Fraud-busting contractors slow to refer cases

Despite recent high-profile busts, the private contractors hired by Medicare to sniff out fraud cases and refer them to law enforcement seem to be lagging, according to recent government reports. The Associated Press’ Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar reported on investigations that found that contractors took an average of 178 to refer fraud cases, and that the government was only able to recover a small fraction of the money identified as lost to fraudsters (OIG report | Testimony).

As this letter summarizing the congressional investigation shows, Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley is on the case. He’s looking to figure out how much the fraud hunters are paid ($102 million in 2005) and how that balances with their benefit to taxpayers ($55 million recovered by the feds in 2007). The numbers are tricky, Alonso-Zaldivar writes, because fraudulent claimants have a habit of closing up shop and disappearing as soon as they’re notified of the pending investigation. Thus, the fraudbusters can’t be blamed entirely for the collection failures, though their tardy referrals are at least partially responsible.

The contractors have widely different track records. One identified $266 million in overpayments in 2007, while another found just $2.5 million, the Health and Human Services inspector general said in May.

Earlier, the inspector general found gaping differences in the number of new cases the contractors generate for law enforcement. Some had hundreds of cases, while others were in the single digits. Most were doing a poor job at spotting new fraud trends, with “minimal results from proactive data analysis,” the inspector general concluded.

The Obama administration says it’s aware of the problem and is close to completing a reorganization of the contractors, to consolidate their work, define their jurisdictions more clearly, and help them coordinate better with claims processors and law enforcement.

The new “Zone Program Integrity Contractors” will cast a somewhat wider net, and be more closely monitored by federal health officials.

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(Hat tip to Ricardo-Alonzo Zaldivar for providing a copy of the Grassley letter)

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