First in a series
Whenever Alexander McCray lights up his crack pipe, U.S. taxpayers help pay for his habit.
McCray has defrauded Medicare by selling his government-issued health card number to private clinics in exchange for kickbacks of $150 to $300 a visit -- as often as three times a day, three times a week over seven years, according to federal records and his own admission.
McCray has signed off on phony infusion treatments for his HIV illness -- therapy that is medically obsolete -- and he has received thousands of dollars from Medicare-licensed clinics all over South Florida.
Money that he has used to buy crack cocaine.
Dozens of clinic operators have in turn filed more than $1.1 million in false claims for fabricated HIV-infusion treatments billed in his name, according to Medicare records reviewed by The Miami Herald. Some 90 doctors, including one indicted in May, appeared on the phony prescriptions written on behalf of McCray.
''I'm the king of it all,'' the 40-year-old, unemployed Opa-locka man told The Miami Herald recently, when asked about his Medicare scams.
McCray, a ''professional patient'' with a 15-year criminal history of drug possession, is among thousands of con artists who have made South Florida the nation's capital of Medicare fraud. A six-month Miami Herald investigation has found that the corruption has spun out of control during the past decade with little effort by Medicare regulators to stop it here and in other major cities. This past week, during a policy forum to confront the crisis, federal lawmakers said Medicare fraud costs taxpayers nationwide at least $60 billion a year.
The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, which manages the 43-year-old federal insurance provgram for the elderly and disabled, doesn't have a specific amount for the cost of corruption nationwide. Internal audits mainly focus on billing mistakes, excessive payments and other waste with only a fractional measure of fraud. Therefore, the agency estimates its combined loss is $11 billion annually.
Private healthcare companies, credit card companies and other industries have implemented new technology to fight fraud aggressively, but Medicare has failed to adopt even the most basic changes that the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' inspector general has warned are sorely needed to combat the crisis.
Medicare, one of the government's largest agencies, seems more intent on paying claims quickly than verifying them first, according to many critics and law enforcement officials.
Consider this statistic: In 2005, South Florida clinics -- mostly concentrated in Miami-Dade -- submitted $2.2 billion in HIV-drug infusion bills to Medicare, according to the inspector general. That was 22 times more than the total HIV infusion claims submitted to Medicare by healthcare clinics in the rest of the country combined. The trend continues to this day.
In addition, false claims for medical supplies such as motorized wheelchairs, glucose monitors and oxygen equipment run into the hundreds of millions of dollars annually in South Florida.
These two areas of healthcare corruption, which have become targets of heightened federal prosecutions, account for at least $2.5 billion in Medicare fraud annually in South Florida, according to authorities. But that figure is conservative because it excludes other areas of potential Medicare fraud -- hospitals, home healthcare assistance and prescription drugs.