The Medicare Advantage Money Grab

The Center for Public Integrity, June 4, 2014

Why Medicare Advantage costs taxpayers billions more than it should

By Fred Schulte, David Donald and Erin Durkin

(Medicare Advantage) plans have sharply driven up costs in many parts of the United States — larding on tens of billions of dollars in overcharges and other suspect billings based in part on inflated assessments of how sick patients are, an investigation by the Center for Public Integrity has found.

Dominated by private insurers, Medicare Advantage now covers nearly 16 million Americans at a cost expected to top $150 billion this year. Many seniors choose the managed-care Medicare Advantage option instead of the traditional government-run Medicare program because it fills gaps in coverage, can cost less in out-of-pocket expenses and offers extra benefits, such as dental and eye care.

But billions of tax dollars are misspent every year through billing errors linked to a payment tool called a “risk score,” which is supposed to pay Medicare Advantage plans higher rates for sicker patients and less for those in good health.

Government officials have struggled for years to halt health plans from running up patient risk scores and, in many cases, wresting higher Medicare payments than they deserve, records show.

The Center’s findings are based on an analysis of Medicare Advantage enrollment data from 2007 through 2011, as well as thousands of pages of government audits, research papers and other documents.

Federal officials who run the Medicare program repeatedly refused to be interviewed or answer written questions.

Key findings:

  • Federal officials have made billions in “improper” payments to Medicare Advantage plans traced to risk score errors.
  • Medicare Advantage risk scores rose much faster than the national average in hundreds of counties nationwide between 2007 and 2011. That rise in risk scores cost taxpayers more than $36 billion; critics attribute that more to aggressive billing than sicker patients.
  • Though federal health officials have recently disclosed some Medicare billing data, key financial records of Medicare Advantage plans have been kept under wraps.
  • The failure to crack down on health plans that overbill doesn’t bode well for the Affordable Care Act, which relies on a similar risk scoring system.

Thomas Scully, who helped get the program running under President George W. Bush, said rates were generous in hopes of enticing insurers to expand their Medicare business and not shy away from people in poor health.

“We very intentionally tried to overpay them a little bit,” said Scully, now a Washington lobbyist with numerous health care industry clients.…

“The Medicare Advantage Money Grab”:…

Medicare Advantage is a program in which our government has conspired with insurers to privatize Medicare, even though it costs far more when private insurers are inserted as intermediaries than it does when Medicare is administered as a public program. This report from The Center for Public Integrity is just the latest that has exposed this outrageous use of our tax funds.

The program was set up to deliberately overpay the plans so that they could offer additional benefits that would entice Medicare beneficiaries into the private plans (see Scully’s comment above). Recognizing these overpayments, Congress included in the Affordable Care Act gradual reductions. Not to be outdone, the insurance industry has conspired with the Obama administration and has enlisted individual members of Congress to fight these reductions. In response, the Obama administration has used dishonest budgetary manipulations to offset a portion of the reductions for 2013, 2014 and 2015.

Even more outrageous is that the private insurance industry has used “innovations” to selectively enroll healthier beneficiaries, yet used “touch of illness” serious diagnostic codes to game risk adjustment, which has rewarded the insurers handsomely for claiming that their beneficiaries were much sicker than they really were. According to this report, federal Medicare officials refused to answer questions about these perverse practices.

The insurance industry has been very successful in framing this as “cutting payments for Medicare,” while mobilizing citizens to demand that these cuts be prevented. The cuts are not in Medicare, but they are a reduction of overpayments to private insurers. Yes, those who sign up with the private plans often have lower out-of-pocket costs, but the rest of us are paying for that through higher taxes and through our Part B Medicare premiums that are partially transferred to the private insurers.

Since we are paying for it, we should be receiving in the traditional Medicare program the same benefits of reduced out-of-pocket expenses. Let the people enrolled in Medicare Advantage keep the same level of benefits, but increase the benefits in the traditional Medicare program to the same level, then fire the private insurers that have been responsible for most of the cost overruns in the Medicare Advantage program.

The politicians seem to agree that we should be spending these excess funds on Medicare, so let’s be fair and spend them equitably on an improved Medicare, but not on insurer profits and waste. While we’re at it, let’s make that an improved Medicare for all.