Medicare Advantage plans overcharged Medicare, audits show : Shots

Eric Harkleroad/KHN /Getty Images/ Unsplash/ Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services Data

A photo illustration shows four images separated by bars. The first image is of money and a Medicare card, the second is an older man sitting in a chair, the third is a closeup of money, the fourth is of a spreadsheet of overpayments totaling over $8 million.

Eric Harkleroad/KHN /Getty Images/ Unsplash/ Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services Data

Newly released federal audits reveal widespread overcharges and other errors in payments to Medicare Advantage health plans, with some plans overbilling the government more than $1,000 per patient a year on average.

Summaries of the 90 audits, which examined billings from 2011 through 2013 and are the most recent reviews completed, were obtained exclusively by KHN through a three-year Freedom of Information Act lawsuit, which was settled in late September.

The government’s audits uncovered about $12 million in net overpayments for the care of 18,090 patients sampled, though the actual losses to taxpayers are likely much higher. Medicare Advantage, a fast-growing alternative to original Medicare, is run primarily by major insurance companies.

Officials at the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services have said they intend to extrapolate the payment error rates from those samples across the total membership of each plan — and recoup an estimated $650 million from insurers as a result.

But after nearly a decade, that has yet to happen. CMS was set to unveil a final extrapolation rule Nov. 1 but recently put that decision off until February.

Ted Doolittle, a former deputy director of CMS’ Center for Program Integrity, which oversees Medicare’s efforts to fight fraud and billing abuse, said the agency has failed to hold Medicare Advantage plans accountable. “I think CMS fell down on the job on this,” said Doolittle, now the health care advocate for the state of Connecticut.

Doolittle said CMS appears to be “carrying water” for the insurance industry, which is “making money hand over fist” off Medicare Advantage plans. “From the outside, it seems pretty smelly,” he said.

In an email response to written questions posed by KHN, Dara Corrigan, a CMS deputy administrator, said the agency hasn’t told health plans how much they owe because the calculations “have not been finalized.”

Corrigan declined to say when the agency would finish its work. “We have a fiduciary and statutory duty to address improper payments in all of our programs,” she said.

Enrollment in Medicare Advantage plans has more than doubled in the last decade

The 90 audits are the only ones CMS has completed over the past decade, a time when Medicare Advantage has grown explosively. Enrollment in the plans more than doubled during that period, passing 28 million in 2022, at a cost to the government of $427 billion.

Seventy-one of the 90 audits uncovered net overpayments, which topped $1,000 per patient on average in 23 audits, according to the government’s records. Humana, one of the largest Medicare Advantage sponsors, had overpayments exceeding that $1,000 average in 10 of 11 audits, according to the records.

CMS paid the remaining plans too little on average, anywhere from $8 to $773 per patient.

What constitutes an overpayment?

Auditors flag overpayments when a patient’s records fail to document that the person had the medical condition the

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