Clinton: Late to the Cause

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WASHINGTON, D.C.: While President Clinton is taking up the right cause in announcing new legislative proposals to prevent crooked doctors from abusing the Medicare and Medicaid programs, he could have accomplished much of what he aims to do if he had carried out laws passed in 1996 and 1987 for the same purpose. A new report from his own Department of Health and Human Services points out that the Administration has yet to establish a national data base called for under a 1996 law that would track doctors convicted for crimes, some of whom have lost their licenses as a result. Yet the President is now calling for a new law that would require such a database. Regulators have known for years that even when physicians are convicted of crimes and are stripped of their medical licenses in one state, they often continue practicing in other states, sometimes only a few miles over the line from the location where they were caught. New York doctors have moved ten miles to New Jersey, safely beyond the reach of officials familiar with their records; North Carolina doctors have moved a few miles to Virginia. One physician who lost his license in Maryland, and was forbidden to practice in New York and Ohio, collected $172,000 in Medicare payments last year in Virginia, according to the New York Times. Like the 1996 law, the new Clinton legislation would enable federal and state officials to access such information. In addition, the new legislation would hold hospitals and HMOs accountable if they certify such a doctor. While it is hard to argue against a bill that could help save some of the billions of dollars lost to Medicaid and Medicare fraud (federal estimates range as high as $20 billion), the real test of the Clinton Administrationís determination will not be new laws requiring action, but action itself.