WASHINGTON - Health care fraud once was a faceless crime. Now it has a mug shot, even a smile.
Medicare and Medicaid scams cost taxpayers more than $60 billion a year, but bank holdups are more likely to get greater attention.
The government wants the public's help in trying to catch more than 170 fugitives wanted for fraud, so it's developed a new health care most-wanted list, with its own website - oig.hhs.gov. Most are dour; some sport smiles.
One name on the list is Leonard Nwafor, convicted in Los Angeles of billing Medicare more than $1 million for motorized wheelchairs that people didn't need. One person who got a wheelchair was a blind man who later testified he couldn't see to operate it.
Facing time in federal prison, Nwafor disappeared before his sentencing.
"We're looking for new ways to press the issue of catching fugitives," said Gerald Roy, deputy inspector general for investigations at the Health and Human Services Department. "If someone walks into a bank and steals $3,000 or $4,000, it would be all over the newspaper."
Even though motorized wheelchairs can cost up to $7,000 apiece, Nwafor's scam was on the low end when compared with others who made the most-wanted list.
Roy said he hopes this newest list will raise awareness about the importance of combating health care fraud. Medicare and Medicaid, which provide care for about 100 million people in the United States, are in serious financial trouble and can't afford to be hemorrhaging tens of billions a year because of fraud.
Most people go to elaborate lengths to avoid having their scams detected. But there often is a telltale sign.
To document his transactions, wheelchair purveyor Nwafor assembled elaborate paper files, complete with bogus prescriptions and photos of beneficiaries in their wheelchairs. But investigators had a hunch they were on to something when they discovered that most of his customers lived nearly 200 miles away from his Los Angeles-area store.