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Reuters shows how shell companies hide Medicare fraud in plain sight

Andrew Van Dam

About Andrew Van Dam

Andrew Van Dam of The Wall Street Journal previously worked at the AHCJ offices while earning his master’s degree at the Missouri School of Journalism, and he has blogged for Covering Health ever since.

Reporting for Reuters, Brian Grow and Matthew Bigg used an analysis of public data to investigate the practice of using shell companies to defraud Medicare of millions while staying a step or two ahead of federal investigators.

While the specific damage inflicted by shell companies has not been tracked, “Last year, ‘improper payments’ resulted in $48 billion in losses to the Medicare program, nearly 10 percent of the $526 billion in payments the program made, according to a Government Accountability Office report last March.”

“Simply by reviewing the incorporation records of Medicare providers in two buildings” in Miami, they write, “reporters uncovered information that one government official said could prompt “a serious criminal investigation” of some of the companies.”

The fraud rings merge stolen doctor and patient data under the auspices of a shell company and then bill Medicare as rapidly as possible. Other shell companies are often layered on top to camouflage the fraud, law enforcement officials say.

Some of the shells purport to be billing companies; they form a buffer between the sham clinics and Medicare. Others pay kickbacks to doctors and patients who sign off on bogus medical claims or sell their Medicare ID numbers to enable the shell company to bill the government. Still other shells act as fronts to launder the profits.

The key to this kind of fraud, known as a “bust-out” scheme, is for each of the fake companies to bill as much as possible before authorities catch on. Shell companies become a tool that helps keep the crooks ahead of the cops.

The Armenian crime ring whose fraud made headlines last year used 118 shell companies in 25 states and bilked the feds out of at least $100 million. Varying incorporation rules make state-hopping and obfuscation “easy,” they write, especially since states don’t check to see if records are legit before they allow a company to incorporate. The reportes found that even a few simple safeguards would go a long way to detecting the boldest frauds.

In Florida, FBI agents say almost every Medicare fraud scheme involves shell companies. There, Reuters scrutinized incorporation documents for firms located in two buildings near the Miami International Airport. In a building with dimly lit corridors, a rickety elevator and almost no one in sight, a host of companies purport to provide services to Medicare recipients. But telltale signs of fraud abound.

Many of the 26 companies in the buildings had replaced corporate officers at least once in the last four years. Some had changed ownership, or their corporate executives represented more than one medical-related company. Law enforcement officials consider such activities to be red flags for fraud.

For its part, CMS told the reporters it simply didn’t have the resources necessary to conduct the widespread audits needed to catch fraud, though the $350 million allocated to such efforts under the 2010 health reform law should help.

Health journalists who will certainly want to review the “methodology” subheading at the end of the story.