Insurers brought in $50B through 'questionable' Medicare Advantage coding: WSJ

Medicare Advantage plans received $50 billion in payments between 2018 and 2021 for "questionable diagnoses" insurers added to medical records, a Wall Street Journal investigation published July 8 has found. 

The Journal investigated billions of Medicare Advantage records and found that some conditions were diagnosed at a much higher rate among Medicare Advantage beneficiaries than among traditional Medicare beneficiaries. For example, diabetic cataracts were diagnosed much more often among Medicare Advantage beneficiaries than among traditional Medicare beneficiaries, the Journal found. 

The federal government pays Medicare Advantage plans a rate per beneficiary based on their diagnoses.  

CMS does not reimburse MA plans for beneficiaries with non-diabetic cataracts, a common condition among older adults, according to the Journal. The government does reimburse for diabetic cataracts. CMS paid Medicare Advantage plans more than $700 million for diabetic cataracts diagnoses between 2018 and 2021, the investigation found. 

A spokesperson for UnitedHealth, the largest Medicare Advantage insurer, told the Journal its analysis was "inaccurate and biased." Medicare Advantage plans code diagnoses more completely and ensure diseases are caught earlier, the spokesperson told the outlet. 

The Journal's investigation also found some Medicare Advantage beneficiaries were diagnosed with serious diseases in their medical records, but no evidence of treatment for the disease appeared in these patients' records. Among beneficiaries who had a diagnosis of HIV added to their record by their insurer, just 17% received treatment for the disease, according to the investigation. Among beneficiaries who were diagnosed with HIV by their physician, 92% received treatment. 

The Journal's investigation is the latest examining upcoding by MA plans. A 2022 report in The New York Times alleged some insurers incentivized employees or physicians to add diagnoses to patients' reports. Nearly every major payer has been accused of overbilling by a whistleblower, the federal government or an investigation by HHS' Office of Inspector General. 

MedPAC, which advises the government on Medicare issues, estimates the federal government will spend $83 billion more on Medicare Advantage beneficiaries than if they were enrolled in fee-for-service Medicare. Coding intensity in MA will be 20% higher than in fee-for-service in 2024, according to the commission. 

Read the Journal's full report here. 

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