Saturday, May 31, 2014

Why thieves love America’s health-care system

The $272 billion swindle

The Economist May 31st 2014 | MIAMI AND NEW YORK

INVESTIGATORS in New York were looking for health-care fraud hot-spots. Agents suggested Oceana, a cluster of luxury condos in Brighton Beach. The 865-unit complex had a garage full of Porsches and Aston Martins—and 500 residents claiming Medicaid, which is meant for the poor and disabled. Though many claims had been filed legitimately, some looked iffy. Last August six residents were charged. Within weeks another 150 had stopped claiming assistance, says Robert Byrnes, one of the investigators.

Health care is a tempting target for thieves. Medicaid doles out $415 billion a year; Medicare (a federal scheme for the elderly), nearly $600 billion. Total health spending in America is a massive $2.7 trillion, or 17% of GDP. No one knows for sure how much of that is embezzled, but in 2012 Donald Berwick, a former head of the Centres for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), and Andrew Hackbarth of the RAND Corporation, estimated that fraud (and the extra rules and inspections required to fight it) added as much as $98 billion, or roughly 10%, to annual Medicare and Medicaid spending—and up to $272 billion across the entire health system.

Federal prosecutors had over 2,000 health-fraud probes open at the end of 2013. A Medicare “strike force”, which was formed in 2007, boasts of seven nationwide “takedowns”. In the latest, on May 13th, 90 people, including 16 doctors, were rounded up in six cities—more than half of them in Miami, the capital city of medical fraud. One doctor is alleged to have fraudulently charged for $24m of kit, including 1,000 power wheelchairs.

Punishments have grown tougher: last year the owner of a mental-health clinic got 30 years for false billing. Efforts to claw back stolen cash are highly cost-effective: in 2011-13 the government’s main fraud-control programme, run jointly by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and the Department of Justice, recovered $8 for every $1 it spent.

(More here.)

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