analysis by Tim Rowan, Editor

It is good to occasionally remind ourselves that 2023 is the year enrollment in Medicare Advantage reached a full half of Medicare beneficiaries. Originally conceived as a plan to control spending, MA does seem to be achieving that goal.

At what cost, however?

The Medicare trust fund pays insurance companies participating in the MA program a per-patient-per-month fee based on the company’s own declaration of each customer’s health and likely future needs. With those monthly payments, MA companies provide care as needed. Or at least they are supposed to.

Frequently, since the program began, whistleblowers have told the government that employees are rewarded for increasing a patient’s risk-adjustment, the clinical assessment that is supposed to be scored by a physician but is often instead scored through data mining. That practice involves employees searching through patient records, looking for signs of health conditions that would raise their assessment, and thus their value to the insurer. In other words, a class of crime that would earn an HHA a hefty fine if they did it with their OASIS assessments.

Evidence has been mounting lately that these insurance companies not only fudge the numbers to gather more than they should from Medicare, but they also provide as little care as they can get away with. Our industry is familiar with the penny-pinching MA companies practice when authorizing in-home care. The problem is larger than that.

String of Recent Accusations

  • The HHS Office of Inspector General issued a report revealing how Elevance, the company formerly known as Anthem, made $5.5 billion in profits in the first six months of this year, a 14.4% jump from the $4.8 billion in profits it made during the same period of 2022. The profits, OIG said, came mostly from denying care to Medicaid beneficiaries, care that their physicians had recommended.
  • The largest insurer, with 27 percent of the market, UnitedHealth’s investors were distraught in June when it appeared the company was spending too much on patient care. Their fears were calmed, however, when United reported revenue of $56.3 billion for 2Q 2023, compared to $45.1 billion in the same quarter of 2022.
  • Cigna is the target of a class action suit in California, in which it is accused of using an algorithm to deny care, overriding and sometimes ignoring physician recommendations.1

Last October, the New York Times summarized the problem with a list of recent government findings and accusations:

“Kaiser Permanente called doctors in during lunch and after work and urged them to add additional illnesses to the medical records of patients they hadn’t seen in weeks. Doctors who found enough new diagnoses could earn bottles of champagne, or a bonus in their paycheck.

“Elevance Health paid more to doctors who said their patients were sicker. And executives at UnitedHealth Group, the country’s largest insurer, told their workers to mine old medical records for more illnesses — and when they couldn’t find enough, sent them back to try again.

“Each of the strategies — which were described by the Justice Department in lawsuits against the companies — led to diagnoses of serious diseases that might have never existed. But the diagnoses had a lucrative side effect: They let the insurers collect more money from the federal government’s Medicare Advantage program.”

Comparison to Home Health and Hospice

Naturally, these examples reach into the hundreds of billions because MA covers hospital and physician claims, but the comparison to our sector is nevertheless valid.

Since payments to HHAs were first attached to patient assessments a quarter century ago, clinicians have gotten better and better at the task. OASIS assessments are more accurate and thorough than they used to be. Professional coders are more adept at identifying and sequencing appropriate diagnosis codes. AI-assisted tools entering the fray promise an enhanced level of accuracy. (See our product review of the most promising of these tools.)

From the beginning, more accurate assessments have always meant a 10 to 15 percent increase in an agency’s episodic payment over less accurate OASIS scores. Wary of being accused of upcoding, nurses have always been unnecessarily cautious with their intake assessments.

Upcoding Accusations

CMS has always responded to increasing accuracy with accusations of upcoding, even though the Medicare trust fund more often benefits from the above described undercoding habit. Regulatory adaptations have enshrined the fear of upcoding into an assumption that it will happen, with payments slashed in advance just in case it does.

When errors in assessments and claims are discovered by CMS contractors through sampling, the overpayment amount found in the sample is extrapolated to an agency’s entire patient census. The result has at times crossed the line into seven figures, with a payback demand that occasionally cripples the HHA.

Compare this practice to the gift given to MA companies that we revealed in these pages last February: “Government Lets Health Plans That Ripped Off Medicare Keep the Money” In researching that story, we found that CMS typically postpones its duty to audit the risk adjustment figures that MA plans submit annually. After getting more than a decade behind, they decided to write off overpayments to MA plans prior to 2018 and start auditing from that year forward.

As an additional gift they said they would demand repayments only on the amounts turned up in their sample dataset, without extrapolating to each MA’s total patient population as they do with HHAs.

What can one conclude from this comparison? Possibly that CMS is very good at policing millions of dollars but gets overwhelmed and gives up with amounts in the billions.

Tim Rowan, Editor EmeritusTim Rowan is a 30-year home care technology consultant who co-founded and served as Editor and principal writer of this publication for 25 years. He continues to occasionally contribute news and analysis articles under The Rowan Report’s new ownership. He also continues to work part-time as a Home Care recruiting and retention consultant. More information:

©2024 by The Rowan Report, Peoria, AZ. All rights reserved. This article originally appeared in Healthcare at Home: The Rowan One copy may be printed for personal use: further reproduction by permission only.