A “Free” health screening wasn’t free. Now she owes a medical bill!

A woman we’ll call “Victim One” (whose name I can’t use because of health privacy rules) went to a free stroke prevention screening given by a mobile medical clinic. She ended up on the hook for an extra exam fee when she later went to her own doctor.She was the victim of a scam that has been preying on seniors who depend on Medicare for their health coverage. If you receive Medicare benefits or know someone who does, you need to know about this scam and others currently defrauding seniors and the Medicare program.

For Victim One, the call from the mobile health clinic was hard to resist, offering the free screening at a nearby church. As a Medicare beneficiary on a fixed income, she thought she should take advantage of it.

Once she got to the church, the mobile clinic staff asked for her Medicare number, took her blood pressure, and told her she was overweight. They aggressively tried to get her to pay extra for other services, which she refused.

In December, she went to her regular doctor for her annual wellness visit. That’s a special exam which Medicare covers once every 12 months. However, this time Medicare refused to pay. The reason is that it had already paid the mobile health clinic which claimed it had performed her annual wellness exam. And since Medicare now won’t pay her doctor, she has a bill from him for that appointment.

Victim One lives in Pennsylvania, but a recent alert from the New York Senior Medicare Patrol, a fraud prevention organization, suggests this scam is spreading. According to that alert, these temporary clinics set up at churches, hotels or banquet halls and offer supposedly free preventative services. But the services are not free. The clinics collect insurance information and then bill Medicare. They often pressure their victims to take additional services for which they’re later billed.

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That’s not the only scam that’s costing Medicare and its beneficiaries. Here are some others:
A newspaper ad offered a free back brace that would be covered by Medicare. Victim Two called the toll-free number. Trying to be careful, she asked how much Medicare would be charged and was told $199. So she ordered the brace and gave them her Medicare number. When the product arrived, she realized that it was just like a back belt she had seen at the hardware store for $20. Then she got Medicare’s notice of charges on her account and saw that it had been billed $1300 and paid $1100 for that supposed back brace. What do you think will happen if she actually needs a real back brace and expects Medicare to cover it?
Similar scams, often driven by newspaper ads and flyers, offer a variety of medical equipment such as free motorized wheelchairs, knee braces, and incontinence products as bait. All they need is that Medicare number. But Medicare often won’t pay the full amount to the scammer. So the victim gets billed for the balance. Sometimes the victim’s Medicare account may be flagged “Do Not Pay.”

If you have Medicare or know someone who does, it’s important to understand that theft of Medicare numbers leads to identity theft, false claims, and overbilling, cheating Medicare out of a lot of money.

How big is the problem? The Government Accountability Office estimates that about one dollar out of every ten paid out by Medicare is lost to fraud, abuse, or waste. In 2015, the most recent year for which the GAO estimate is available, that loss was almost $60 billion.
If someone offered you a free service in exchange for your social security number, would you take it? I hope you answered “Of course not” because that sets you up for identity theft. Yet Medicare beneficiaries run that risk because their Medicare number is the same as their social security number.

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That’s a long-standing problem the government is targeting to fix with a plan to issue new Medicare cards next year with different, more secure numbers.

And that leads to the latest Medicare scam alert issued in March by California Health Advocates. Scammers have started calling recipients claiming to be from Medicare, saying they need to verify the current number and other information before sending out a new card. In some cases, the caller says there is a fee that needs to be paid before the new card can be sent, which is not true.

Here are some key points to remember and to pass on to family members on Medicare:

  • Medicare will never call a recipient requesting their information. Don’t give out your Medicare number over the phone to anyone who calls you. It’s your social security number.
  • Medicare beneficiaries should not carry their Medicare card. The only time they need it is when seeing a new doctor or medical provider for the very first time. Keep that card in a safe place with other important documents.
  • Beware of providers who advertise free services or products but request a Medicare number. If it’s really free, they do not need a Medicare number.

Being aware of these scams can help you and people you know avoid losing money. There’s also a bigger picture. In the current political climate, with potential limits on Medicare funding, it’s important to make sure Medicare dollars are available to provide needed health care for seniors instead of lining the pockets of crooks.

Abe Wischnia

Abe started his working career as a television news reporter and newscaster before moving to corporate communications and investor relations. Now retired and having learned useful tips from Elliott.org, one of his volunteer activities is writing for us.

  • ChelseaGirl

    If they say it’s free and then they ask for your Medicare card, it’s clearly a scam. There are legitimate companies that offer screenings for very low prices – I’ve done them. They go around the country and set up in a hotel and they never ask for your insurance info.

  • Dutchess

    Bingo! I dropped my optometrist when she billed my medical insurance AND my eye insurance for the same exam.

  • Bill___A

    Where I live, only approved vendors are allowed to bill to health care. The rates are set in advance so there are not generally scams like this. To read a story like this just makes me shake my head.

  • disqus_00YDCZxqDV

    There are some real despicable people around

  • Bill___A

    I am constantly getting calls on an American phone number I have: “Heather from the dealer processing department” that they sent me a final notice to renew my warranty. Another about “in reference to my current credit card accounts” Just completely random calling and lies. Sometimes they call several times a day. Fax scams too.

  • Maria K. Telegdy

    It amazes me that exactly people who are totally against single payer, are using this services and help defraud the gov.

  • greg watson

    This seems to be a pretty big deal. I wonder if the gov’t / police can organise ‘stings’ to put these creeps out of business & into some rat-infested jail.

  • michael anthony

    I don’t know how, but I’ve gotten on some list where I receive between 30 and 50 calls a week offering these services. I never answer calls I don’t know, so I Google them and they come up as scams.

    One number was particularly bad. Calling 8 times a day. I filed a report via the appropriate government agencies, even including fraud reports from the net. All I got was a postcard that no action woukd be taken, except they’d monitor the number for future complaints. When something is so obviously a scam, why doesn’t the government do more?

  • Carol Molloy

    You might like checking out nomorobo.com. I have had that free service on my landline for years, and it has eliminated scams and telemarketing calls. It is also available for amodest fee on mobile lines.

    Scammers who prey on vulnerable people deserve whatever misfortune befalls them, in my opinion.

  • Bob Davis

    Medicare is generally not interested unless you are talking big bucks. I know someone who presented evidence of improper Medicare billing at a local hospital and they passed.

  • Byron Cooper

    There are a number of issues here. A Medicare provider cannot bill for a “wellness exam” without including a number of elements beyond just a blood pressure. The patient should contact Medicare and report the provider and ask the provider for medical records which they are obligated to provide. A Medicare medical provider cannot bill patients directly unless the patient signs a form that the services are outside of Medicare. Back braces fall under durable medical equipment, “DME” and DME providers have a number of medical requirements and need to get a certificate of medical necessity from a doctor. If it turns out that the provider is violating Medicare rules, the patient can also contact the state medical board, but would start with Medicare.

  • cscasi

    My wife and I are asked to show our insurance cards (including our Medicare card) on the first visit after the new year at ALL the doctors offices we go to here in the Dallas/Fort Worth area and we have been going to some of them for over ten years. They want to scan your cards to ensure that they have the correct information; that nothing has changed and I guess it helps cut down on fraud because some people give insurance cards that are not valid or expired because they have not been paying their premiums or they dropped out or were dropped by the insurance company.
    So, if we were to follow the, “Medicare beneficiaries should not carry their Medicare card. The only time they need it is when seeing a new doctor or medical provider for the very first time. Keep that card in a safe place with other important documents.”, we would not be seen. It is the same when I go to a surgical care center or a hospital for preventive screenings or other procedures. They don’t care if you have a record going back years with them.

  • cscasi

    Probably nothing wrong with billing both because many eye exam insurances only cover a portion of the cost and one has to pay a co-pay. But, by being able to bill both, one normally does not have to get stuck with paying a co-pay.

  • El Dorado Hills

    We have the same situation as cscasi has (below). The lab we go to for our blood work, with is frequently always wants to photocopy our Medicare and supplement cards – even though we have been going there for a number of years and nothing has changed. I agree, I think it is a safety measure for the lab.—I do wish that Medicare would take a more proactive approach to cracking down on fraud, if this became known and the penalties were stiff I think fraud would be greatly reduced.

  • Fishplate

    Speaking as a taxpayer and thus a fund source for Medicare, I would think that $1100 for a $20 brace would add up to big bucks pretty quickly.

  • michael anthony

    Parasites they are. I’ve participated in a stem cell study for the heart. Although they are making progress on all areas they are investigsting, it’s hardly close to it being available as it was to your dad. They should be shut down, until it’s a totally approved and accepted procedures by all agencies. I suppose the government will wait for deaths, until they go after these scams. Thus is the worst I’ve heard off.

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