Feature Stories

Volunteer Sees Human Cost of Medicare Fraud

Bonnie Parenteau, a (mostly) retired health-care fraud investigator from Milton, started volunteering with Vermont Senior Medicare Patrol because she wanted to learn more about the Medicare system. She also knew that losses to this national medical insurance program due to fraud, errors, and abuse were very high, estimated at $65 billion or more each year.

Bonnie Parenteau

“These losses that are costly to everyone,” said Parenteau, who has been part of the Vermont Senior Medicare Patrol (VT SMP) team for several years now. But there are other harmful impacts such as emotional trauma, poor health outcomes, and wasted time.

“It’s painful to see people taken advantage of,” she said. “Almost everyone has been hurt or betrayed at one time in their life. Most people have a drive to stop the betrayals but before you can detect a problem, you need to have an idea what fraud could be.”

She’s seen the human cost of medical identity crimes during her career. She recalled an incident when a teenager was denied the opportunity to give blood because the Red Cross flagged her Social Security number as belonging to a person who had tested positive for HIV.

One woman, said Parenteau, almost lost her children when an addict stole her medical identity. The state found drug addiction listed in her medical records and began proceedings to take away her children. In other cases, patients have been denied medicine they needed or life insurance due to medical identity theft.

Parenteau came into contact with VT SMP after she retired and moved to Vermont full time from New Hampshire in 2018. She was looking for opportunities to stay busy, first joining the AARP Fraud Watch program and eventually meeting VT SMP staff members.

Much of her volunteer efforts involve working one-on-one with Medicare beneficiaries who have contacted the VT SMP office in Montpelier out of concern their medical information has been compromised. Others are simply overwhelmed or confused by the complexity of the system. She and other VT SMP members make sure callers know how to take steps to protect their personal information, and then pass the scam information to the proper federal enforcement agencies.

Most incidents happen when beneficiaries are contacted by scammers who use pressure or deception to try to get them to provide personal information, such as Medicare or Social Security numbers. The scammer then uses that information to bill Medicare for services, equipment, or medicines that were never prescribed or needed. Often beneficiaries are unaware that the crime has happened.

“We stress that older Vermonters should safeguard their Medicare numbers, SSNs, and all personal information,” said Parenteau. “It’s important to help people when they have questions about abuse or fraud. They may faithfully read their Medicare Summary Notices or Explanation of Benefits but find the numbers and terms confusing. Rightly so! Medical bills are so complicated.”

Parenteau sometimes accompanies staff member Hilary Hoffman, VT SMP’s education and outreach coordinator, on the road making presentations to beneficiaries at community centers across Vermont. She meets lots of older Vermonters and describes them as very sharp and aware of the need to understand the dangers of fraud. Medicare is such a huge entity, she said, that you can’t underestimate the need for awareness. It’s important for older Vermonters to know about Medicare fraud, she said. And it’s also important for VT SMP to hear back from local beneficiaries. In fact, VT SMP staff love hearing from people.

“These folks at SMP are so professional and dedicated. It’s just a pleasure to work with them,” she said.

As a volunteer with experience in medical fraud, Parenteau is highly valuable to the organization, but not all volunteers need the same background. VT SMP is building a team that includes people with experience in public speaking, one-on-one advocacy, office administration, writing, social media, communications, and other skills.

“With her background, dedication, and attention to detail, Bonnie is such a wonderful asset to have on our team,” said Michelle Kessler, Vermont SMP director. “We’re so lucky she’s willing to devote some of her time to helping Vermonters protect themselves from Medicare fraud, errors, and abuse.”

Parenteau said she is intrigued by the motives of scammers who conduct these crimes.

“Medical criminals can be sophisticated, devious, unconcerned with the truth, and highly driven. … I feel like scammers have the thrill of ‘I know something that you don’t know,’” she said.
“They think they are more clever than you. They are greedy, and they like to get something for nothing.”

Parenteau is an accredited health-care fraud investigator through the National Healthcare Anti-Fraud Association. She lives in Milton with husband Jack, an attorney. She works part-time at the UVM College of Nursing and Health Sciences coordinating placements for nurse-practitioner students around the state.

If you are interested in volunteering for VT SMP, contact Anita Hoy at anita@vermontelders.org. You can also call VT SMP at 802-229-4731 or learn more online at VTSMP.org.

Dave Smith is communications coordinator for VT SMP.

Photo of Bonnie Parenteau provided by Dave Smith

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