The Washington Post had a major front page story reporting on scammers pushing unneeded motorized wheelchairs to seniors. Medicare pays roughly $5,000 for each chair, which allows for a large profit to suppliers as well as payments to intermediaries who would push the chairs to people who did not need or want a motorized wheelchair.

The piece is a useful exposure of a major scam operation, however it never puts the cost of the scam in a perspective that would be meaningful to most readers. At one point it tells readers that Medicare spent a Really Big Number ($8.2 billion) on these motorized wheelchairs since 1999. It would have been helpful to inform readers that this amounted to 0.14 percent of the $5.8 trillion that Medicare paid out over this period. 

Of course not all of the payments were made for unnecessary wheel chairs. If 60-70 percent of the wheel chairs were not needed, then fraudulent sales would come to roughly 0.1 percent of Medicare spending over this period.

This is hardly a trivial sum, but by failing put the numbers in context readers may wrongly be lead to believe that the Medicare program is grossly inefficient because of such scams. In fact, because the program has much lower administrative costs than the private sector (@ 2 percent for Medicare compared to 15-20 percent for private insurers), the country is still saving an enormous amount of money because the government is providing Medicare rather than private insurers.

If administrative costs were at the level of the insurance industry, Medicare would have cost between $600 billion and $900 billion more since 1999. It is also worth noting that private insurers are also often victims of scams.

 

Note: The figure for administrative costs for Medicare refers to the traditional fee for service Medicare program. Parts C and D, which are administered by private insurers, have considerably higher costs.

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