November 11, 1997 in City

New Admonition: First, Do No Scams

By The Spokesman-Review
 

Who’s more likely to hurt you: A blue collar robber with a grimy sweatshirt and a loaded .357 or a white collar thief with a medical degree?

Nationwide, the rate of violent crime is dropping.

But white collar crime affects everyone, especially the frightened elderly folks who barricade themselves into their homes fearing some shadowy creep with a .357 while a smiling professional in a white jacket is picking their pocket.

The federal government estimates that fraud and waste gobble $23 billion a year, or 14 percent, of the cost of Medicare, the health care program for the elderly. And that’s just one form of white collar crime.

With Medicare struggling for solvency and taking a bite out of every working American’s paycheck, this one category of white collar theft is enough to make a person think that our understanding of crime needs to be expanded.

It’s comparatively easy to understand, and catch, a bank robber.

But it is difficult to determine whether a white collar crime even has occurred. And if one has, it is difficult to get a conviction and to place the crime in perspective.

The investigation of Spokane’s Northwest Nephrology Associates brings this issue uncomfortably close to home.

Launched by a whistleblower two years ago, the federal investigation still is not complete. A whistleblower’s lawsuit is pending in federal court. No criminal charges have yet been filed. A shadow has been cast over respected figures in the medical community.

The allegations are stunning: Northwest Nephrology may have overbilled Medicare - that’s us, taxpayers - by up to $5 million. The alleged MO was as simple as taking a phony tax deduction: Hospital nurses say they were routinely told to report that Northwest Nephrology doctors had visited each kidney dialysis patient twice. Nationwide, 80 percent of dialysis cases require only a single doctor visit. The alleged change in billing would roughly have doubled the clinic’s compensation from Medicare.

If some thug with a .357 had stolen $5 million from an armored car, it would be big news. But the allegations against Northwest Nephrology produce an ambivalent reaction. The clinic’s professionals really did save lives. They are upstanding members of the community.

And it is taking investigators a long time to sort out the case. That’s appropriate, given all that is at stake.

Still, if charges turn out to be warranted, the U.S. Attorney’s office must be careful to avoid giving the impression that crime pays if you wear a white jacket and drive a luxurious getaway car.

, DataTimes The following fields overflowed: CREDIT = John Webster/For the editorial board


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