Senior citizens put on front line of Medicare fraud

Medicare fraud costs the federal government about $68 billion a year, and to combat the problem, the agency is recruiting new people to fight such crime on the front lines--Medicare enrollees themselves.

A small cadre of senior citizens is traveling through South Florida and educating other seniors about the potential that they may inadvertently become involved with healthcare fraud, according to the Miami Herald. They are part of a program known as the Senior Medicare Patrol, which operates in five states where there's a high prevalence of Medicare fraud, including Florida, the Herald reported.

Altogether, there are 136 volunteers in Florida who educate other Medicare beneficiaries about the dangers of fraud, according to the Herald.  In 2013, they logged more than 3,000 volunteer hours and made contact with more than 62,800 people. Their work directly resulted in 788 calls to a Medicare fraud hotline, according to federal officials.

Florida, with its large retiree population, is one of the epicenters of Medicare fraud, with costs from dishonest dealings reaching as much as $4 billion a year.

"It's our responsibility (to deter healthcare fraud)," volunteer Gustavo Franco told the Herald. "Fraud costs us money and it's money that can be spent on programs we need."

Franco often conducts lectures wearing a polo shirt sporting the logo of the Senior Medicare Patrol and its motto: "Protect. Detect. Report."

Federal prosecutions for healthcare fraud have been growing in recent years, with 377 undertaken last year, up 3 percent from 2012 and up nearly 10 percent from nine years ago, according to data from the U.S. Justice Department. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services spent more than $583 million on fraud prevention in 2012, although some question  the effectiveness of the programs.

According to Joe Schwartz, another Medicare retiree who often works with Franco, they have to connect with seniors on a personal level to get them to be proactive about reporting fraud. "They don't think it's their problem and that it's not their money," Schwartz told the Herald. "You have to tell them that Medicare is not free, that they paid into it and if money is spent on fraud, it might mean higher premiums and reduced benefits. We're talking billions here."

To learn more:
- read the Miami Herald article