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Docs Need to Blow the Whistle on Fraud

Joe Cantlupe, for HealthLeaders Media, December 15, 2011

Because of their role, the do-gooders will receive a tidy sum of more than $3.96 million. Neither whistleblower was a physician. Justice Department officials declined to comment when I asked how many physicians may have been involved in the Medtronic case.

That's too bad. Physicians need to step up to ferret out fraud, not be a part of it. Most are honest, upholding the profession's reputation. The actions of a few can cast a long, foreboding shadow on the legions of honorable practitioners.

Shortly after he resigned as head of CMS, Don Berwick, MD, touched on the fraud issue in a conversation with journalists. In his 18-month tenure, Berwick said he found that fraud, waste, and abuse were more significant problems than he previously thought. Apparently, Berwick didn't realize how widespread the problem really is.

That's surprising. There were plenty of clues before Berwick stepped into his office in April 2011 that fraud was a big and burgeoning trouble spot in healthcare. Now that he has left, CMS appears to be struggling still with how to uncover fraud, as the behemoth agency tries to raise quality standards under healthcare reform, while also dealing with inadequate data systems that would improve its watchdog functions (more on that in a moment).

As for Berwick, one federal official who is knowledgeable about these decisions told me the CMS leader "was concentrating on other things," such as forming Accountable Care Organizations.

It seems that fraud in Medicare and Medicaid will be a major challenge for Berwick's successor to overcome. Federal officials want physicians to play an instrumental role in helping to stop fraud, and they're backing up that desire with the power of the dollar. Healthcare reform provides fiscal incentives to do so. Berwick had estimated that fraud, waste, and abuse total about $30 billion a year for the whole healthcare system, including up to $10 billion just within CMS.

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