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By Tom Brown
MIAMI (Reuters) - It's a crime so profitable that even dead people are in on the act.
A U.S. Senate committee revealed last year that public health insurer Medicare had paid as much as $92 million (55.2 million pound) from 2000 to 2007 for medical services or equipment ordered or prescribed by doctors who were dead at the time.
Many had died more than five years before the date when they supposedly ordered or authorized the service.
Healthcare fraud said to cost U.S. taxpayers hundreds of billions of dollars a year has garnered increased attention amid the congressional debate about overhauling the U.S. healthcare system -- especially since President Barack Obama wants to cover some of the cost of reforms by fighting abuse.
Yet interviews with several law enforcement and healthcare experts indicate the president may be disappointed.
Some fear the focus on fraud may come as too little, too late after years of government complacency and inaction.
Experts like the FBI's John Gillies say the problem has been getting worse all the time, as mob figures and violent criminals are lured by fabulously easy money and relatively light prison sentences into fraud targeting Medicare, the federal health insurer for more than 43 million elderly and disabled Americans.
"There are so many schemes involved. Take any aspect of the healthcare industry and there's a fraud going on in there right now," Gillies, special agent in charge of the FBI Miami Division, told Reuters in a recent interview.
GROUND ZERO FOR FRAUD
Florida has long been known for its unsavoury association with cocaine cartels, political shenanigans and swampland real estate deals.
Gillies says the state is also now "ground zero for healthcare fraud" since so many elderly Americans have retired to end their days in its famous sunshine.
Hardly a week goes by without authorities in Florida reporting another arrest, indictment or conviction for Medicare fraud, which has replaced the drug trade as the crime of choice among many criminals.
The cases often involve multimillion-dollar schemes featuring bogus suppliers of wheelchairs, or other so-called durable medical equipment devices, and sham infusion therapies for the treatment of HIV and AIDS patients.
One case filed recently in South Florida included the indictment of 11 members of New York's Bonanno crime family, and prosecutors say the crimes are becoming more elaborate, involving kickbacks, stolen identities and manipulative billing practices.
"When we shut down one scheme they just move onto the next scheme," said Gillies, referring to fraudsters perpetrating one of the most lucrative financial crimes in America today.
"I do not see it slowing down any time soon," he said.
The FBI estimates that fraud accounts for 3 percent to 10 percent of U.S. healthcare expenditure per year, and Gillies said it could easily cost about $200 billion annually.
That is broadly in line with a Thomson Reuters report released on October 26. The report said that in 2007, when the United States spent nearly $2.3 trillion on healthcare and both public and private insurers processed more than 4 billion health insurance claims, fraud was estimated to reach as much as 10 percent of annual healthcare spending.
At that rate, due largely to fraudulent Medicare claims, kickbacks for referrals for unnecessary services and other scams, the losses in 2007 would have been more than $220 billion.
The National Healthcare Anti-Fraud Association, an organisation of about 100 private insurers and public agencies, estimates that some $60 billion, or about 3 percent of total annual healthcare spending, is lost to fraud. But the Thomson Reuters report said that figure is considered conservative.