For years, Medicare has begged Congress to help stop the loss of billions of dollars to healthcare scams from Miami to Los Angeles.
Congress' blunt response: Forgetaboutit.
Since 2006, Medicare administrators have asked Congress for $300 million to fight fraud, but Congress has refused to give them any money.
Why? Distrust of the agency that runs the federal health insurance program for the elderly and disabled. Political indifference to the Medicare fraud crisis itself. Plus, influential lobbyists and campaign donors who dislike government meddling in the huge healthcare industry.
All have undermined any attempts to cure what ails Medicare -- a 43-year-old program threatened by not only runaway costs but also unbridled fraud, as a Miami Herald series documented last week. It exposed rampant corruption in two regional healthcare fields -- medical equipment suppliers and HIV-infusion clinics -- which fuels South Florida's reputation as the nation's capital of Medicare fraud.
Among the findings: Dozens of clinics and doctors billed Medicare for more than $1.1 million in false claims for obsolete HIV-infusion therapy for a single Miami-Dade County patient, who collected thousands of dollars in kickbacks after selling his government-issued healthcare card number to them. The patient, Alexander McCray, who has a history of drug-possession arrests, used the taxpayer-funded proceeds for his crack-cocaine habit.
The series also showed that 36 Medicare fraud defendants, mostly Cuban immigrants who had come here during the past 15 years, have fled South Florida to Cuba, Mexico and the Dominican Republic -- including brothers Carlos, Luis and Jose Benitez, charged with defrauding the government program of $110 million.
The Miami Herald series underscored the failure by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services to root out fraudulent claims -- leading to the annual loss of at least $2.5 billion in South Florida and an estimated $60 billion or more nationwide.
BLAME IS SHARED
But not only Medicare is to blame. Congress keeps a tight cap on Medicare's administrative overhead, leaving the perennial ''high-risk'' entitlement program with an infinitesimal fraction of its current $456 billion budget to combat fraud.
Indeed, Congress has a history of running Medicare -- whose healthcare programs are funded by U.S. taxpayers -- on the cheap. That policy has contributed in part to a generation of scammers bilking billions out of Medicare, which critics describe as a flawed honor system that's more intent on paying claims quickly than on verifying them first.
''We need to focus on the front end to prevent the crime from happening,'' said Democrat Bob Graham, who was a U.S. senator from South Florida for 18 years. ``We are being a penny wise and pound foolish by not spending more on prevention.''
Enter Graham's successor in the Senate, Mel Martinez. The Orlando Republican warmed up to taking a lead role in fighting healthcare fraud after staring at the problem in his home state, where the U.S. attorney's office in Miami has brought one-third of all Medicare corruption cases in the country.
''It really opened my eyes,'' he said. ``This wasn't just a big national problem, this was a big problem in Florida.''
In June, Martinez joined U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, in sponsoring legislation that takes aim at fraud on major fronts:
The STOP Act would require the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, which oversees the Medicare program, to eliminate the use of Social Security numbers as Medicare beneficiary ID numbers for 44 million recipients, to help prevent identity theft.