$98 Billion in Improper Payments

PrintPrint

The Obama administration and its allies in Congress want the federal government to expand its role in subsidizing health care. We are told that this expansion will restrain rising health care costs. But an OMB report yesterday that the government made $98 billion in improper payments last year – $55 billion of which came from Medicare and Medicaid – ought to raise suspicions about that claim. 

According to Reuters, OMB Director Peter Orszag told reporters that the embarrassing figures from Medicare and Medicaid demonstrate the need for health care reform. I would concur if “reform” meant reducing the government’s role in health care. However, he means the opposite, which raises the question of how giving more money to an already waste-prone and bureaucratic federal health system can possibly make sense for the economy.  

The administration has promised to cut down on improper payments with the aid of a new executive order. According to the Associated Press:
Under the executive order, every federal agency would have to maintain a Web site that tracks improper payments, error rates and outstanding payments. If an agency doesn’t meet targets for reducing error rates for two years in a row, the agency director and responsible official will have to directly report to OMB to explain the delinquency and new actions they will take.
Somehow I doubt this will amount to much of a deterrent. The AP also said the administration plans to impose penalties on government contractors who receive improper payments. But last month it was reported that “the Department of Defense awarded nearly $30 million in stimulus contracts to six companies while they were under federal criminal investigation on suspicion of defrauding the government.”
 
Democrat Tom Carper, chairman of the Senate subcommittee on federal financial management, seemed to partly understand the broader meaning of the improper payment estimates: 
It goes without saying that these results would be completely unacceptable in the private sector, as they should be in government, especially at a time of record deficits… Unfortunately, these numbers may still be just the tip of the iceberg since they don’t even include estimates for several major programs, including the Medicare prescription drug plan. 
Yes, Senator, which is precisely why bigger government – be it stimulus, bailouts, or health care reform – is an inferior option to letting the marketplace provide for our wants and needs.
 
Carper is also right about the $98 billion figure being the “tip of the iceberg.” As has been noted here before
The Government Accountability Office estimates that the two major government health programs are currently losing a combined $50 billion annually to such payments. But that estimate probably low-balls the actual losses. Harvard’s Malcolm Sparrow, a top specialist in health care fraud, estimates that 20 percent of federal health program budgets are consumed by improper payments, which would be a staggering $150 billion a year for Medicare and Medicaid. 

See this essay for more on fraud and abuse in government programs.