Medicare's war on fraud is going high-tech with the opening of a $3.6 million command center that features a giant screen and the latest computer and communications gear. That's raising expectations, as well as some misgivings.
The carpeting stills smells new at the facility, which went live a week ago in a nondescript commercial office park on Baltimore's outskirts. A couple dozen computer workstations are arrayed in concentric semicircles in front of a giant screen that can display data and photos, and also enable face-to-face communication with investigators around the country.
Medicare fraud is estimated to cost more than $60 billion annually, and for years the government has been losing a game of "pay and chase," trying to recoup losses after scam artists have already cashed in.
Fraud czar Peter Budetti told reporters on a tour this week that the command center could be a turning point. It brings together in real time the geeks running Medicare's new computerized fraud detection system with gumshoes deployed around the country. Imagine a kind of NCIS-Medicare, except Budetti says it's not make-believe.
"This is not an ivory-tower exercise," Budetti said. "It is very much a real-world one."
But two Republican senators say they already smell boondoggle.
Utah's Orrin Hatch and Oklahoma's Tom Coburn say Medicare's new computerized fraud detection system, a $77-million investment that went into operation last year, is not working all that well. In a letter to HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, they questioned spending millions more on a command center, at least until the bugs get worked out.
"Institutionalizing relationships through establishing a (command) center may be useful, but if huge sums of money have indeed been spent on a video screen while other common-sense recommendations may have not been implemented due to 'resource concerns,' this seems to be a case of misplaced priorities," wrote Hatch and Coburn. Insiders are telling them the screen alone cost several hundred thousand dollars, the senators say.