WASHINGTON -- Tired of paying bogus claims, then chasing the scammers, Medicare announced Friday it is deploying screening technology similar to what's widely used by credit card companies to head off fraud.

Up to now, the $500 billion-a-year government health program for seniors has basically paid claims first and asked questions later in a system dubbed "pay and chase."

The technology upgrade should help deter flagrant abuses such as the small clinic that suddenly starts billing more for a particular outpatient procedure -- intravenous infusions, for example -- than major hospitals in its area. But it's not likely to help crack sophisticated schemes that involve outwardly respectable companies with the expertise to cover their tracks.

Medicare "is putting in place the kind of computer program it should have had in 1980 or earlier," said Patrick Burns of Taxpayers Against Fraud, a nonpartisan group that supports whistleblowers who expose corporate scams against the government. "The bad news is that the largest Medicare and Medicaid frauds are designed at the highest levels of companies, with accountants, billing experts and salespeople smoothing over the paperwork so that it will slide past all the proctors."

Health care fraud is estimated to cost taxpayers $60 billion a year, although its real extent is unknown. Medicare, which covers 47 million seniors and disabled people of any age, has long been a prime target. But with the program facing insolvency, combatting health care fraud has become a much more urgent priority for the government.

Medicare anti-fraud czar Peter Budetti said the new system expected to go into operation July 1 is a major step forward. "It will allow us to do some things we had not been able to do before," he said. The hope is that Medicare will no longer be an easy mark.

Time will tell if the dramatic benefits officials are promising actually do materialize.