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 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 catches more improper payments — part of a data-collection effort being ordered government-wide by President Barack Obama this coming week to promote "honest budgeting."
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 antifraud 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 this week to help crack down on Medicare fraud, including a government-wide Web site aimed at providing a full account of health care spending and improper payments made by various agencies.
According to the report, the Bush administration from 2005-2008 reported improper payments of roughly 4 percent in the fee for service program, or about $17 billion total in 2008.
Government officials at the time, however, typically did not consider a Medicare payment improper if the medical documentation was incomplete or a doctor's signature was illegible.
Since these were flaws that ordinarily bar payment, that methodology drew complaints from government auditors that the figures were understated.
For fiscal year 2009, the Obama administration began counting those claims as improper, but was unable to complete an official tally based on the new methodology.
As a result, it officially reported improper payments for its fee for service program at 7.8 percent, representing a partial tally under the new formula. But it considers the unofficial tally of 12.4 percent to be more representative.