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By The Skanner News | The Skanner News
Published: 12 July 2006

OLYMPIA — The amount of Medicare spending considered questionable by the federal government is drastically lower than what state investigators suggested earlier this year, state Auditor Brian Sonntag said.
The change comes after a review from federal watchdogs, who found that about $80 million of the $950 million in Medicaid spending flagged by Sonntag is considered questionable spending under federal rules.
That's a reduction of about 92 percent, which pleased officials with the state Department of Social and Health Services, The Olympian newspaper reported Friday.
``There's quite a change there — I'm glad that it went the direction it did,'' health services Secretary Robin Arnold-Williams said. ``I appreciated them doing that ... It's my job to build the credibility of the department.''
The Department of Social and Health Services administers Medicaid in Washington state. The health care program for the poor has a $6.2 billion annual budget in the state, with costs split between the state and federal governments.
In a June 22 letter to Gregoire, Sonntag points out that the full $950 million questioned in his 2005 audit of Medicaid is still considered ``at risk'' by state auditors because of poor controls over the program.
Additionally, the state could still have to repay the $80 million questioned by federal officials, said Mindy Chambers, a Sonntag spokeswoman.
Gregoire was encouraged by the lower amount of federally questioned spending, but still wants to see improvements in the Medicaid program, spokeswoman Holly Armstrong said.
``There are still some problems there that aren't fixed,'' Armstrong said. ``(Gregoire is) still concerned with $80 million and seeing what we can do and what plans we can get in place.''
Sonntag's 2005 audit of Medicaid, released earlier this year, identified nearly 30 problem areas for the program. The questioned spending included more than $83 million in payments for thousands of illegal immigrants' medical expenses.
Half of that money came from the federal government, which only allows its share of Medicaid to be spent on undocumented immigrants in emergencies.
The state was paying providers for non-emergency care, including treatments for ingrown toenails, dental care and acne, auditors said.
At the time, state Medicaid officials said they had improved policies for tracking improper spending after the audit was conducted.

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