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Medicare paid $120m in illegal care

MIAMI — The taxpayer-funded Medicare program paid more than $120 million from 2009 to 2011 in violation of federal law for medical services for inmates and illegal immigrants, according to two reports issued Thursday by federal health officials.

By law, Medicare generally does not pay for services for either group of patients. But the program was billed for more than $33 million in inmate care and more than $91 million for illegal immigrant care over that period, according to the reports from the Department of Health and Human Services inspector general.

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In 2011, Medicare expenditures were $549 billion, making Thursday’s figures a fraction of the program’s annual budget. But the reports come as the Obama administration and Congress look for savings in a lean budget year. Putting a dent in Medicare fraud, estimated at $60 billion a year, has the potential for major savings. The reports recommend that officials establish a better system to automatically flag charges for inmates and illegal immigrants.

The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services already had a system in place to do so, but the reports found that the system didn’t catch improper bills until they had already been paid.

The agency agreed in the report that the system needs to be improved, and in April, Medicare is launching a process to help recoup lost money.

‘‘For cases where Medicare is informed of patients’ unlawful presence after claims have been paid, we are working to implement a process for quickly and completely recouping these improper payments,’’ the agency said in a statement Thursday.

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