Courts & Crime

Medicare fraud in south Florida 'off the charts'

As the feds squeeze tighter, South Florida's Medicare schemers have scurried into new territory to loot hundreds of millions of dollars from taxpayers, now billing the system for bogus mental health, physical therapy and other rehabilitation services.

The magnitude of the region's fraud is astonishing: Florida mental health clinics submitted $421 million in bills to Medicare last year -- about 63 times higher than Michigan and four times higher than Texas, both also hotbeds of healthcare rackets, according to government records.

Florida facilities billed $310 million for physical and speech therapy -- 140 times more than New York and 10 times more than California, records show.

Not all of that activity is criminal. But Florida's numbers are so much higher than other major states' that officials say the only logical explanation is fraud -- the bulk of it in Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties.

Law enforcement and healthcare officials say that mental health and rehabilitation providers are the latest agents of pervasive theft in South Florida, long considered the nation's epicenter of Medicare corruption. The services are not needed or provided, yet the federal program for the elderly and disabled still foots the bill.

``This is like a game of whack a mole,'' U.S. Attorney Wifredo Ferrer told The Miami Herald. ``The numbers are off the charts.''

The vexing problem of Medicare corruption will take center stage on Friday, when Attorney General Eric Holder and Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius hold the nation's first healthcare fraud summit in Miami. The issue has gained a higher profile as the Obama administration pushes ahead with the expansion of government-subsidized healthcare for more than 30 million uninsured Americans.

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