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Con Men Prey On Confusion Over Healthcare Act

Mon, 11/11/2013 - 11:05am
Jessica Silver-Greenberg and Susanne Craig

To the list of problems plaguing President Obama’s healthcare law, add one more — fraud.

With millions of Americans frustrated and bewildered by the trouble-prone federal website for health insurance, con men and unscrupulous marketers are seizing their chance. State and federal authorities report a rising number of consumer complaints, ranging from deceptive sales practices to identity theft, linked to the Affordable Care Act.

Madeleine Mirzayans was fooled when a man posing as a government official knocked on her door. Barbara Miller and Maevis Ethan were pitched by telemarketers who claimed to work for Medicaid. And Buford Price was almost caught by another trap: websites that look official but are actually bait set by fly-by-night insurance operators.

Some level of fraud or abuse is predictable with any big government program, and administration officials expected a few bad actors to emerge. Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr.; Kathleen Sebelius, the secretary of health and human services; Edith Ramirez, the chairwoman of the Federal Trade Commission; and other officials met at the White House in September to discuss possible pitfalls.

But now, the technical failures troubling the HealthCare.gov website, as well as the law’s complexity, threaten to make matters worse. Only a tiny fraction of Americans have been affected so far, but state authorities and the F.T.C. are reviewing the issue aggressively.

“With this changing health insurance landscape, there is a new opportunity for people to take advantage of our residents, and we’ve seen it starting already,” said Kate Abernathy, a spokeswoman at the Tennessee Department of Commerce and Insurance.

While it is difficult to quantify the problem, interviews with authorities in states including California, Florida, Illinois and New York suggest that fraud is a growing worry. Websites are particularly difficult to police.

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