After an unprecedented crackdown on misleading advertising claims by insurers selling private Medicare Advantage and drug plans, the Biden administration hopes to unleash a special weapon to make sure companies follow the new rules: you.
Officials at the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services are encouraging seniors and other members of the public to become fraud detectives by reporting misleading or deceptive sales tactics to 800-MEDICARE, the agency’s 24-hour information hotline. Suspects include postcards designed to look like they’re from the government and TV ads with celebrities promising benefits and low fees that are available only to some people in certain counties.
The new rules, which took effect Sept. 30, close some loopholes in existing requirements by describing what insurers can say in ads and other promotional materials as well as during the enrollment process.
Insurance companies’ advertising campaigns kick into high gear every fall, when seniors can buy policies that take effect Jan. 1. People with traditional government Medicare coverage can add or change a prescription drug plan or join a Medicare Advantage plan that combines drug and medical coverage. Although private Advantage plans offer extra benefits not available under the Medicare program, some services require prior authorization and beneficiaries are confined to a network of health care providers that can change anytime. Beneficiaries in traditional Medicare can see any provider. The open enrollment season ends Dec. 7.
Catching Medicare Advantage plans that step out of line isn’t the only reason to keep an eye out for marketing scams. Accurate plan information can help avoid enrollment traps in the first place.
Although insurers and advocates for older adults have generally welcomed the new truth-in-advertising rules, compliance is the big challenge. Expecting beneficiaries to monitor insurance company sales pitches is asking a lot, said Semanthie Brooks, a social worker and advocate for older adults in northeast Ohio. She’s been helping people with Medicare sort through their options for nearly two decades. “I don’t think Medicare beneficiaries should be the police,” she said.
Choosing a Medicare Advantage plan can be daunting. In Ohio, for example, there are 224 Advantage and 21 drug plans to choose from that take effect next year. Eligibility and benefits vary among counties across the state.
“CMS ought to be looking at how they can educate people, so that when they hear about benefits on television, they understand that this is a promotional advertisement and not necessarily a benefit that they can use,” Brooks said. “If you don’t realize that these ads may be fraudulent, then you won’t know to report them.”
The agency relies on beneficiaries to help improve services, Meena Seshamani, CMS’ Medicare director, told KFF Health News in a written statement. “The voices of the people we serve make our programs stronger,” she said. Beneficiary complaints prompted the government’s action. “That’s why, after hearing from our community, we took new critical steps to protect people with Medicare from confusing and potentially misleading marketing.”
Although about 31 million of the 65 million people with Medicare are enrolled in Medicare Advantage, even that may not be enough people to monitor the tsunami of advertising on TV, radio, the internet, and paper delivered to actual mailboxes. Last year more than 9,500 ads aired daily during the nine-week marketing period that started two weeks before enrollment opened, according to an analysis by KFF. More than 94% of the TV commercials were sponsored by health insurers, brokers, and marketing companies, compared with only 3% from the federal government touting the original Medicare program.
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