Michael F. Cannon

Medicare and Medicaid are rife with fraud. We’re talking 10 percent or more of total spending, which is two orders of magnitude more than what credit card companies tolerate.

In a recent article, I explained a couple of ways such fraud occurs:

For providers, Medicare is like an ATM: So long as they punch in the right numbers, out comes the cash. To get an idea of the potential for fraud, imagine 1.2 million providers punching 1,000 codes each into their own personal ATMs. Now imagine trying to monitor all those ATMs.

For example, if a medical-equipment supplier punches in a code for a power wheelchair, how can the government be sure the company didn’t actually provide a manual wheelchair and pocket the difference? About $400 million of the…fines paid by Columbia/HCA hospitals were for a similar practice, known as “upcoding.”…

Yet federal and state anti-fraud efforts remain uniformly lame. Medicare does almost nothing to detect or fight fraud until the fraudulent payments are already out the door, a strategy experts deride as “pay and chase.” Even then, Medicare reviews fewer than 5 percent of all claims filed.

I also explained why fraud is so rampant:

Efforts to prevent fraud typically fail because they impose costs on legitimate beneficiaries and providers, who, as voters and campaign donors respectively, have immense sway over politicians. At a recent congressional hearing, the Department of Health and Human Services’ deputy inspector general, Gerald T. Roy, recommended that Congress beef up efforts to prevent illegitimate providers and suppliers from enrolling in Medicare. But even if Congress took Roy’s advice, it would rescind the new requirements in a heartbeat when legitimate doctors — who are already threatening to leave Medicare over its low payment rates — threatened to bolt because of the additional administrative costs (paperwork, site visits, etc.)…

How could it be any other way? Anti-fraud efforts will always be inadequate when politicians spend other people’s money…[People] care less about health-care fraud, and have a lower tolerance for anti-fraud measures, than they would if they paid the fraud-laden premiums themselves.

In a word, government is stupid.


Michael F. Cannon

Michael F. Cannon is the Cato Institute's director of health policy studies.
 
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