Federal agents carry boxes of documents from Florida Home Health Care Providers in Miami in June. The operators were charged with filing $5.5 million in bogus claims. [Photo: Marice Cohn Band/Miami Herald]
When George LeMieux, Florida’s new senator, was setting up house in Washington, D.C., recently, he went to Best Buy to pick up a television. Within minutes of his purchase, he says, he received a text message on his Blackberry from his credit card company asking him to confirm the purchase. Because LeMieux lives 700 miles away in Tallahassee, his credit card company’s computer systems had flagged the purchase as suspicious.
The experience inspired LeMieux to write his first bill. If credit card companies can use automated anti-fraud systems to protect consumers from theft, LeMieux reasons, then the federal government could use similar methods to combat healthcare fraud and corruption, a nationwide epidemic that is especially acute in south Florida. “Why can’t we set up the same model for the healthcare business so when a bad guy in Haines City sells the same wheelchair 100 times in the same hour, a flag goes off?”
The costs associated with healthcare fraud in the U.S. are staggering, between $68 billion and $226 billion a year.
Miami alone accounts for about $3 billion each year. In 2009, 227 people in south Florida were charged with Medicare fraud involving more than $951 million, according to the U.S. Department of Justice, and the region is widely recognized as the epicenter of healthcare fraud.
The schemes are varied but often involve clinic operators who submit bogus billings for HIV and cancer infusion therapies, purported home health agencies that submit claims for services never rendered, and fraudulent equipment suppliers who bill the government for canes, walkers, wheelchairs, oxygen equipment and artificial limbs that are never actually provided to patients.
Some schemes involve licensed healthcare providers. In one case last year, for instance, Miami doctors Walter Proano and Manuel Barbeite billed Medicaid and Medicare for expensive medications intended to treat HIV/AIDS patients suffering from a rare illness. In fact, the doctors, who wrote prescriptions for large quantities of these medications, had little if any of the medications in stock and rarely, if ever, provided the infusions to their patients. All told, they and their associates defrauded Medicare and Medicaid out of nearly $16 million, according to government documents.
The scam business is also increasingly attracting organized crime figures and career criminals who are taking fraud to a new level.
When federal agents last June broke up a Miami fraud ring that had attempted to bilk Medicare and the Medicare Advantage program out of $100 million, even seasoned U.S. Attorney Jeffrey Sloman expressed surprise at the “sophistication and geographic breadth” of the conspiracy. According to indictments, Michel De Jesus Huarte and seven other Miami defendants allegedly used fake prescriptions, bribes and stolen Medicare information to submit fraudulent invoices for expensive cancer and HIV therapies. They fronted their scheme through six phony clinics in Miami-Dade County and other areas of the Southeast and laundered their profits through local check-cashing stores.