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Another myth busted: providers -- not recipients -- bilk Medicare

If there's one thing Americans hate, it's waste and fraud in government programs. In past decades, politicians have played on that hate, spreading the belief that fraud and waste are rampant, particularly among people who receive benefits from public programs. In the 80s and 90s, a particularly unflattering portrait was painted of welfare recipients: the "welfare queen."

Welfare queens were typically described as single mothers without paying jobs who, through cunning navigation of the system, were able to live the high life on the government's dime. Whether welfare queens ever really existed, however, is entirely open to question.

Recently, however, the U.S. Department of Justice provided some pretty strong evidence that the stereotype of individuals gaming the system is largely untrue. In this case, the system wasn't welfare but Medicare -- the government insurance program enjoyed by U.S. retirees. If you thought Medicare providers offices were plagued by people seeking unnecessary medical treatment, think again.

'Largest criminal healthcare fraud takedown' took down medical providers, not patients

The big announcement occurred on Thursday. U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch announced the arrests of 243 people accused of bilking Medicare of $712 million. Among those accused doctors, nurses, pharmacists and other medical professionals, many of whom appear to have intentionally billed Medicare for unnecessary treatments, drugs, and medical devices, or for patients they had never seen.

For example, one doctor is accused essentially of coercing drug-dependent patients into giving him personal information he could use to create false bills. As long as they complied, the Justice Department says, he continued to prescribe them with the painkillers they were addicted to.

In another case, a doctor is accused of prescribing power wheelchairs for patients who didn't need them -- and sometimes didn't get them. Overall, he was allegedly responsible for 1,000 such prescriptions, costing Medicaid some $23 million.

Based on a prosecutor's bare allegations, we can't possibly know whether any of those arrested are actually guilty, of course. What the story demonstrates, however, is that the public perception of crime and criminals is often quite wrong. Remember that the next time you blame government waste on welfare queens or anyone else. It's facts, not stereotypes, that really matter.

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