Calling Health-Care Fraud – What it Really is

I’ve got theft on my mind this week.Last Saturday night, while I was spending some spare time acting as the opening musical act for a handful of stand-up comedians, someone took a football-sized rock and threw it through my passenger-side front window. Aside from the costs of repairing the damage, I was relieved of my satellite radio player and a pair of $3 sunglasses.This episode taught me a little something about crime, and that is that criminals aren’t known for their skills of selection. The satellite radio player is virtually worthless, as it is only good as long you have an antenna, power supply and a subscription. Perhaps they thought it was in actuality a GPS device, but a cursory check of my back seat would have shown them all they needed to know, as there was a rather large road atlas in plain view. My thesis has now morphed into the idea that it takes a special combination of hubris and stupidity to be a criminal on any level.Which brings me to the world of Medicare compliance. I read a variety of trade publications from week to week that catalog the numerous billing violations – and subsequent fines paid – by health care providers around the country. To highlight just a few from the past few weeks:

An Atlanta radiologist found himself under federal indictment for falsely claiming that he had personally reviewed thousands of x-rays and radiological studies over a period of 8 months, when in fact the work was done by non-physician radiology techs;
A New York podiatrist was charged with multiples counts of fraud for billing out complicated surgical procedures of the feet, when in actuality, he was performing the less-complicated act of clipping his patients’ toenails;
A Boston man pleaded guilty to a 54-count indictment that accused him of enlisting people to stage auto accidents in the greater metropolitan area, then turning around and billing insurance companies for therapy services at his clinics stemming from “injuries” sustained in the fake accidents.
These are only three of the more egregious examples among dozens of other cases nationwide, and remember that these are all within the last month.When I describe a compliance plan for the first time, I define “health care fraud” as “theft”. In a world where “stewardesses” have transformed into “flight attendants”, and “shell shock” is now “post-traumatic stress disorder”, it is tempting to use less pointed language to describe all-too-common objects and occurrences. Yet whether it is Medicare, Medicaid or a commercial insurance plan, the thieves such as the ones highlighted above exact a heavy toll not only on the resources of the insurer, but on the entire health care infrastructure with the increased costs of premiums and enforcement.Having grown up in a family with 5 physicians of different specialties, one of the happier aspects of my job as a compliance officer is working together with health care providers to find simple solutions, whether it be for front desk processes or documentation, that keep them from inadvertently slipping onto the wrong end of the regulatory process. There is usually a “light bulb moment” in each of these conversations when a satisfactory conclusion is reached and where peace of mind is achieved.While health care fraud has more subtlety than the mentally prehistoric toss of a rock through a window, it is no less an act of theft. Going forward, with a major national health care overhaul on the horizon, it particularly falls on those of us in the medical reimbursement field to give the best guidance possible to the providers we service to assist them in avoiding the sinkholes along the regulatory highway.