[Medicare Advantage Made $20.5 Billion in 2022 by Wrongfully Denying Claims and Overcharging Government] - The Lever

The health insurance behemoth Humana enjoyed a banner 2022. The Louisville, Ky.-based insurer made $2.8 billion in profits last year, while paying out $448 million in dividends to shareholders and more than $17 million in compensation to its CEO.

The main driver of those earnings? The federal government spent $20.5 billion overpaying Humana and other private insurers for the Medicare Advantage plans they manage on behalf of seniors and people with disabilities. If not for those overpayments, Humana could have suffered a nearly $900 million loss in 2022, according to a Lever analysis.

Humana is the most prominent example of how insurers have built a major cash cow out of systematically overbilling Medicare Advantage, the private Medicare program operated by private interests.

Medicare Advantage plans have higher claim denial rates and more prior authorization restrictions than traditional Medicare plans. Last year, regulators found that nearly one in five payment requests rejected by Medicare Advantage plans in 2018 were wrongfully denied, representing an estimated 1.5 million claims.

And while Biden administration proposals could have helped slow the for-profit takeover by tightening the screws on Medicare Advantage overpayments, insurers recently led a fierce lobbying campaign to dissuade the government from fully cracking down on the practice.

At the root of Medicare Advantage overpayments is “upcoding” by insurers, a scheme by which the companies systematically overbill the public as if their patients are sicker than they really are. Companies have offered bottles of champagne and bonuses to entice doctors to add diagnoses to patients’ records, according to government lawsuits reviewed by the New York Times.

In total, these practices led to $20.5 billion total excess payments to Medicare Advantage insurers in 2022, according to a March report from the Medicare Payments Advisory Commission (MedPAC), a federal body tasked with overseeing Medicare. In the coming years, the overpayment problem could get substantially worse. A November 2021 study suggested that Medicare costs from 2023 to 2031 will be $600 billion higher than if Medicare Advantage beneficiaries were instead enrolled in traditional Medicare.

Because of such overpayments, big insurers like Humana have become highly dependent on Medicare Advantage. Humana, for example, earned more than [80 percent of its revenue from Medicare last year, and now has nearly 5 million Medicare Advantage customers. Wall Street loves this business model: Humana’s stock has outperformed the S&P 500 by 23 percent over the past five years.

Humana isn’t alone in benefiting from Medicare Advantage overpayments. The other major for-profit insurers — UnitedHealth, Centene, and CVS Health, which owns Aetna, would have seen major hits to their 2022 profits had the government eliminated the overpayments.

UnitedHealthGroup would have seen its profits deteriorate by more than one-third, from $14.4 billion to less than $8.8 billion, according to an analysis by The Lever. CVS Health would have seen its profits cut by more than half, from $4.1 billion to $1.9 billion. And Centene would have seen its profits deteriorate by more than one-quarter, from $3.4 billion to $2.4 billion.

Experts say the enormous sums of money going towards overpayments endanger the overall financial stability of Medicare as a whole.

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The Lever

Organizations: Medicare Medicare Advantage Humana UnitedHealth Group Centene CVS Health Aetna Medicare Payments Advisory Commission 

People: Joe Biden 

Tags: Health Insurance Corruption 

Type: Headlines