The great Medicare Advantage marketing scam: How for-profit health insurers convince seniors to enroll in private Medicare plans
Jayne Kleinman is bombarded with Medicare Advantage promotions every open enrollment period — even though she has no interest in leaving traditional Medicare, which allows seniors to choose their doctors and get the care they want without interference from multi-billion-dollar insurance companies.
“My biggest problem with being barraged is that so many of the ads were inaccurate,” Kleinman, a retired social services professional in New Haven County, Connecticut, told HEALTH CARE un-covered. “They neglect to say that the amount of coverage you get is limited. They don't talk about what you are losing by leaving traditional Medicare. It feels like insurance companies are manipulating us to get Medicare Advantage plans sold so that they can control the system, as opposed to treating us like human beings.”
Seniors face a torrent of Medicare Advantage advertising: an analysis by KFF found 9,500 daily TV ads during open enrollment in 2022. A recent survey by the Commonwealth Fund found that 30% of seniors received seven or more phone calls weekly from Medicare Advantage marketers during the most recent open enrollment (Oct. 15 to Dec. 7) for 2024 coverage.
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In 2023, a critical milestone was passed: over half of seniors are now enrolled in privatized Medicare Advantage plans. The marketing for these plans nearly always fails to mention how hard it is to return to traditional Medicare once you are in Medicare Advantage, and that the MA plans have closed provider networks and require prior authorization for medical procedures. Instead, the marketing emphasizes the fringe benefits offered by Medicare Advantage plans like gym memberships.
U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, criticized the widespread and predatory marketing of Medicare Advantage in a report in November 2022 and has continued to pressure the Biden administration to do more to address the problem.
The report said that consumer complaints about Medicare Advantage marketing more than doubled from 2020 to 2021 to 41,000. It cites cases such as that of an Oregon man whose switch to Medicare Advantage meant he could no longer afford his prescription drugs, as well as a 94-year-old woman with dementia in a rural area who bought a Medicare Advantage plan that required her to obtain care miles further from her residence than she had to travel before.
When open enrollment began last fall, it was “the start of a marketing barrage as marketing middlemen look to collect seniors’ information in order to bombard them with direct mail, emails, and phone calls to get them to enroll,” Wyden stated in a letter to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), which was signed by the other Democrats on the Senate Finance Committee.
Just three weeks after Wyden sent the letter, CMS released a proposed rule reforming Medicare Advantage practices that the main lobby group for Medicare Advantage plans, the Better Medicare Alliance, endorsed.
But key recommendations by Wyden were missing, including a ban on list acquisition by Medicare Advantage third-party marketing organizations, which includes brokers, and banning brokers that call beneficiaries multiple times a day for days in a row.
Among the prominent third-party marketing organizations is TogetherHealth, a subsidiary of Benefytt Technologies, which runs ads featuring former football star Joe Namath. In August 2022, the Federal Trade Commission forced Benefytt to repay $100 million for fraudulent activities. The month before, the Securities and Exchange Commission levied more than $12 million in fines against Benefytt. But CMS continues to allow Benefytt to work as a broker. Benefytt is owned by Madison Dearborn Partners, a Chicago-based private equity firm with ties to former Chicago mayor and current Ambassador to Japan Rahm Emanuel. Benefytt collects leads on potential customers, which they then sell to brokers and insurers to aggressively target seniors. CMS did not provide comment as to why they had not blocked Benefytt’s continuing work as a third-party marketing organization for Medicare.
The enormous profits generated by Medicare Advantage plans — costing the federal government as much as $140 billion annually in overpayments to private companies — explains what drives the aggressive and often unethical marketing practices, said David Lipschutz, an associate director at the Center for Medicare Advocacy.
“The fact is, there is an increasingly imbalanced playing field between Medicare Advantage and traditional Medicare,” he said. “Medicare Advantage is being favored in many ways. Medicare Advantage plans are paid more than what traditional Medicare spends on a given beneficiary. Those factors combined with the fact that they generate such profits for insurance companies, leads to those companies doing everything they can to maximize enrollment.”
Adding to the problem, Lipschutz argued, was the enormous influence of the health insurance industry in Washington. Health insurers spent more than $33 million lobbying Washington in just the first three quarters of 2023 alone.
“There is no real organized lobby for traditional Medicare, or organized advertising efforts,” he said. “During open enrollment, 80% of Medicare-related ads have to do with Medicare Advantage. We regularly encounter very well-educated and savvy folks who are tripped up by advertising and lured in by the bells and whistles. The deck is stacked against the consumer.”
Private equity firms have made a large investment in the Medicare Advantage brokerage and marketing sector, in addition to Madison Dearborn’s acquisition of Benefytt. Bain Capital, which Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) co-founded, invested $150 million in Enhance Health, a Medicare Advantage broker, in 2021. The CEO of EasyHealth, another private equity-backed brokerage, told Modern Healthcare in 2021 that "Insurance distribution is our Trojan horse into healthcare services."
As federal law requires truth in advertising, a group of advocacy organizations–led by the Center for Medicare Advocacy, Disability Rights Connecticut, and the National Health Law Project–cited what they considered blatantly deceptive marketing by UnitedHealthcare to people who are eligible for both Medicare and Medicaid, in a complaint to CMS.
UnitedHealthcare had purchased ads in the Hartford Courant asking seniors in large bold-faced type: “Eligible for Medicare and Medicaid? You could get more with UnitedHealthcare.”
People who are eligible for both Medicare and Medicaid due to their income level are better off in traditional Medicare than Medicare Advantage given that Medicaid covers their out-of-pocket costs, meaning that they have wide latitude to choose their doctors, hospitals and medical procedures.
Sheldon Toubman, an attorney with Disability Rights Connecticut who worked to draft the complaint, framed the ad in the broader context of poor marketing practices by the Medicare Advantage industry.
“I have been aware for a long time of basically fraudulent advertising in the MA insurance industry,” Toubman told HEALTH CARE un-covered. “There’s an overriding misrepresentation — they tell you how great Medicare Advantage is, and never the downsides.
“There are two big downsides of going out of traditional Medicare: They don't tell you that you give up the broad Medicare provider network, which has nearly every doctor. And should you need expensive medical care in Medicare Advantage, you will learn there are prior authorization requirements. Traditional Medicare does almost no prior authorization, so you don't have that obstacle. They don't ever tell you any of that,” he said.
But it is marketing to dual-eligible individuals that is arguably the most problematic, Toubman argued. “They have Medicare and they are also low income. Because they are low-income, they also have Medicaid.
“Medicaid is a broader program — it covers a lot of things that Medicare doesn't cover. In Connecticut, 92,000 dual-eligible seniors have been ‘persuaded’ to sign up for Medicare Advantage. What's outrageous about the marketing is they get you to sign up by offering extra services. … If you look at the ad in the Hartford Courant, it says you could get more, with the only real benefit being $130 per month toward food. But you now have this problem of a more limited provider network and prior authorization. UnitedHealth is doing false advertising.”
It’s a nationwide problem, Toubman said. “All insurers are doing this everywhere. We’re asking CMS and the Federal Trade Commission to conduct a nationwide investigation of this kind of problem. The failure to tell people that they give up their broader Medicare network — they don't tell anybody that.”
For Jayne Kleinman, the unending ads are about one thing only: insurance industry profits. “Medicare Advantage has been strictly based on the people who make millions of dollars at the top of the company making more,” she said. “It’s all about money, not about you as an individual. Every time I saw an ad I’d get angry every single time — because I felt they were misleading people. The Medicare Advantage insurers are trying to scam people out of an interest of making money.”