Wendell Potter commentary

Published — August 17, 2015

Health insurers working the system to pad their profits

The Dr. Amando Badia Senior Center in Miami hosted a 2014 round table featuring Florida Gov. Rick Scott where a group of senior citizens expressed their concerns on how proposed cuts to Medicare Advantage plans would affect them. Alan Diaz/AP

Commentary: taking advantage of Medicare Advantage


One of the reasons the health insurance industry worked behind the scenes in 2009 and 2010 to derail Obamacare was the fear that changes mandated by the law would cut their Medicare Advantage profits. Medicare Advantage plans are federally funded but privately run alternatives to traditional fee-for-service Medicare.

Although the industry’s biggest trade group, America’s Health Insurance Plans, said repeatedly that insurers supported Obamacare, the group was secretly financing the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s TV campaign against reform. Among the companies most concerned about the law were those benefiting from overpayments the federal government had been making to their Medicare Advantage plans since George W. Bush was in the White House.

Bush and other Republicans saw the Medicare Advantage program as a way to incrementally privatize Medicare. To entice insurers to participate in the program, the federal government devised a payment scheme that resulted in taxpayers paying far more for people enrolled in the Medicare Advantage plans than those who remained in the traditional program. The extra cash enables insurers to offer benefits traditional Medicare doesn’t, like coverage for glasses and hearing aids, and to cap enrollees’ out-of-pocket expenses.

When the Affordable Care Act became law in 2010, the payments to Medicare Advantage plans exceeded traditional Medicare payments by 14 percent. To end what they considered an unfair advantage for private insurers, and to reduce overall spending on Medicare, Democrats who wrote the reform law included language to gradually eliminate the over-payments. So far, the 14 percent disparity has been reduced to 2 percent. The final reductions are scheduled to be made next year.

Despite that decrease, the fears by Republicans and insurance company executives that the reductions would lead to a steady decline in Medicare Advantage enrollees have proved to be completely unfounded. In fact, the plans have continued to grow at a fast clip.

In March 2010, the month Obamacare became law, 11.1 million people were enrolled in Medicare Advantage plans—one of every four people eligible for Medicare. That was an increase from the 10.5 million Medicare Advantage enrollees in March 2009. Since then, Medicare Advantage membership has grown by more than 8 percent annually. Now 17.3 million—one in three people eligible for Medicare—are enrolled in private plans.

As Center for Public Integrity senior reporter Fred Schulte has written over the past year, many insurers have discovered that even though the overpayments are being reduced, they can boost profits another way: by manipulating a provision of a 2003 law that allows them to get additional cash for enrollees deemed to be sicker than average.

A risk-coding program was put in place by the government primarily because insurers were targeting their marketing efforts to attract younger and healthier—and thus cheaper— beneficiaries. Under the risk-coding program, insurers are paid more to cover patients who are older and sicker; the idea was to encourage the firms to cover those folks by offering a financial incentive. They get more money, for example, to cover someone with a history of heart disease than they do for someone with no such risk. Last week Schulte uncovered whistleblower accusations that a medical consulting firm and more than two dozen Medicare Advantage plans have been ripping taxpayers off by conducting in-home patient exams that allegedly overstated how much the plans should be paid.

The Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services has refused to provide information that would enable taxpayers to know just how widespread fraud and abuse in the Medicare Advantage program might be. But CMS announced earlier this year that it will implement plans designed to make it harder for insurers to manipulate the risk scores. As you can imagine, insurers have howled and have put on a full court press to get CMS to scuttle those plans, but so far the agency says it intends to go forward. We’ll see.

This all matters to insurers because more and more of their revenue and profits are coming from the Medicare and Medicaid programs. When Aetna announced a few weeks ago that it planned to buy Humana, which has more than three million Medicare Advantage members—second only to UnitedHealthcare—Aetna and Humana executives said 56 percent of revenues from the combined company would come from the government programs.

Indeed, some of the firms would not be growing at all if it weren’t for their government business. When Aetna announced second quarter earnings earlier this month, the company noted that its membership in Medicare and Medicaid programs was up 8 percent over the same period last year. By contrast, its commercial membership was down from last year.

Despite that dip in commercial membership, Aetna surprised Wall Street with stronger profits than financial analysts had expected.

So don’t expect the Medicare Advantage program to wither on the vine because of Obamacare. If anything, it will continue to grow—as will the profits of the private insurers that participate in the program.

Wendell Potter is the author of Deadly Spin: An Insurance Company Insider Speaks Out on How Corporate PR is Killing Health Care and Deceiving Americans and Obamacare: What’s in It for Me? What Everyone Needs to Know About the Affordable Care Act.

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