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‘The Cash Monster Was Insatiable’: How Insurers Exploited Medicare for Billions

By next year, half of Medicare beneficiaries will have a private Medicare Advantage plan. Most large insurers in the program have been accused in court of fraud.

The New York Times

The health system Kaiser Permanente called doctors in during lunch and after work and urged them to add additional illnesses to the medical records of patients they hadn’t seen in weeks. Doctors who found enough new diagnoses could earn bottles of Champagne, or a bonus in their paycheck.

Anthem, a large insurer now called Elevance Health, paid more to doctors who said their patients were sicker. And executives at UnitedHealth Group, the country’s largest insurer, told their workers to mine old medical records for more illnesses — and when they couldn’t find enough, sent them back to try again.

Each of the strategies — which were described by the Justice Department in lawsuits against the companies — led to diagnoses of serious diseases that might have never existed. But the diagnoses had a lucrative side effect: They let the insurers collect more money from the federal government’s Medicare Advantage program.

Medicare Advantage, a private-sector alternative to traditional Medicare, was designed by Congress two decades ago to encourage health insurers to find innovative ways to provide better care at lower cost. If trends hold, by next year, more than half of Medicare recipients will be in a private plan.

But a New York Times review of dozens of fraud lawsuits, inspector general audits and investigations by watchdogs shows how major health insurers exploited the program to inflate their profits by billions of dollars.

The government pays Medicare Advantage insurers a set amount for each person who enrolls, with higher rates for sicker patients. And the insurers, among the largest and most prosperous American companies, have developed elaborate systems to make their patients appear as sick as possible, often without providing additional treatment, according to the lawsuits.

As a result, a program devised to help lower health care spending has instead become substantially more costly than the traditional government program it was meant to improve.

Eight of the 10 biggest Medicare Advantage insurers — representing more than two-thirds of the market — have submitted inflated bills, according to the federal audits. And four of the five largest players — UnitedHealth, Humana, Elevance and Kaiser — have faced federal lawsuits alleging that efforts to overdiagnose their customers crossed the line into fraud.

The fifth company, CVS Health, which owns Aetna, told investors its practices were being investigated by the Department of Justice.

In statements, most of the insurers disputed the allegations in the lawsuits and said the federal audits were flawed. They said their aim in documenting more conditions was to improve care by accurately describing their patients’ health.

Many of the accusations reflect missing documentation rather than any willful attempt to inflate diagnoses, said Mark Hamelburg, an executive at AHIP, an industry trade group. “Professionals can look at the same medical record in different ways,” he said.

The government now spends nearly as much on Medicare Advantage’s 29 million beneficiaries as on the Army and Navy combined. It’s enough money that even a small increase in the average patient’s bill adds up: The additional diagnoses led to $12 billion in overpayments in 2020, according to an estimate from the group that advises Medicare on payment policies — enough to cover hearing and vision care for every American over 65.

Another estimate, from a former top government health official, suggested the overpayments in 2020 were double that, more than $25 billion.

The increased privatization has come as Medicare’s finances have been strained by the aging of baby boomers.But for insurers that already dominate health care for workers, the program is strikingly lucrative: A study from the Kaiser Family Foundation, a research group unaffiliated with the insurer Kaiser, found the companies typicallyearn twice as much gross profit from their Medicare Advantage plans as from other types of insurance.

For people choosing between traditional Medicare and Medicare Advantage, there are trade-offs. Medicare Advantage plans can limit patients’ choice of doctors, and sometimes require jumping through more hoops before getting certain types of expensive care.

But they often have lower premiums or perks like dental benefits — extras that draw beneficiaries to the programs. The more the plans are overpaid by Medicare, the more generous to customers they can afford to be.

“Medicare Advantage is an important option for America’s seniors, but as Medicare Advantage adds more patients and spends billions of dollars of taxpayer money, aggressive oversight is needed,” said Senator Charles Grassley of Iowa, who has investigated the industry. The efforts to make patients look sicker and other abuses of the program have “resulted in billions of dollars in improper payments,” he said.

Many of the fraud lawsuits were initially brought by former employees under a federal whistle-blower law that allows them to get a percentage of any money repaid to the government if their suits prevail. But most have been joined by the Justice Department, a step the government takes only if it believes the fraud allegations have merit. Last year, the department’s civil division listed Medicare Advantage as one of its top areas of fraud recovery.

“It’s an extremely high priority for us,” said Michael Granston, a deputy assistant attorney general for the civil division.

In contrast, regulators overseeing the plans at the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, or C.M.S., have been less aggressive, even as the overpayments have been described in inspector general investigations, academic research, Government Accountability Office studies, MedPAC reports and numerous news articles, over the course of four presidential administrations.

Congress gave the agency the power to reduce the insurers’ rates in response to evidence of systematic overbilling, but C.M.S. has never chosen to do so. A regulation proposed in the Trump administration to force the plans to refund the government for more of the incorrect payments has not been finalized four years later. Several top officials have swapped jobs between the industry and the agency.

C.M.S. officials declined interview requests. In a statement, the C.M.S. administrator, Chiquita Brooks-LaSure, said the agency recently sought feedback on how to improve the program. “We are committed to making sure that Medicare dollars are used efficiently and effectively in Medicare Advantage,” she said.

The popularity of Medicare Advantage plans has helped them avoid legislative reforms. The plans have become popular in urban areas, and have been increasingly embraced by Democrats as well as Republicans. Nearly 80 percent of U.S. House members signed a letter this year saying they were “ready to protect the program from policies that would undermine” its stability.

“You have a powerful insurance lobby, and their lobbyists have built strong support for this in Congress,” said Representative Lloyd Doggett, a Texas Democrat who chairs the House Ways and Means Health subcommittee.

Some critics say the lack of oversight has encouraged the industry to compete over who can most effectively game the system rather than who can provide the best care.

“Even when they’re playing the game legally, we are lining the pockets of very wealthy corporations that are not improving patient care,” said Dr. Donald Berwick, a C.M.S. administrator under the Obama administration, who recently published a series of blog posts on the industry. “When you skate to the edge of the ice, sometimes you’re going to fall in.”

The program’s promise

Congress’s first attempt to design a privatized Medicare plan paid insurers the same amount for every patient with similar demographic characteristics.

In theory, if the insurers could do better than traditional Medicare — by better managing patients’ care, or otherwise improving their health — their patients would cost less and the insurers would make more money.

But some insurers engaged in strategies — like locating their enrollment offices upstairs, or offering gym memberships — to entice only the healthiest seniors, who would require less care, to join. To deter such tactics, Congress decided to pay more for sicker patients.