DOJ sends warning shots on Medicare Advantage overpayments
Recent claims against UnitedHealth Group highlight the federal government's effort to recoup what it says is billions in overpayments.
The Medicare Advantage (MA) program seems to be hitting the sweet spot, with more interest from beneficiaries as well as insurers. It now includes one-third of all Medicare beneficiaries, and a large chunk of payer profits.
With more money, however, comes greater scrutiny. And the federal government is finding reason to ramp up efforts as it issues more allegations of insurers changing diagnoses to bring in higher MA payments and covering up the actions.
Congress created Medicare Advantage as a risk adjustment payment program that pays insurers more for sicker beneficiaries. Payers in Medicare Advantage now receive a yearly fee for each enrolled member and monthly risk adjustment payments for each enrolled beneficiary, based partly on the person’s health status. This means a person with diabetes and other chronic health conditions will bring a larger monthly reimbursement than someone who needs few services.
Such a program is open to fraud. CMS estimated that it overpaid $14.1 billion in 2013 to MA organizations. Medicare Advantage payers received about $160 billion in 2014 for approximately 16 million beneficiaries. CMS estimated about 9.5% of those payments were improper.
Kip Piper, an expert on Medicaid, Medicare and health reform, told Healthcare Dive plans differ in their internal capabilities and data quality. “Each insurer is incentivized to make sure their data supports the highest risk score — as high as can be justified but of course no higher," he said, adding, "Sometimes insurers will ‘leave money on the table’ because they are unable to show that their risk score really ought to be higher.”
Timothy Layton, an assistant professor at Harvard Medical School who researches the health insurance markets, told Healthcare Dive Medicare Advantage overpayments are driven partly by fraud, but mostly by “legal intensive coding.”
“CMS has a fairly broad definition of an acceptable diagnosis. Each diagnosis just needs to be justified by some record from a face-to-face encounter with a physician. This allows insurers significant ability to maximize their risk scores without resorting to fraud,” he said.
Layton said there is fraud, but that’s “small potatoes” compared to excessive payments because of intensive coding. “It's also small relative to the massively inefficient expenditures insurers are investing in coding that has basically no social benefit whatsoever,” he said.
The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) is involved in two high-profile False Claims Act cases involving one of the largest health insurers. The DOJ joined two lawsuits involving UnitedHealth Group (UHG), which is the largest Medicare Advantage payer with more than 50 Medicare Advantage and drug prescription plans.
The lawsuits allege UHG overcharged the federal government for Medicare Advantage. In 2016, CMS reportedly paid UnitedHealth $56 billion for covering 3.6 million Medicare Advantage beneficiaries.
Two whistleblowers have said UnitedHealth changed diagnosis codes to make patients seem sicker. These “data-mining projects” can raise Medicare reimbursements by nearly $3,000 for every diagnosis. The suit alleges that employees collected bonuses for making these changes.
The lawsuit said UHG didn’t notify the CMS of at least 100,000 invalid diagnoses that caused it to overpay. Those incidents alone led to $190 million in overpayments, according to the lawsuit.
UnitedHealth Group denies the claims.
“We are confident our company and our employees complied with the government’s Medicare Advantage program rules, and we have been transparent with CMS about our approach under its unclear policies. The complaint shows the Department of Justice fundamentally misunderstands or is deliberately ignoring how the Medicare Advantage program works. We reject these claims and will contest them vigorously,” Matt Burns, UnitedHealth spokesman, told Healthcare Dive in a statement.
Piper said he expects a “long, protracted and expensive battle” involving these cases. The case is complex because the payments are from years ago and federal policies were “particularly muddy back then.”
If United were to lose, Piper expects a multi-billion dollar payment and a corporate integrity agreement with the HHS Office of Inspector General that would include oversight and imposed processes to make sure it doesn't happen again.
Piper doesn't think the cases would hurt UnitedHealth financially because the large payer is “well-capitalized and in a position to cover the loss if it comes to that.”
Piper doesn't expect the CMS would restrict UnitedHealth’s participation in Medicare Advantage or Part D because of its market size. Such restrictions would affect millions of beneficiaries.
“It will, and likely already has, resulted in greater scrutiny of United’s practices in regards to risk adjustment. But federal policies have tightened. All Medicare Advantage plans are now on guard to be extra cautious and take steps to support risk scores with data, analyses and independent verification or audits,” said Piper.
DOJ investigating other MA insurers
Investigators will follow the money, and with billions of dollars at stake, Medicare Advantage plans now get extra attention, undesired by payers. False Claims Act cases and settlements have become relatively common.
Chief Counsel to the Inspector General Gregory Demske of the HHS Office of Inspector General said his office will continue to make sure “Medicare Advantage insurers . . . play by the rules and provide Medicare with accurate information about their provider networks and their patients’ health.”
Being the largest Medicare Advantage payer puts a large bull's-eye on UHG’s back, but investigations into overpayment to Medicare Advantage payers aren't just connected to UHG. Investigators are also checking into other Medicare Advantage payers, including Aetna, Cigna, Health Net and Bravo Health.
Also, Freedom Health, another Medicare Advantage payer, agreed to pay $31.7 million to settle a False Claims Act case after the Tampa, Fla.-based insurer submitted or caused others to submit “unsupported diagnosis codes to CMS,” which led to larger than owed reimbursements from 2008 to 2013. The company reportedly made “material misrepresentations to CMS regarding the scope and content of its network of providers” in applications in 2008 and 2009, said the DOJ.
Congress is also interested in the overpayment issue. Sen. Charles Grassley, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, sent a letter to CMS Administrator Seema Verma in April questioning what CMS is doing to “implement safeguards to reduce score fraud, waste and abuse.”
Grassley said there was about $70 billion in improper Medicare Advantage payments between 2008 and 2013 because of “risk score gaming.”
“CMS must aggressively use the tools at its disposal to ensure that it is efficiently identifying fraud and subsequently implementing timely and fair remedies,” Grassley wrote.
What should MA payers do now?
Layton said payers need to be more careful about submitting only justified codes. This will mean more payer oversight, which will lead to more costs for them and healthcare in general.
“They'll just switch from trying to derive codes out of thin air to trying even harder to get docs to write things down. Given that the fraud was likely for cases that could have been justified with a written record with a bit more effort, they'll likely just exert that extra effort. Unfortunately, the cost of that extra effort will represent additional socially wasteful spending on top of an already enormous amount of waste,” he said.
Anand Shroff, founder and chief development officer at Health Fidelity, told Healthcare Dive that health plans need to focus on risk adjustment coding accuracy to ensure they submit information to the CMS that’s substantiated by documented clinical evidence.
“Medicare Advantage insurers use outdated risk adjustment coding methods, including archaic data acquisition and document review systems. They should invest in the latest risk adjustment technology solutions that pull together patient risk factors and clinical evidence for accurate results using advanced technology, such as natural language processing and clinical analytics,” said Shroff.
Piper said some payers have already adapted its systems and staffing to improve risk adjustment payment compliance.
“Financially, risk adjustment plays a critical role in how plans are paid. This will only increase if CMS moves forward to improve the risk adjustment methodology to increase its accuracy and to better adjust for socioeconomic factors that heavily influence patient complexity and utilization,” he said.
Piper offers a few suggestions to payers involved in Medicare Advantage. Payers need to work closely with the CMS to work out technical issues and have the federal government agency understand how the plans operate and how federal guidance impacts the plans.
Piper said payers need to collaborate with providers to improve “the completeness and accuracy of their claims and encounter data and underlying medical records, including full use of electronic health records.”
MA plans should also consider using “red teams” to test their management and controls, look for compliance weaknesses and identify policies, systems, incentives and even cultural factors that may unintentionally encourage gaming or create risks, said Piper.
“Part of this, frankly, is having a multi-disciplinary team of in-house and outside experts — white hats — thinking about risks and vulnerabilities and then closing them,” he said.
Improving education and training and removing corporate silos, as well as hiring regulatory experts can also help payers, said Piper.
“A surprising number of companies that do business with Medicare or Medicaid have few, if any, board members with real-world government experience or policy expertise. Companies need to bring that talent in at the board level, just as they do at management levels,” he said.
- GAO Medicare Advantage: Fundamental Improvements Needed in CMS's Effort to Recover Substantial Amounts of Improper Payments
- Healthcare Dive DOJ sues UnitedHealth for alleged Medicare Advantage mischarging, again
- Kaiser Health News UnitedHealth Doctored Medicare Records, Overbilled U.S. By $1 Billion, Feds Claim
- Healthcare Dive DOJ joins Medicare Advantage fraud lawsuit against UnitedHealth
- NPR Audits Of Some Medicare Advantage Plans Reveal Pervasive Overcharging
- Healthcare Dive Freedom Health agrees to pay $31.7M to settle Medicare Advantage whistleblower case