- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 30, 2009

MIAMI (AP) | Federal authorities arrested more than 30 suspects, including doctors, and were seeking others in a major Medicare fraud sting Wednesday in New York, Louisiana, Boston and Houston, targeting scams such as “arthritis kits,” expensive braces that many patients never used.

More than 200 agents worked on the $16 million sting that included 12 search warrants at health care businesses and homes across the Houston area, where the bulk of the arrests were made.

Federal authorities say those businesses were giving patients “arthritis kits,” which were nothing more than expensive orthotics that included knee and shoulder braces and heating pads. Patients told authorities they were unnecessary and many never even received them. But health care clinic owners billed between $3,000 to $4,000 for each kit.

Houston’s other scam involved billing Medicare for thousands of dollars worth of liquid food such as Ensure for patients who can’t eat solid food. Authorities said clinic owners never distributed the food to patients. In some cases, clinic owners billed patients who were dead when they purportedly received the items.

It’s the third major sweep since Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. and Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius announced in May that they were adding millions of dollars and dozens of agents to combat a problem that costs the United States billions each year.

Using about a dozen agents in targeted cities, including Miami, the Medicare Fraud Strike Force, has recovered $371 million in false Medicare claims and charged 145 people across the country in two months.

Two shocked female employees arriving for work Wednesday morning at Memorial Medical Supply in a strip mall in southwest Houston were met by federal agents. Authorities confiscated paperwork and a computer. Owners of the business did not respond to calls from the Associated Press.

The suspects arrested Wednesday in Houston will make court appearances Thursday morning. Suspects in Boston, New York and Louisiana made appearances late Wednesday.

The first strike force started in 2007 in Miami, a city authorities say is responsible for more than $3 billion a year in Medicare fraud. Clinic owners there would bill Medicare dozens of times for the same wheelchair, while never giving the medical equipment to patients.

The problems have become more complex since then.

Officials said the suspects have moved into more sophisticated scams including home health care, physical therapy and infusion drugs. They’ve even started tapping into Medicaid Advantage, which allows the elderly and disabled to get benefits through private health insurers. The plans receive a government subsidy and generally offer more benefits than traditional Medicare.

Since 2007, strike forces in Miami, Detroit and Los Angeles have indicted more than 293 suspects and organizations that collectively have billed the Medicare program for more than $674 million.

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