No jail, no restitution for arsonist?

House fireI’m not one to second-guess judges’ decisions on sentencing. There can be extenuating circumstances in any case that warrant seemingly lenient or severe sentencing decisions.

But still, I wish someone could enlighten me on how a person could set fire to a building, jeopardize the safety of others and get off with just probation — and not even be required to provide restitution to the insurer:

A Bowmansville man who has renovated several dozen East Side properties was spared jail Tuesday for trying to burn down a home he bought on Dartmouth Avenue. He told the judge that he is “not a violent person or a threat to society.”

Erie County Judge Sheila A. DiTullio sentenced Jeffrey Helenbrook, 46, of Genesee Street, to five years’ probation and ordered him to submit to random drug and alcohol testing and any professional counseling the county Probation Department feels he might need.

The judge also fined Helenbrook $270 on his March 10 guilty plea to a reduced felony charge of attempted arson and to reckless endangerment for the Nov. 14, 2005, fire that destroyed the vacant house at 346 Dartmouth, which he purchased for $17,500 in December 2000. However, the judge rejected an insurance company’s demands for restitution, noting Helenbrook was not prosecuted on insurance fraud charges.

Not sure why the prosecutor didn’t file fraud charges, especially since a claim was made by the defendant. This should serve as a lesson to insurers to encourage prosecutors to use fraud statutes, since many of them allow for or automatically require restitution.

Feds announce new anti-fraud measures

holder and sebeliusThe Obama Administration brought out two heavyweights this afternoon to announce the latest new tactics in the federal government’s battle against healthcare fraud. Attorney General Eric Holder and HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius unveiled a series of long-needed actions to prevent, detect and investigate Medicare fraud.

The fact that Holder and Sebelius have placed their reputations on the line to stem fraud is encouraging. Past pronouncements about getting tough with Medicare fraud haven’t lived up to their initial promise. Let’s hope this one will be different. Among the initiatives announced today:

• Renewed coordination between DOJ and HHS.
• Better automation to help detect fraud.
• Expansion of strike forces to Houston and Detroit, and
• Enlisting the aid of consumers in helping to report fraud via a new website.

The fraud-fighting budget already has been boosted by $311 million in Obama’s upcoming budget, and the number of agents and prosecutors dedicated to strike forces in cities around the nation has been increased tenfold.

But still, most of these are common sense initiatives that should have been adopted long ago. One area missing, though, is coordination with the private sector. The federal government and private insurers sometime act like they each have their own set of crooks. There’s growing evidence that many fraudsters go both ways. They cut their teeth in one area, gain confidence and then look to new avenues to ply their trade.

Private insurers should take note of the announcements today and watch carefully in the months ahead to see whether Holder and Sebelius follow through on these initiatives. Because if they are successful and this crackdown is serious, guess where medical providers will turn to next to make up loss profits?

headlineThe announcement today produced much media attention. Here’s one of the more silly headlines from something called Talk Radio News Service. I can just hear the fraudsters chuckling.

Evade the rate, lose your car!

Twenty-eight motorists in Lawrence, Mass. had to find alternative transportation to work Monday morning, thanks to the city’s tough new policy against auto rate evaders. The city towed their cars away during the night for failing to properly register them. Most had registered their vehicles across the border in New Hampshire to escape the higher insurance rates in Massachusetts.

Rate evasion is a way of life in many areas with high insurance rates. In New York City, if you have a grandmother in North Carolina — and she’s willing to let you use her address to insure your car — you can save thousands of dollars.

TowtruckGeographical rate evasion is fraud pure and simple. Insurance consumers in both states are harmed by rate evasion. In the higher-rate jurisdiction, the pool of insurance money is reduced, increasing everyone’s costs. In the lower-rate jurisdiction, the costs of the rate evader’s accidents are charged against that state, making it appear to be more costly for insurers, so when new rates are set, they are increased as well.

It’s a positive sign that law enforcement is getting tougher on rate evaders. More jurisdictions should follow the example set by Lawrence.