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Editorial: Reining in improper U.S. payments must be priority

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ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Whether intentional (i.e. fraudulent), the result of sloppy bookkeeping or almost certainly a combination of the two, $100 billion a year in improper government payouts over five years adds up.

In 2013, federal agencies made $106 billion in improper payments – $97 billion in overpayments and $9 billion in underpayments – to recipients of government programs like Medicare and unemployment insurance. Government health programs are the biggest sources of improper payments, according to agency estimates.

To give some credit where it’s due: The Obama administration says it has reduced the amount of improper payments, which hit a high of $121 billion in 2010, and recovered more than $22 billion in overpayments last year, according to Beth Cobert, deputy director of the White House budget office. “We have taken an aggressive approach to attacking waste, fraud and abuse within federal agencies, and we will continue to seek out new and innovative tools to help us in this fight,” Cobert told the House Oversight government operations subcommittee last week.

However, the independent Government Accountability Office questions the accuracy of agency estimates – required each year – and says the real cost could be higher. Beryl H. Davis, GAO director of financial management, told the subcommittee some agencies don’t even develop estimates for programs that could be susceptible to improper payments.

Davis also pointed to the Defense Department, saying its estimates “may not be reliable,” a point Mark E. Easton, the Defense Department’s deputy chief financial officer, disputed. “We have reason to believe that the numbers are sound but we certainly understand why the skepticism exists,” Easton told the subcommittee.

Finger-pointing aside, when $100 billion a year represents just 3.5 percent of all the payments made by the federal government, the scope of public largess is staggering.

Congress and the White House should keep up the pressure to minimize waste and abuses like covering unwarranted medical procedures or sending unemployment checks to people who are secretly working.

That money could be put to better uses – for starters hiring more doctors to provide prompt medical care for U.S. veterans.

This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.

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