laptop computer.

From her Mediterranean-style townhouse, a high school dropout named Rita Campos Ramirez orchestrated what prosecutors call the largest health-care fraud by one person. Over nearly four years, she electronically submitted more than 140,000 Medicare claims for unnecessary equipment and services. She used the proceeds to finance big-ticket purchases, including two condominiums and a Mercedes-Benz.

Health-care experts say the simplicity of Campos Ramirez's scheme underscores the scope of the growing fraud problem and the need to devote more resources to theft prevention. Law enforcement authorities estimate that health-care fraud costs taxpayers more than $60 billion each year.

A critical aspect of the problem is that Medicare, the health program for the elderly and the disabled, automatically pays the vast majority of the bills it receives from companies that possess federally issued supplier numbers. Computer and audit systems now in place to detect problems generally focus on overbilling and unorthodox medical treatment rather than fraud, scholars say.

"You should be able to spot emerging problems quickly and address them before they do much harm," said Malcolm Sparrow, a Harvard professor and author of "License to Steal," a book about health-care fraud that advocates for greater federal vigilance. "It's a miserable pattern, a cycle of neglect followed by a painful and dramatic intervention."

Fallout from the Campos Ramirez case continues. After pleading guilty to filing false claims, she has helped authorities win indictments against more than half a dozen doctors and patients who allegedly accepted kickbacks for pretending to receive costly HIV drug therapy. With cooperation from Campos Ramirez, FBI agents this week arrested three Miami-area men who, the government alleges, financed sham clinics that billed the government more than $100 million.

Daniel R. Levinson, the inspector general of the Department of Health and Human Services, has warned repeatedly that the Medicare program is "highly vulnerable" to fraud, particularly in South Florida, where schemes center on expensive, infusion-based HIV medications and on equipment such as wheelchairs, walkers, canes and hospital beds.

Officials from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), which oversees federally funded health programs, say they have stepped up their efforts to combat fraud over the past year by working closely with investigators, removing the requisite billing numbers of nearly 900 companies and imposing new standards in high-fraud areas that would prevent people convicted of felonies from ever receiving a Medicare number.

"There's always more fraud than we have resources to combat," said Kimberly L. Brandt, director of program integrity at CMS. "We have done a much better job of realigning our resources to attack this problem."

Investigators and prosecutors trained their focus on Miami after noticing two troubling patterns:

ยท HHS investigators discovered that nearly half of 1,581 medical equipment companies they visited in the Miami area did not comply with basic Medicare requirements to be open during scheduled hours and to have a telephone number. The inspector general and the Government Accountability Office have flagged weak oversight of these kinds of suppliers for a dozen years, according to congressional testimony.


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