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Archive for the ‘Taxpayer Ripoff’ Category

Since I primarily work on fiscal policy, I normally look at the budgetary impact of entitlement programs. And the numbers are very grim.

But I’m also an economist, so I periodically comment on how government intervention undermines the efficient functioning of markets in the healthcare field.

Last but not least, I’m also a taxpayer, so I can’t resist occasionally expressing my frustration at how the government is a giant pinata of waste fraud and abuse. And government-run healthcare seems especially vulnerable.

Huge amounts of money bilked from taxpayers for supposed counseling sessions financed by Medicare and Medicaid.

Medicare getting scammed to pay for plastic surgery.

Russian diplomats scheming to get their healthcare costs covered by Medicaid.

We now have another example to add to the list.

The Washington Post has an excellent expose on how government incompetence has made Medicare a prime target for fraudsters and other crooks.

…in a Los Angeles courtroom, Bonilla described the workings of a peculiar fraud scheme that — starting in the mid-1990s — became one of the great success stories in American crime. The sucker in this scheme was the U.S. government.The tool of the crime was the motorized wheelchair. The wheelchair scam was designed to exploit blind spots in Medicare, which often pays insurance claims without checking them first. Criminals disguised themselves as medical-supply companies. They ginned up bogus bills, saying they’d provided expensive wheelchairs to Medicare patients — who, in reality, didn’t need wheelchairs at all. Then the scammers asked Medicare to pay them back, so they could pocket the huge markup that the government paid on each chair. …The government paid. Since 1999, Medicare has spent $8.2 billion to procure power wheelchairs and “scooters” for 2.7 million people. Today, the government cannot even guess at how much of that money was paid out to scammers.

Wow. Billions of dollars of fraud and the government to this day still can’t figure out the level of theft.

And wheelchair fraud is just a small slice of the problem.

…while it lasted, the scam illuminated a critical failure point in the federal bureaucracy: Medicare’s weak defenses against fraud. The government knew how the wheelchair scheme worked in 1998. But it wasn’t until 15 years later that officials finally did enough to significantly curb the practice. …Fraud in Medicare has been a top concern in Washington for decades, in part because the program’s mistakes are so expensive. In fiscal 2013, for instance, Medicare paid out almost $50 billion in “improper payments.”

You won’t be surprised to learn that fraud is so lucrative because the government routinely over-pays for items.

…The original equipment scam had sprung up in the 1970s, at a time when Medicare was young and criminals were still learning how to steal its money. Doctors, for example, could bill Medicare for exams they didn’t do. Hospitals could bill for tests that patients didn’t need. The equipment scam was the poor man’s way in, an entry-level fraud that didn’t require a medical degree or a hospital. …“Let me put it to you this way: An $840 power wheelchair, Medicare pays close to $5,000 for. So there’s a huge profit margin there. Huge,” said one California man who participated in a recent fraud scheme involving wheelchairs.

So this isn’t just a story about government incompetence and taxpayer ripoffs, it’s also a story which shows why third-party payer is a recipe for excessive healthcare spending.

The good news is that the wheelchair scam is slowly fading away.

The bad news is that the overall problem of a poorly designed entitlement system ensures that scammers and other crooks will simply come up with other ways to pillage taxpayers.

Today, even while the wheelchair scam is in decline, that same “pay and chase” system is allowing other variants of the Medicare equipment scam to thrive. They aren’t perfect. But they work.  In Brooklyn, for instance, the next big thing is shoe inserts. Scammers bill Medicare for a $500 custom-made orthotic, according to investigators. They give the patient a $30 Dr. Scholl’s.

Geesh.

When examining entitlements, I’ve  argued that Medicaid reform is the biggest priority.

But perhaps the rampant fraud means Medicare should be addressed first.

Though the right answer is to reform both programs, which is why I’m so pleased that the House of Representatives has approved the Ryan budget for four consecutive years, even if each new proposal allows more spending than the previous one. What matters most if that Ryan’s plan block grants Medicaid and creates a premium support system for Medicare.

Those reforms won’t eliminate waste, fraud, and abuse, but the structural reforms will make it harder for crooks to take advantage of the programs.

P.S. If you want more background information on Medicare, here’s a post that explains why the program is so costly even though seniors don’t enjoy first-class benefits.

P.P.S. And here’s my video explaining why Medicare desperately needs reform.

But keep in mind we also need reform of Medicaid and Social Security.

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About one year ago, I decided to create a “Moocher Hall of Fame” to highlight how certain people went above and beyond the call of indolence in their efforts to sponge off taxpayers.

This award isn’t for ordinary deadbeats. You have to do something really special (the bad kind of special) to get recognized.

* Like convincing a government to give you “disability” benefits so you can satisfy your diaper-wearing fetish.

* Such as cutting off your own foot to maintain handouts from the state.

* Or trying to impregnate 12-year old girls to increase household welfare payments.

* And how about plotting to kill the people who are subsidizing your laziness.

We have a new candidate for the MHoF.

Or perhaps I should say candidates. Our contestants are a husband and wife who enjoyed a first class lifestyle at taxpayer expense. Here are some passages from a Fox News report.

A Minnesota couple who allegedly lived in expensive homes and owned a yacht while taking more than $160,000 in state welfare benefits has been arrested. …Court documents allege the pair illegally obtained food stamps and other benefits from 2005 to 2012. According to the criminal complaints, over the years, the Chisholms received medical assistance, welfare payments and food stamp benefits. …When they first applied for welfare benefits, the couple allegedly listed their residence as Andrea Chisholm’s mother’s home in Minneapolis. Shortly after getting approved, they moved to Florida, according to court documents. They remained in that state for at least 28 months, first on their $1.2 million yacht, and then moving to a house, officials said. They collected welfare from Florida, as well as Minnesota during that time, which is prohibited, according to court documents.

So why should the Chisholms win an award?

Well, I thought it was supposed to be difficult for married adults to sponge off taxpayers, particularly if there was an able-bodied male in the household, yet that didn’t stop the Chisholms from raking in the cash.

I guess you could consider them to be the older – and American – version of Danny and Gina (though I don’t know if that deadbeat couple is/was married).

But that’s not why the Chisholms deserve to be in the MHoF. What caught my attention is that they financed a yacht with welfare payments. That’s going above and beyond the call of indolence.

P.S. I have to confess that Mr. Chisholm reminded me of Rand Paul, at least at first glance.

Separated at birth?

Though I feel like apologizing for implying any connection. After all, Senator Paul has been kind enough to give me credit for jokes I steal from other people. More important, he defends taxpayers.

Whereas Mr. Chisholm likes to steal from taxpayers.

That’s a big difference.

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The President’s new budget has been unveiled.

There are lots of provisions that deserve detailed attention, but I always look first at the overall trends. Most specifically, I want to see what’s happening with the burden of government spending.

And you probably won’t be surprised to see that Obama isn’t imposing any fiscal restraint. He wants spending to increase more than twice as fast as needed to keep pace with inflation.

Obama 2015 Budget Growth

What makes these numbers so disappointing is that we learned last month that even a modest bit of spending discipline is all that’s needed to balance the budget.

By the way, you probably won’t be surprised to learn that the President also wants a $651 billion tax hike.

That’s in addition to the big fiscal cliff tax hike from early last and the (thankfully smaller) tax increase in the Ryan-Murray budget that was approved late last year.

P.S. Since we’re talking about government spending, I may as well add some more bad news.

I’ve shared some really outrageous examples of government waste, but here’s a new example that has me foaming at the mouth. Government bureaucrats are flying in luxury and sticking taxpayers with big costs. Here are some of the odious details from the Washington Examiner.

What can $4,367 buy? For one NASA employee, it bought a business-class flight from Frankfurt, Germany, to Vienna, Austria. Coach-class fare for the same flight was $39. The federal government spent millions of dollars on thousands of upgraded flights for employees in 2012 and 2013, paying many times more for business and first-class seats than the same flights would have cost in coach or the government-contracted rate. …Agencies report their premium travel expenses to the General Services Administration each year. These reports were obtained by the Washington Examiner through Freedom of Information Act requests. …The most common reasons across agencies for such “premium” flights in 2012 and 2013 were medical necessities and flights with more than 14 hours of travel time.

By the way, “medical necessities” is an easily exploited loophole. All too often, bureaucrats get notes from their doctors saying that they have bad backs (or something similarly dodgy) and that they require extra seating space.

Probably the same doctors who participate in the disability scam.

But I’m digressing. It’s sometimes hard to focus when there are so many examples of foolish government policy.

Let’s look at more examples of taxpayers getting reamed.

One such flight was a trip from Washington, D.C., to Brussels, Belgium, which cost $6,612 instead of $863. Similar mission-required upgrades included several flights to Kuwait for $6,911 instead of $1,471, a flight from D.C. to Tokyo for $7,234 instead of $1,081 and a trip from D.C. to Paris for $6,037 instead of $477. …NASA employees also racked up a long list of flights that cost 26, 72 and even 112 times the cost of coach fares, according to Examiner calculations. Several space agency employees flew from Oslo, Norway, to Tromso, Norway — a trip that should have cost $65. Instead, each flew business class for $4,668. Another NASA employee flew from Frankfurt, Germany, to Cologne, Germany, for $6,851 instead of $133, a flight that cost almost 52 times more than the coach fare. …One flight from D.C. to Hanoi, Vietnam, for an informational meeting cost $15,529 instead of $1,649, according to the agency’s 2012 report.

Frankfurt to Cologne for $6851?!? Did the trip include caviar and a masseuse? A domestic flight in Norway for $4668? Was the plane made of gold?

I do enough international travel to know that these prices are absurd, even if you somehow think bureaucrats should get business class travel (and they shouldn’t).

And as you might suspect, much of the travel was for wasteful boondoggles.

Department of the Interior employees, for example, flew to such exotic locations as Costa Rica, Denmark, Japan and South Africa in 2012. …The Department of Labor sent employees to places like Vietnam and the Philippines for “informational meetings,” conferences and site visits.

The one sliver of good news is that taxpayers didn’t get ripped off to the same extent last year as they did the previous year.

The agencies spent $5.7 million in 2012, almost double the $3 million they paid for premium travel in 2013.

The moral of the story is that lowering overall budgets – as happened in 2013 – is the only effective way of reducing waste.

P.P.S. Want to know why the tax reform plan introduced by Congressman Dave Camp was so uninspiring, as I noted last week?

The answer is that he preemptively acquiesced to the left’s demands that class warfare should guide tax policy. Politico has the details.

Republicans had vowed for more than three years to slash the top individual income tax rate to 25 percent as part of a Tax Code overhaul. …last week Camp abandoned plans for a deep cut in the top marginal tax rate. He settled for 35 percent, which is just 4 percentage points lower than the current one. “It was a distribution issue,” Camp said. Getting all the way down to 25 percent “would have reduced taxes for the top 1 percent” and “I said we would be distributionally neutral.”

In other words, this is the tax code version of the Brezhnev Doctrine. Whenever the left is successful is raising the tax burden on the so-called rich (the top 20 percent already bears two-thirds of the burden), that then supposedly becomes a never-to-be-changed benchmark.

Fortunately, Reagan did not accept the left’s distorted rules and we got the Economic Recovery Tax Act in 1981, which helped trigger the 1980s boom.

And even when Reagan agreed to “distributional neutrality,” as happened as part of the 1986 Tax Reform Act, at least he got something big in exchange.

The Camp plan, by contrast, is thin gruel.

A big rate cut is what powered the last major tax overhaul, in 1986, which delivered tax cuts to every income group while slicing the top rate to 28 percent from a whopping 50 percent. …Lawmakers may look at the proposal and think: “I’m having the world coming down on me” and “all this just to get the rate down 4 points?”

That being said, the Camp plan has plenty of good features, including modest rate reductions and repeal of a few bad loopholes. But it’s accompanied by some really bad provisions, such as increased double taxation and higher taxes on business investment.

P.P.P.S. Long-time readers may remember this amusing Reagan-Obama comparison.

For understandable reasons, that’s what crossed my mind when seeing this example of Obama humor.

I should hasten to add, incidentally, that this is not to suggest I want Obama to do anything about the Ukrainian conflict (other than perhaps encourage decentralized power).

Unless one genuinely thinks that Putin has both the capacity and the desire for global imperialism, it’s hard to see how America’s national security is affected.

But I still appreciate good political humor. I like it when Obama is the target, and I like it even when it’s directed at people like me.

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Every so often, I share stories about the ridiculous and outrageous way in which the federal government squanders our money.

So when I saw this New York Post story about the feds pissing away a six-figure sum on condom research, I figured this would be a perfect addition to my collection of government waste stories.

The federal government is stretching your tax dollars — in search of the perfect condom. The National Institutes of Health will spend $224,863 to test 95 “custom-fitted” condoms so every American man can choose the one that fits just right.

And it’s a good match with this story about Washington flushing away more than $400K on research about men not liking to wear condoms.

Do we really need to spend other people’s money to figure out that guys, if they have to wear condoms, would like them to fit?!?

But then I found something in the story that genuinely surprised me. Apparently there are federal regulations that restrict the types of condoms that can be sold in the United States!

The NIH blames US “regulatory guidelines” for American men having to choose from a “narrow range of condom sizes.” The six-figure grant was awarded to TheyFit of Covington, Ga., which offers a wide variety of condoms that vary in length — from a bit more than 3 inches to nearly 9 ¹/₂ — and in width. They’re available in European Union countries, but not in the United States, where they would have to be approved by the Food and Drug Administration.

I’m flabbergasted. I can vaguely understand why the government might regulate some aspects of condom production, such as durability rules to limit breakage. I don’t think such red tape is necessary because companies already plenty of incentive – because of both reputational risk and preemptive legal protection – to maintain good standards.

But at least you can see a rationale for bureaucrats to intervene.

I can’t imagine, though, what excuse regulators came up with when they decided to limit the variety of condom sizes. Maybe this is a literal example of the one-size-fits-all mentality of Washington?

Condom UNAnd isn’t it embarrassing that Europeans have a more market-friendly approach on this issue?

Though none of us should be surprised that the Keystone Cops at the United Nations want to create a human right to obtain taxpayer-financed condoms.

At least Sandra Fluke will be happy about that.

P.S. Here’s a Glenn McCoy cartoon about Obama and subsidized condoms.

P.P.S. Since I started this post with examples of wasteful spending, but then decided that this story might belong in the category of absurd regulation, let’s close by sharing some examples of foolish red tape.

Addendum: A friend with a warped sense of humor emailed to suggest a unflattering link between the condom research and the note left on my windshield right before Christmas. So I can only imagine what my enemies are saying.

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Look, up in the sky! It’s a bird, it’s a plane…no it’s Super Bureaucrat!

Actually, look to New Jersey, because you’re going to see a taxpayer ripoff that will get your blood boiling. Depending on your perspective, this may be worse that the toll collector on the New Jersey Turnpike who pocketed more than $300,000 in a single year.

Because today’s super bureaucrat isn’t getting overpaid for one job. He’s getting overpaid for six jobs!

Here are some excerpts from a local news report in New Jersey (h/t: Reason).

Patrick DeBlasio was hired Wednesday as Highlands’ chief financial officer — his sixth concurrent public job and ranking him among the highest-paid public employees in New Jersey. Highlands will pay DeBlasio a $40,000 annual salary on a part-time basis… DeBlasio will not have to work a minimum number of hours, said Administrator Tim Hill, or be required to go into the office.

Maybe one day I can get one of these $40,000 no-show jobs that don’t require any work. But I don’t know if I could juggle several of them, and this is what makes DeBlasio special.

DeBlasio has a full-time job as Carteret’s CFO and part-time gigs in Keansburg, North Plainfield and the Carteret School District, the report said. He is also currently Highland’s tax collector.

It’s rather convenient that he also serves as a tax collector since it takes a lot of money to finance all his government salaries.

In 2012, DeBlasio’s annual compensation totaled $244,606, more than Gov. Chris Christie or state Treasurer Andrew P. Sidamon-Eristoff, who earn $175,000 and $141,000, respectively.

As the old saying goes, nice work if you can get it.

Maybe it’s time to start a Bureaucrat Hall of Fame, sort of like our Moocher Hall of Fame. In addition to Mr. DeBlasio (and the toll collector mentioned above), charter members could include the following.

When you read these stories, it’s easy to understand why so many states are in fiscal trouble.

And it also makes sense that state and local bureaucrats are far less likely to quit their jobs than folks in the productive sector of the economy. After all, how many people leave positions when they’re being overpaid?

But don’t forget that federal bureaucrats enjoy an even bigger pay advantage over private sector workers. Indeed, my Cato colleague Chris Edwards reports that they get twice as much average compensation as the serfs in the productive sector of the economy who pay their bills.

This video has the unhappy details.

P.S. Super Bureaucrat joins a list of other “super heroes,” including Government Man, and also two caped crusaders inspired by President Obama. Thanks to Michael Ramirez, we have “Stupor Man.” And there’s also Super-President-Constitutional-Law-Professor.

P.P.S. Is there some hidden strand of DNA that causes people named de Blasio to be burdens to taxpayers?

P.P.P.S. Shifting gears, remember our story about ten days ago featuring the little kid who was suspended from school for firing an imaginary bow and arrow? Well, we have another example showing that government schools could be considered a form of child abuse.

A 5-year-old boy was reportedly suspended from school after making a gun gesture with his hand on the playground. His father, David Hendrix, was furious when he found out his son was issued a suspension for the gesture. “He was playing army on the playground,” Hendrix told WBTV.

Yet another argument for school choice.

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When you work in Washington (and assuming you haven’t been corrupted), you run the risk of being endlessly outraged about all the waste.

But not all waste is created equal. Some examples are so absurd that they deserve special attention.

We now have another example to add to the list. Russian diplomats have been busted for bilking the Medicaid program of more than $1 million.

This is so outrageous that it may actually be the impetus for some desperately needed reform, as I suggest in this interview with Neil Cavuto.

But is fraud really a problem? Defenders of the Medicaid entitlement presumably would like us to think that this latest story is just an anomaly.

That would be nice, but the experts who have looked at the issue have come to a much different conclusion.

While food stamp fraud is significant, especially with a record-high 47 million Americans now on food stamps, it pales in comparison to what is stolen from Medicare and Medicaid. …It is widely accepted across the political spectrum that upwards of $100 billion of that amount is fraud and abuse. Recently, a report from the Oversight and Government Reform Committee in the US House of Representatives outlined many billions of dollars being wasted every year just in New York’s Medicaid program. Grossly inflated payments to intermediate care facilities and excessive salaries were just the tip of the iceberg in a $53 billion program that easily bleeds  more than $10 billion annually to criminals.

So what’s the best way of dealing with the Medicaid mess? Fortunately, we have a simple answer. As I mentioned in the interview, the entire program should be block granted and turned over to the states.

That doesn’t automatically eliminate fraud, but it does create much better incentives for sound governance since state taxpayers would be the ones picking up the tab if a state program is riddled with fraud. Under the current system, by contrast, the cost of waste and malfeasance is spread among taxpayers from all 50 states.

This video from the Center for Freedom and Prosperity explains how block grants would work.

One final point to emphasize is that fraud reduction is really just a fringe benefit if we reform Medicaid.

The main reasons to decentralize the program are fiscal sanity and better health care policy.

But the one common thread is that third-party payer facilitates problems, whether we’re looking at excessive costs, health inefficiency, or rampant fraud.

P.S. Don’t forget the other two big entitlements that need reform, Social Security and Medicare. Like Medicaid, Medicare has major challenges with fraud. From what I understand, the retirement portion of Social Security doesn’t have major fraud issues, but the disability program is a huge problem.

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I’ve written before that Obama’s Solyndra-style handouts have been a grotesque waste of tax dollars.

I’ve argued that they destroy jobs rather than create jobs.

I’ve gone on TV to explain why government intervention in energy creates a cesspool of cronyism.

I’ve even shared a column from Obama’s hometown newspaper that criticizes the rank corruption in green-energy programs.

And it goes without saying that I’ve disseminated some good cartoons on the issue.

But even though green-energy programs are a disgusting boondoggle, American taxpayers and consumers should be thankful they’re not in Germany.

Our programs may be wasteful and corrupt, but we’re amateurs compared to what’s happening on the other side of the Atlantic.

Here are some passages from a must-read story in Der Spiegel.

The government predicts that the renewable energy surcharge added to every consumer’s electricity bill will increase from 5.3 cents today to between 6.2 and 6.5 cents per kilowatt hour — a 20-percent price hike. German consumers already pay the highest electricity prices in Europe. But because the government is failing to get the costs of its new energy policy under control, rising prices are already on the horizon. Electricity is becoming a luxury good in Germany.

As is so often the case with government intervention, the promises from politicians about low costs were a mirage.

Even well-informed citizens can no longer keep track of all the additional costs being imposed on them. According to government sources, the surcharge to finance the power grids will increase by 0.2 to 0.4 cents per kilowatt hour next year. On top of that, consumers pay a host of taxes, surcharges and fees that would make any consumer’s head spin. Former Environment Minister Jürgen Tritten of the Green Party once claimed that switching Germany to renewable energy wasn’t going to cost citizens more than one scoop of ice cream. Today his successor Altmaier admits consumers are paying enough to “eat everything on the ice cream menu.”

Perhaps the most shocking part of the story is that Germans are being forced to pay $26 billion in subsidies to get less than $4 billion of green energy.

For society as a whole, the costs have reached levels comparable only to the euro-zone bailouts. This year, German consumers will be forced to pay €20 billion ($26 billion) for electricity from solar, wind and biogas plants — electricity with a market price of just over €3 billion. Even the figure of €20 billion is disputable if you include all the unintended costs and collateral damage associated with the project. …On Thursday, a government-sanctioned commission plans to submit a special report called “Competition in Times of the Energy Transition.” The report is sharply critical, arguing that Germany’s current system actually rewards the most inefficient plants, doesn’t contribute to protecting the climate, jeopardizes the energy supply and puts the poor at a disadvantage.

Here’s what it means for ordinary people.

In the near future, an average three-person household will spend about €90 a month for electricity. That’s about twice as much as in 2000. Two-thirds of the price increase is due to new government fees, surcharges and taxes. …Today, more than 300,000 households a year are seeing their power shut off because of unpaid bills. Caritas and other charity groups call it “energy poverty.”

Not surprisingly, politically well-connected interest groups are the ones reaping the benefits.

…the renewable energy subsidies redistribute money from the poor to the more affluent, like when someone living in small rental apartment subsidizes a homeowner’s roof-mounted solar panels through his electricity bill. The SPD, which sees itself as the party of the working class, long ignored this regressive aspect of the system. The Greens, the party of higher earners, continue to do so. Germany’s renewable energy policy is particularly unfair with respect to the economy. About 2,300 businesses have managed to largely exempt themselves from the green energy surcharge by claiming, often with little justification, that they face tough international competition. Companies with less lobbying power, however, are required to pay the surcharge.

Let’s conclude with an ominous excerpt from the article. Even though prices already are very high, energy will get even more expensive in the future.

If the government sticks to its plans, the price of electricity will literally explode in the coming years. According to a current study for the federal government, electricity will cost up to 40 cents a kilowatt-hour by 2020, a 40-percent increase over today’s prices.

And isn’t it nice to know that Obama is doing everything he can to impose these policies in the United States?

This cartoon from Michael Ramirez is a perfect summary of Obama’s policy.

Ramirez Green Energy Cartoon

You can see why Ramirez won my political cartoonist contest.

P.S. I don’t like being the bearer of bad news, but green-energy subsidies are just one part of the statist/green agenda. The IMF, for instance, has recommended a huge carbon tax (about $5,500 per year for a family of four!) for the United States. A few gullible folks think this might not be a bad idea if the money gets used to lower other taxes, but they’re the same people who get suckered into buying oceanfront property in Kansas.

P.P.S. Germany may be more responsible (less irresponsible) than certain other European nations, but the country’s political elite is hopelessly statist. Even the supposedly pro-liberty political party tilts left and wants bigger government. Yet the Washington Post still thought it was appropriate and accurate to declare that Germany is “fiscally conservative.” Sure, and I’m a socialist.

P.P.P.S. But at least the mess in Europe has generated some amusing videos (here, here, and here), as well as a very funny set of maps.

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