WASHINGTON — Health care fraud once was a faceless crime. Now it has a mug shot, even a smile.
Medicare and Medicaid scams cost taxpayers more than $60 billion a year, but bank holdups are more likely to get greater attention.
The government wants the public's help in trying to catch more than 170 fugitives wanted for fraud, so it's developed a new health care most-wanted list, with its own website — www.oig.hhs.gov.
One name on the list is Leonard Nwafor, convicted in Los Angeles of billing Medicare more than $1 million for motorized wheelchairs that people didn't need. One person who got a wheelchair was a blind man who later testified he couldn't see to operate it.
Facing time in federal prison, Nwafor disappeared before his sentencing.
"We're looking for new ways to press the issue of catching fugitives," said Gerald Roy, deputy inspector general for investigations at the Health and Human Services Department. "If someone walks into a bank and steals $3,000 or $4,000, it would be all over the newspaper. These people manage to do it from a less high-profile position, but they still have a tremendous impact."
Even though motorized wheelchairs can cost up to $7,000 apiece, Nwafor's scam was on the low end when compared with others who made the most-wanted list.
Topping the list are Miami brothers Carlos, Luis and Jose Benitez. Owners of a string of medical clinics, they allegedly scammed Medicare out of $119 million by billing for costly HIV drugs that patients never received or did not need. Authorities say they bought hotels, helicopters and boats before fleeing to Cuba.
Scammers "often utilize their ties to a particular community," said Roy. "They take advantage of ethnic communities based on language barriers or lack of knowledge about how the Medicare system works. These folks are exploiting low-income communities."
Roy said he hopes this newest list will raise awareness about the importance of combating health care fraud. Medicare and Medicaid, which provide care for about 100 million people in the U.S., are in serious financial trouble and can't afford to be hemorrhaging tens of billions a year because of fraud.