WASHINGTON -- After walking unassisted from the back of a Los Angeles courtroom, 85-year-old Euralda Clodomar refused the hand of a deputy and climbed into the witness chair.
Let the record show, the prosecutor told jurors, she didn't use a wheelchair.
Clodomar doesn't own a wheelchair, let alone the motorized model that was charged to Medicare at a cost of $3,840.
An equipment supplier had obtained her Medicare identification number and taken her and the taxpayers for a ride in a fast-growing new swindle that has cost the government's main health-care assistance program tens of millions of dollars.
Fifty separate investigations under way in nearly two dozen states have identified $167 million in fraudulent powered wheelchair claims, officials said.
"It certainly is the fastest-growing scam in Medicare," said Dara Corrigan, acting inspector general in the Department of Health and Human Services. "It's about a wheelchair that is very expensive and about people trying to make a profit."
The number of Medicare beneficiaries with at least one claim for a motorized wheelchair rose from about 55,000 in 1999 to 168,245 in the first nine months of this year.
Part of the increase can be explained by improvements that allow the wheelchairs to turn in a small radius. But an industry group, the Power Mobility Coalition, agrees that some claims result from fraud, and it is supporting the current government crackdown -- called "Operation Wheeler Dealer."
Medicare's crackdown has recovered $52.5 million so far.
Clodomar and other beneficiaries who testified in the Los Angeles case helped persuade a jury to convict Goodwill Sunday Edukere after just 30 minutes of deliberations. Edukere had to return $249,000 and was sentenced to 33 months in prison.
Clodomar didn't know a claim had been submitted until federal agents came to see if she had a powered wheelchair. She convinced them the same way she convinced jurors.
"I walked from the back of the house, where my room is, to the front," she said. "I said, 'I don't need one, thank God.'"