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Wow, Assembly Medicaid action? Why does it take a newspaper series to wake up Albany to health care mess?

Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver this week announced public hearings into fraud in Medicaid, the state's $44.5 billion health care program for the poor. The statewide hearings, including work by no fewer than four committees, are certainly welcome news from a state capital that keeps inaction high on its to-do list. But isn't this much like holding hearings on bank robbery?

In announcing the action, Silver provided comments from the chairs of the committees who will form this grandiose task force of sorts. And several of them, who presumably were free to hold such hearings into ongoing fraud last year, the year before, the year before, or the year before that, sounded earnest in their desire to find fixes and reforms. And the Senate Tuesday got on the bandwagon.

Yet did a New York Times' series, highlighting the millions of dollars stolen from taxpayers under the guise of Medicaid, provide insufficient fodder to act first and listen later? Did it even tell legislators in Albany something they didn't know or at least suspect? Is there a multibillion-dollar government program anywhere that's not an invitation to fraud?

So let's spend some more of that endless taxpayer money and send four committees' worth of people all over the state holding hearings to find out that (drum roll) New York has a big Medicaid fraud problem.

Assembly members do make a good point that the Pataki administration cut anti-fraud enforcement, and the governor should beef up that function in his 2006 budget. (Would it be unfair to note too that the Assembly leader, as one of the fabled "three men in a room" making budget deals, could have argued for more Medicaid anti-fraud money?) Perhaps. We realize legislation follows this process, so we'll go along, for now.

That said, what's needed goes well beyond hiring a few former police investigators to sting dentists and pharmacists, though that would be fun. Hold the hearings, if they must, but let's get on with the work: Manage Medicaid better, cut fraud, reduce costs to the state's counties and taxpayers.

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