- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Virginia Attorney General Kenneth T. Cuccinelli II wants to expand the scope of the state’s Medicaid Fraud Control Unit so members can be deputized to serve subpoenas, carry a weapon and wear a badge.

“We’ve got people who are going out, doing stakeouts, executing warrants, doing all these kinds of things,” he said. “Over half of our investigators are ex-law enforcement, sworn law enforcement anyway.”

Mr. Cuccinelli’s push comes at a critical time, as Washington lawmakers try to trim the federal budget in part by reducing fraud and waste in the federal-state medical assistance programs.

Federal officials estimate that roughly 10 percent of Medicare and Medicaid payments are fraudulent, which reportedly costs taxpayers at least $80 billion a year.

Mr. Cuccinelli, a Republican, said such changes also are necessary because members need to be able to protect themselves and so the agency will no longer have to rely on local or federal law enforcement to track down suspected scammers in hard-to-reach places.

“We’re encountering a wide variety of types of individuals in these interviews, searches, stakeouts,” he said. “And a lot of them are not in easily accessible areas.”

The agency also investigates abuse of the elderly, and over the past 30 years has recovered almost $800 million from fraudulent providers.

In 2008, the Department of Health and Human Services named the state agency the Medicaid Fraud Control Unit of the Year.

Mr. Cuccinelli has already expanded the agency significantly, and last year made a similar effort to expand its police powers.

He has doubled the number of employees to nearly 80 since taking office in 2010, as first reported by the Richmond Times-Dispatch. And last year, Delegate G.M. “Manoli” Loupassi, Richmond Republican, introduced a bill in the General Assembly session on behalf of the attorney general’s office to allow Mr. Cuccinelli to appoint armed investigators to the unit. But the legislation languished in the House’s Courts of Justice Committee.

Right now, MFCUs in 36 states already have law-enforcement authority, which allows them to participate in federal task forces and gives them access to federal funding. However, Mr. Cuccinelli’s efforts to expand the unit’s scope and authority has not come without criticism.

Delegate David B. Albo, chairman of the House Courts of Justice Committee, where the armed-investigator legislation died, said the issue is largely about weapons training.

He thinks only somebody who has received the proper training through Virginia’s Department of Criminal Justice Services should carry a firearm.

Mr. Loupassi’s bill allowed the attorney general to request that DCJS exempt investigators from minimum training standards based on their prior experience.

“We don’t want people who aren’t trained having that type of authority,” said Mr. Albo, Fairfax Republican. “The citizens of Virginia should expect persons carrying a badge, carrying a firearm, with the power to arrest people, have had the proper training.”

Mr. Cuccinelli hopes similar legislation will be introduced in the 2012 General Assembly session.

“This would be a whole lot simpler, could be done relatively cost-effectively, and it really doesn’t turn them loose anywhere. They’re not patrolling; they’re investigators. So none of those concerns would exist,” he said.

The Virginia Crime Commission already has reviewed the legislation. And Mr. Cuccinelli thinks commission support is crucial.

“If the commission comes out and supports it, it probably cruises through,” he said. “And if not, then it gets a lot more difficult, if not impossible.”

Delegate Robert B. Bell, Albemarle Republican and commission chairman, said that no substantive votes have been taken on the measure, but they will likely occur during a December meeting.