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Medicare Advantage overbills taxpayers by billions a year as feds struggle to stop it


 

Health insurers that cover millions of seniors have overcharged Medicare by nearly $30 billion the past 3 years alone, but federal officials say they are moving ahead with long-delayed plans to recoup at least part of the money.

Officials have known for years that some Medicare Advantage plans overbill the government by exaggerating how sick their members are or by charging Medicare for treatment of serious medical conditions they cannot prove their members have.

Getting refunds from the health plans has proved daunting, however. Officials with the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services repeatedly have postponed, or backed off, efforts to crack down on billing abuses and mistakes by the increasingly popular Medicare Advantage health plans offered by private health insurers under contract with Medicare. Today, such plans treat over 22 million seniors, more than 1 in 3 people on Medicare.

Now CMS is trying again, proposing a series of enhanced audits tailored to claw back $1 billion in Medicare Advantage overpayments by 2020 – just a tenth of what it estimates the plans overcharge the government in a given year.

At the same time, the Department of Health and Human Services Inspector General’s Office has launched a separate nationwide round of Medicare Advantage audits.

As in past years, such scrutiny faces an onslaught of criticism from the insurance industry, which argues the CMS audits especially are technically unsound and unfair and could jeopardize medical services for seniors.

America’s Health Insurance Plans, an industry trade group, blasted the CMS audit design when details emerged last fall, calling it “fatally flawed.”

Insurer Cigna Corp. warned in a May financial filing: “If adopted in its current form, [the audits] could have a detrimental impact” on all Medicare Advantage plans and “affect the ability of plans to deliver high quality care.”

But former Sen. Claire McCaskill, a Missouri Democrat who now works as a political analyst, said officials must move past powerful lobbying efforts to hold health insurers accountable and demand refunds for “inappropriate” billings.

“There’s a lot of things that could cause Medicare to go broke. This would be one of the contributing factors,” she said. “Ten billion dollars a year is real money.”

Catching overbilling with a wider net

In the overpayment dispute, health plans want CMS to scale back – if not kill off – an enhanced audit tool that, for the first time, could force insurers to cough up millions in improper payments they’ve received.

For over a decade, audits have been little more than an irritant to insurers because most plans go years without being chosen for review and often pay only a few hundred thousand dollars in refunds as a consequence. When auditors uncover errors in the medical records of patients they paid the companies to treat, CMS has simply required a rebate for those patients for just the year audited – relatively small sums for plans with thousands of members.

The latest CMS proposal would raise those stakes enormously by extrapolating error rates found in a random sample of 200 patients to the plan’s full membership – a technique expected to trigger many multimillion-dollar penalties. Though controversial, extrapolation is common in medical fraud investigations – except for investigations into Medicare Advantage. Since 2007, the industry has successfully challenged the extrapolation method and, as a result, largely avoided accountability for pervasive billing errors.

“The public has a substantial interest in the recoupment of millions of dollars of public money improperly paid to health insurers,” CMS wrote in a Federal Register notice late last year announcing its renewed attempt at using extrapolation.

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