Shut the door on Medicare scammers

Miami Herald Editorial Board

Portraits of Medicare-fraud suspects.
Portraits of Medicare-fraud suspects.

Miami-Dade will present President-elect Donald Trump’s administration with a unique international crime-and-punishment problem.

The crime is the defrauding of taxpayer-funded Medicare. The corruption is being carried out here in Miami-Dade County by Cuban nationals recently arrived from their homeland. But the ability to punish these scammers is elusive.

With the promise of big bucks and little chance of being caught until they’re wealthy, the new arrivals are quickly recruited by existing well-organized rings. The newbies have criminally clean names that are used to set up phony clinics that begin to bilk Medicare with false billings. Frequently the culprits are not caught until they’re millionaires.

And once they’re in federal investigators’ sights, the Cubans, who have no deep local ties to speak of, flee to Cuba, or to Mexico, the Dominican Republic or other Spanish-speaking countries to evade federal prosecution.

This has happened in Miami-Dade again and again — year after year. And besides busting up the rings, but watching the majority of suspects scatter, local federal prosecutors have been unable to fully halt the fraud.

The FBI’s Miami field office estimates there are about 160 such suspects on the lam from active Medicare fraud cases in South Florida. Many are in Cuba. The work of those prosecutors was detailed last week in a series of ongoing investigative articles by Miami Herald reporter Jay Weaver.

It’s baffling that this brazen defrauding to our already ailing medical healthcare system is allowed to go on. Where is the political outrage over this South Florida scam? Have Miami-Dade congressional members in Washington made enough of a clamor to pressure Cuba to help seal off this escape route for these criminals defrauding U.S. taxpayers?

And how is it that Cuba, our new diplomatic friend, is being allowed to harbor these Medicare fraudsters with no explanation or repercussions? Maybe some tough Twitter talk from Trump is in order here.

Two senior members of the Miami-Dade delegation, Republican U.S. Reps. Mario Diaz-Balart and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen told the Editorial Board they’re well aware of the issue and are trying to combat it, but blame our new diplomatic relations with the island for inadvertently helping facilitate the criminal rings.

Diaz-Balart says it’s baffling that these immigrants get here already trained in how to commit Medicare fraud in America. “How do people who just arrived here, within a very short period are part of a very sophisticated system to defraud?” he asked in an email. And how do they and the millions they abscond with end up in Cuba?

“We must take action against these scam artists,” Ros-Lehtinen told the Editorial Board.

There have been some successes. Local federal prosecutors have begun filing sealed indictments so that targets of investigations don’t discover that they’re wanted.

And several foreign countries with U.S. extradition treaties have assisted in capturing and returning the Medicare fraud fugitives, with the exception of — yes, Cuba.

Miami Republican U.S. Rep. Carlos Curbelo has taken welcome steps to make combating benefits abuse and fraud committed by Cuban nationals a priority. His legislation starts small, targeting individuals. His colleagues should build upon Curbelo’s effort to put the crime rings out of business.