BUSINESS
05/29/2013 03:00 pm ET | Updated May 30, 2013

Eyelid Surgery Covered By Medicare Costs Taxpayers Millions

Taxpayers are forced to pay tens of millions of dollars for a potentially unnecessary cosmetic eyelid surgery covered by Medicare, according to the Center for Public Integrity.

The nonpartisan investigative news organization reports that the number of blepharoplasties -- lifts for patients whose droopy eyelids significantly impaired their vision -- more than tripled to 136,000 a year between 2001 and 2011. Physicians were billed $20 million for the procedure in 2001; it skyrocketed to $80 million in 2011, according to the report.

While many seniors use eyelid surgery to address a bothersome health condition, other physicians say some patients are simply going after the promise of a "more youthful appearance," CPI found.

Medicare does not typically cover cosmetic surgery, but the program makes exceptions when medical needs are involved, such as breast implants after a mastectomy. Experts worry that some are using the Medicare system to pay for elective eyelid surgery and that this type of fraud isn't being caught. As a result, taxpayers must foot the bill.

“With this kind of management malpractice, it’s little wonder that the [Medicare] program is in such dire shape,” Senator Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) told CPI. “The federal government is essentially asking people to game the system. Every dollar we spend on cosmetic surgery that isn’t necessary is a dollar that can’t be used to shore up the program for people who need it the most.”

This isn't the first time Medicare has come under scrutiny for questionable procedures.

The program's payments for penis pumps jumped to 500 percent in 2012, spurring a fraud investigation. Medicare also paid $36 million for "male vacuum erection systems" in 2011, up from $7 million in 2000.

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