OIG catches PacifiCare red-handed

Risk Adjustment Data Validation of Payments Made to PacifiCare of Texas for Calendar Year 2007

Office of Inspector General
Department of Health and Human Services, May 2012

Executive Summary


Under the Medicare Advantage (MA) program, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS), makes monthly capitated payments to MA organizations for beneficiaries enrolled in the organizations’ health care plans (beneficiaries). Subsections 1853(a)(1)(C) and (a)(3) of the Social Security Act require that these payments be adjusted based on the health status of each beneficiary. CMS uses the Hierarchical Condition Category (HCC) model (the CMS model) to calculate these risk-adjusted payments.

Under the CMS model, MA organizations collect risk adjustment data, including beneficiary diagnoses, from hospital inpatient facilities, hospital outpatient facilities, and physicians during a data collection period. MA organizations identify the diagnoses relevant to the CMS model and submit these diagnoses to CMS. CMS categorizes the diagnoses into groups of clinically related diseases called HCCs and uses the HCCs and demographic characteristics to calculate a risk score for each beneficiary. CMS then uses the risk scores to adjust the monthly capitated payments to MA organizations for the next payment period.

PacifiCare of Texas (PacifiCare) is an MA organization owned by UnitedHealth Group. For calendar year (CY) 2007, PacifiCare had multiple contracts with CMS, including contract H4590, which we refer to as "the contract." Under the contract, CMS paid PacifiCare approximately $1.3 billion to administer health care plans for approximately 118,000 beneficiaries.


Our objective was to determine whether the diagnoses that PacifiCare submitted to CMS for use in CMS’s risk score calculations complied with Federal requirements.

Summary of Findings

The diagnoses that PacifiCare submitted to CMS for use in CMS’s risk score calculations did not always comply with Federal requirements. The risk scores calculated using the diagnoses that PacifiCare submitted for 57 of the 100 beneficiaries in our sample were valid. The risk scores for the remaining 43 were invalid because the diagnoses were not supported for one or both of the following reasons:

* The documentation did not support the associated diagnosis.

* The diagnosis was unconfirmed.

PacifiCare did not have written policies and procedures for obtaining, processing, and submitting diagnoses to CMS. Furthermore, PacifiCare’s practices were not effective in ensuring that the diagnoses it submitted to CMS complied with the requirements of the 2006 Risk Adjustment Data Basic Training for Medicare Advantage Organizations Participant Guide (the 2006 Participant Guide) and the 2007 Risk Adjustment Data Training for Medicare Advantage Organizations Participant Guide (the 2007 Participant Guide). UnitedHealth Group officials stated that the providers were responsible for the accuracy of the diagnoses that PacifiCare submitted to CMS.

As a result of these unsupported and unconfirmed diagnoses, PacifiCare received $183,247 in overpayments from CMS. Based on our sample results, we estimated that PacifiCare was overpaid approximately $115,422,084 in CY 2007.


By Don McCanne, MD

As you know, Medicare beneficiaries have the option of leaving the traditional Medicare program and obtaining their care through private insurers offering Medicare Advantage plans. These private plans receive from the government monthly capitation payments (a set dollar amount for each beneficiary enrolled). To protect the private insurers from the higher spending required for sicker patients, the capitation payments are adjusted upward based on how ill the patients are. This is known as risk adjustment. Sounds reasonable. So what's the deal here?

Keep in mind that the traditional Medicare program is designed to serve patients whereas the private Medicare Advantage plans are private businesses designed primarily to make money. So how can these private plans meet their business obligation of keeping their spending down while increasing their revenues?

Quite simple. Game risk adjustment. Report many of the patients as having more serious disorders than they really do in order to increase the capitation payments. Although the insurers have denied that they do this, the Office of the Inspector General has caught them red-handed.

Based on this chicanery, UnitedHealth's PacifiCare was overpaid about $115 million for this one contract alone. That is almost $1000 excess for each of the 118,000 beneficiaries enrolled!

The Affordable Care Act is perpetuating and expanding our fragmented health care financing system which is dependent to a great extent on private insurers. To avoid the problems of favorable selection (insurers enrolling only healthy patients and keeping the extra profits) and adverse selection (the government being stuck with the losses of high cost patients after the healthier are siphoned off), the Act calls for risk selection.

The problem is that we do not know how to detect and correct for all of the games that the insurers play to work risk adjustment to their own advantage. It has been estimated that risk adjustment captures only about 10 percent of the overpayments that the private insurers gain through this gaming. As further adjustments are added, the insurers simply find new ways around the system. These are not necessarily illegal maneuvers but are rather simply "good business practices."

Our own government stewards from the OIG, working for us, have exposed this scheme that is being used to skim off our tax dollars. So what are we going to do about it? Don't you think it's time to get rid of the amoral business ethic in health care financing and instead place in charge people dedicated to a service ethic?  We can do this by establishing our own single payer national health program. But first we have to elect people who place public service above all. Supporting the 1 percent isn't working.