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Medicare pays $47 billion in suspect claims

| Sunday, Nov. 15, 2009

WASHINGTON — The government paid more than $47 billion in questionable Medicare claims including medical treatment showing little relation to a patient's condition, wasting taxpayer dollars at a rate nearly three times the previous year.

Excerpts of a new federal report, obtained by The Associated Press, show a dramatic increase in improper payments in the $440 billion Medicare program that has been cited by government auditors as a high risk for fraud and waste for 20 years.

It's not clear whether Medicare fraud is actually worsening. Much of the increase in the last year is attributed to a change in the Health and Human Services Department's methodology that imposes stricter documentation requirements and includes more improper payments — part of a data-collection effort being ordered governmentwide by President Obama next week to promote "honest budgeting" and accurate statistics.

Still, the fiscal 2009 financial report — covering the first few months of the Obama administration — highlights the challenges ahead for a government that is seeking, in part, to pay for its proposed health care overhaul by cracking down on Medicare fraud. While noting that several new anti-fraud efforts were beginning, the government report makes clear that "aggressive actions" to date aimed at reducing improper payments had yielded little improvement.

In recent years, the suspect claims have included Medicare prescriptions from doctors who were dead, and requests for payment for medical supplies such as blood glucose strips for sexual impotence and diabetic shoes for leg amputees. Patients, many of them new citizens who barely speak English, are sometimes recruited by brokers who go door-to-door offering hundreds of dollars for use of their Medicare numbers.

Obama is expected to announce new initiatives next week to help crack down on Medicare fraud, including a government-wide Web site aimed at providing a fuller account of health care spending and improper payments made by various agencies. The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services will begin a Web interactive next month that will allow users to track Medicare payment information by categories such as state, diagnosis and hospital.

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