Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Health Insurers Bilk Medicare for Billions

When Medicare was facing an impossible $13 trillion funding gap, Congress opted for a bold fix: It handed over part of the program to insurance companies, expecting them to provide better care at a lower cost. The new program was named Medicare Advantage.

Nearly 15 years later, a third of all Americans who receive some form of Medicare have chosen the insurer-provided version, which, by most accounts, has been a success.

But now a whistle-blower, a former well-placed official at UnitedHealth Group, asserts that the big insurance companies have been systematically bilking Medicare Advantage for years, reaping billions of taxpayer dollars from the program by gaming the payment system.

The Justice Department takes the whistle-blower’s claims so seriously that it has said it intends to sue the whistle-blower’s former employer, UnitedHealth Group, even as it investigates other Medicare Advantage participants. The agency has until the end of Tuesday to take action against UnitedHealth.

In the first interview since his allegations were made public, the whistle-blower, Benjamin Poehling of Bloomington, Minn., described in detail how his company and others like it — in his view — gamed the system: Finance directors like him monitored projects that UnitedHealth had designed to make patients look sicker than they were, by scouring patients’ health records electronically and finding ways to goose the diagnosis codes.

The sicker the patient, the more UnitedHealth was paid by Medicare Advantage — and the bigger the bonuses people earned, including Mr. Poehling.

In February, a federal judge unsealed the lawsuit that Mr. Poehling filed against UnitedHealth and 14 other companies involved in Medicare Advantage.

“They’ve set up a perfect scheme here,” Mr. Poehling said in an interview. “It was rigged so there was no way they could lose.”

A spokesman for UnitedHealth, Matthew A. Burns, said the company rejected Mr. Poehling’s allegations and would contest them vigorously. (...)

Mr. Poehling’s suit, filed under the False Claims Act, seeks to recover excess payments, and big penalties, for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. (Mr. Poehling would earn a percentage of any money recovered.) The amounts in question industrywide are mind-boggling: Some analysts estimate improper Medicare Advantage payments at $10 billion a year or more.

At the heart of the dispute: The government pays insurers extra to enroll people with more serious medical problems, to discourage them from cherry-picking healthy people for their Medicare Advantage plans. The higher payments are determined by a complicated risk scoring system, which has nothing to do with the treatments people get from their doctors; rather, it is all about diagnoses. (...)

Mr. Poehling said the data-mining projects that he had monitored could raise the government’s payments to UnitedHealth by nearly $3,000 per new diagnosis found. The company, he said, did not bother looking for conditions like high blood pressure, which, though dangerous, do not raise risk scores.

He included in his complaint an email message from Jerry J. Knutson, the chief financial officer of his division, in which Mr. Knutson urged Mr. Poehling’s team “to really go after the potential risk scoring you have consistently indicated is out there.”

“You mentioned vasculatory disease opportunities, screening opportunities, etc., with huge $ opportunities,” Mr. Knutson wrote. “Let’s turn on the gas!”

by Mary Williams Walsh, NY Times |  Read more:
Image: NY Times 
[ed. Anyone surprised? What will be surprising is if Congress and the Justice Department under Jeff Sessions actually do anything.]