Few matters have generated so much public concern the past couple of years as the federal investigation of a local prescription fraud scheme involving public employees. In their emails, phone calls and comments online to us, people have consistently expressed outrage over the crimes and a strong desire to see the perpetrators punished.

Pharmaceutical sales representatives, doctors and public employees — including many local teachers, firefighters, police officers and state troopers — are accused of defrauding the generous health benefits for public workers of $50 million.

Since 2017, 23 South Jersey residents have pleaded guilty to their roles in the fraud, and a participating Margate doctor said he wrote phony prescriptions for at least 200 public employees.

People were shocked that so many in government — with good pay and benefits in jobs more or less guaranteed for life — would risk all that by joining an obviously criminal enterprise.

Local legislators and mayors expressed the widely held view that they were motivated by greed. No doubt. The fraud ring participants reportedly split at least $23 million among themselves.

The head of the National Health Care Anti-Fraud Association said the opportunity to steal the public’s money also played a big role. The coverage for government workers pays even dubious claims with little or no oversight.

They’re missing another important contributing cause. These public servants seem to have thought they wouldn’t be caught or, if they were, not seriously punished. Perhaps they thought no one would ever check if government workers were ripping off the public. Worse, maybe they felt public employees padding their incomes is sufficiently common that it would be almost acceptable — and people would still respect them if they got caught.

Everyone will pay for their crimes. Health insurance fraud costs insurers a lot of money, and that results in higher health insurance premiums for everyone. State and local governments will have to pay more in the future for the gold- and platinum-level coverage of their workers.

Those who helped defraud the public employing them have hurt their communities. They were thought to be good people, public servants, even pillars of the community and have turned out to have criminal levels of greed and disregard for others.

And their actions have damaged the reputations of the great many public workers who do their best for their fellow citizens and would never even consider breaking the law to enrich themselves.

Worse still, the fraud-ring participants have helped undermine the public confidence in government that is essential to a democratic society.

None of the guilty parties has been sentenced yet. When they are, criminal justice officials should explain to the public how the punishments are appropriate and consistent with those handed out to people outside government for similar crimes. We’ll accept and support the court judgments in these cases whatever they may be.

From a government administration and public policy standpoint, the public workers convicted of a crime should lose their jobs. They no longer merit the public’s trust. Firings would be automatic in the private sector.

They should keep the pension benefit they had accrued up until their arrest or conviction, based as it is on their time of service and partly their own contributions. They should, however, not be eligible for the retirement health benefits that aren’t available even to blameless private sector workers.

Crimes against society are serious. They strike at the heart of people’s ability to organize themselves for their mutual good.

The government response should reflect the great shared values at stake and the effect this sad case has on everyone.

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