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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Medicare Advantage Plans Often Deny Needed Care, Federal Report Finds

By Reed Abelson

Every year, tens of thousands of people enrolled in private Medicare Advantage plans are denied necessary care that should be covered under the program, federal investigators concluded in a report published on Thursday.

The investigators urged Medicare officials to strengthen oversight of these private insurance plans, which provide benefits to 28 million older Americans, and called for increased enforcement against plans with a pattern of inappropriate denials.

Advantage plans have become an increasingly popular option among older Americans, offering privatized versions of Medicare that are frequently less expensive and provide a wider array of benefits than the traditional government-run program offers.

Enrollment in Advantage plans has more than doubled over the last decade, and half of Medicare beneficiaries are expected to choose a private insurer over the traditional government program in the next few years.

The industry’s main trade group claims people choose Medicare Advantage because “it delivers better services, better access to care and better value.” But federal investigators say there is troubling evidence that plans are delaying or even preventing Medicare beneficiaries from getting medically necessary care.

The new report, from the inspector general’s office of the Health and Human Services Department, looked into whether some of the services that were rejected would probably have been approved if the beneficiaries had been enrolled in traditional Medicare.

Tens of millions of denials are issued each year for both authorization and reimbursements, and audits of the private insurers show evidence of “widespread and persistent problems related to inappropriate denials of services and payment,” the investigators found.

The report echoes similar findings by the office in 2018 showing that private plans were reversing about three-quarters of their denials on appeal. Hospitals and doctors have long complained about the insurance company tactics, and Congress is considering legislation aimed at addressing some of these concerns.

In its review of 430 denials in June 2019, the inspector general’s office said that it had found repeated examples of care denials for medical services that coding experts and doctors reviewing the cases determined were medically necessary and should be covered.

A patient with bedsores and a bacterial skin infection was denied a transfer to a skilled nursing center, investigators found. A high-risk patient recovering from surgery to repair a fractured femur was denied admission to a rehab center, although doctors said the patient needed to be under the supervision of a physician.

In some cases, the investigators said Medicare rules — like whether a plan can require a patient to have an X-ray before getting an M.R.I. — needed to be clarified.

The plans may use their own clinical criteria to judge whether a test or service should be reimbursed, but they have to offer the same benefits as traditional Medicare and cannot be more restrictive in paying for care.

The investigators urged Medicare officials to beef up oversight of Advantage plans and provide consumers “with clear, easily accessible information about serious violations.”

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