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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. government on Thursday charged 111 doctors, nurses and other defendants with Medicare crime schemes that exceeded $225 million in false billings, the largest health care fraud crackdown so far.
Attorney General Eric Holder and Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius announced the charges in the latest of a series of cases brought by the Obama administration as health care fraud has emerged as an important political issue.
About 45 million elderly and disabled Americans are enrolled in taxpayer-funded Medicare plans, which have come under fire from critics who say the government pays too much to the companies running them and that they are subject to fraud.
Medicare reform represented a key part of the sweeping year-old health care law championed by Democratic President Barack Obama, but opposed by many Republicans in Congress.
The latest charges covered defendants in nine cities. In addition to arrests, law enforcement agents also executed 16 search warrants.
The defendants were charged various crimes, including conspiracy to defraud the Medicare program, false claims, kickbacks and money laundering, administration officials said.
They said the alleged schemes involved various medical treatments, tests and services, such as home health care, physical and occupational therapy and medical equipment.
"Although today marks a critical step forward in combating and deterring illegal activity, our work is far from over," Holder said. Fraud has accounted for as much as an estimated $60 billion a year in the Medicare program.
A top FBI official, Shawn Henry, said 2,600 health care fraud cases were under investigation and that organized crime groups have been increasingly linked to the alleged schemes.
Sebelius said $4 billion was recovered last year, and the government's Medicare Fraud Strike Force was recently expanded to nine cities, with the addition of Dallas and Chicago.
Reporting by James Vicini; Editing by Cynthia Osterman