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Government watchdogs attack Medicare Advantage for denying care and overcharging

Fred Schulte, Kaiser Health News on

Published in News & Features

Congress should crack down on Medicare Advantage health plans for seniors that sometimes deny patients vital medical care while overcharging the government billions of dollars every year, government watchdogs told a House panel this week.

Witnesses sharply criticized the fast-growing health plans at a Tuesday hearing held by the Energy and Commerce subcommittee on oversight and investigations. They cited a slew of critical audits and other reports that described plans denying access to health care, particularly those with high rates of patients who were disenrolled in their last year of life while likely in poor health and in need of more services.

Rep. Diana DeGette, D-Colo., chair of the subcommittee, said seniors should not be “required to jump through numerous hoops” to gain access to health care.

The watchdogs also recommended imposing limits on home-based “health assessments,” arguing these visits can artificially inflate payments to plans without offering patients appropriate care. They also called for the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, or CMS, to revive a foundering audit program that is more than a decade behind in recouping billions in suspected overpayments to the health plans, which are run mostly by private insurance companies.

Related to denying treatment, Erin Bliss, a Department of Health and Human Services assistant inspector general, said one Medicare Advantage plan had refused a request for a computed tomography, or CT, scan that “was medically necessary to exclude a life-threatening diagnosis (aneurysm).”

The health plan required patients to have an X-ray first to prove a CT scan was needed.

 

Bliss said seniors “may not be aware that they may face greater barriers to accessing certain types of health care services in Medicare Advantage than in original Medicare.”

Leslie Gordon, of the Government Accountability Office, the watchdog arm of Congress, said seniors in their last year of life had dropped out of Medicare Advantage plans at twice the rate of other patients leaving the plans.

Rep. Frank Pallone Jr., D-N.J., who chairs the influential Energy and Commerce Committee, said he was “deeply concerned” to hear that some patients are facing “unwarranted barriers” to getting care.

Under original Medicare, patients can see any doctor they want, though they may need to buy a supplemental policy to cover gaps in coverage.

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