Medicare Advantage was introduced as a mechanism for capturing some of the oft-extolled efficiencies of the private health insurance market. Instead of paying providers for services directly, as in traditional Medicare, the government pays Medicare Advantage insurers a predetermined, risk-adjusted amount of money per patient to cover all medical expenses for the year. The risk adjustment ensures that companies insuring Medicare Advantage patients with chronic diseases — who will likely need more intensive, expensive care — receive additional funds to help cover those costs. For each qualifying condition a patient has, the Medicare Advantage plan receives on average an additional $3000 annually.
While the risk adjustment of Medicare Advantage payments was well intentioned and economically rational, it appears to have opened up an avenue for significant abuse on the part of Medicare Advantage insurers. The Department of Justice recently joined a lawsuit against UnitedHealth, a large provider of Medicare Advantage plans, for allegedly defrauding the government out of hundreds of millions, if not billions, of dollars. The complaint alleges that UnitedHealth “upcoded” its risk-adjustment claims by submitting for conditions patients did not actually have and refusing to correct false claims when it discovered or should have discovered them. In essence, the company allegedly realized it could extract more money out of the government by making the patients it covers appear sicker than they actually are, and took full advantage of that.