One way Medicare Advantage plans game risk scores

Another whistleblower suit alleges Medicare Advantage fraud

By Fred Schulte
The Center for Public Integrity, October 29, 2014

A new whistleblower lawsuit accuses a California health care firm of diagnosing “false and fraudulent” medical conditions that several Medicare Advantage plans allegedly used to overcharge the federal government by $1 billion or more.

The suit was filed by Anita Silingo, a former compliance officer for Mobile Medical Examination Services, Inc., or MedXM. The Santa Ana, California-based firm sends medical professionals to the homes of Medicare Advantage members to assess their health.

The suit also names four Medicare Advantage insurance plans which, Silingo alleges, “turned a blind eye” to the practices. The health plans named in the suit are: Molina Healthcare of California; WellPoint, Inc., which operates  Anthem Blue Cross and Blue Shield; Health Net of California, Inc. and Alameda Alliance for Health.  None would comment.

MedXM chief executive officer Sy Zahedi called the allegations “categorically not true.”

Critics argue that federal officials waste billions of tax dollars every year by failing to crack down on health plans that game the arcane payment system.  At least five other whistleblower cases accusing Medicare Advantage of fraudulently inflating risk scores are winding through federal courts, records show.

The four health plans “turned a blind eye to the truth” because the MedXM health assessments made them money, according to the suit. Medicare Advantage plans argue that the in-home health assessments can help members stay fit and in their homes as long as possible by spotting untreated diseases and dangerous living conditions. While the doctors and nurses don’t offer any treatment during their visit, they report their exam findings to the patient’s primary care physician.

But home visits also are controversial, largely due to their impact on Medicare costs.

The lawsuit names nearly 70 nurse practitioners and physician assistants whom she claims were not properly supervised by doctors. Some evaluations were conducted over the phone rather than in person, as required by federal regulations. In other cases, Silingo alleged, medical coders directed the health professionals to “modify” medical records “in order to increase the severity of the patients’ diagnosis.”

Some doctors and nurses were scheduling 20 to 25 of the home visits per day. The suit names three doctors whom it says scheduled at least 20 of the visits in a single day.

In December of 2012 about 750 Molina patients had “identical vital statistics for age, weight, sex height, blood pressure and heart rate” as well as similar medical findings, all done by the same doctor.

That doctor was “routinely” completing more than 22-25 assessments per day “traveling over a wide geographic area making it implausible that he actually performed the work that he claimed,” according to the suit.



By Don McCanne, MD

Assuming the allegations of this lawsuit prove to be true, it appears that private Medicare Advantage insurers contracted with a private company that hired health care professionals to do in-home health assessments, not for treatment purposes but merely to collect data that, combined with innovative coding, could be used to increase government payments based on inflated risk scores.

These questionable visits were not only useful for increasing profits, they also served as a marketing tool in which the plans could claim that they were providing "coordinated care" not available in the traditional Medicare program, even if these visits were not much more than a sham.

It was already known that private Medicare Advantage insurers were gaming risk scores to increase profits. The revelation in this lawsuit demonstrates one of the mechanisms apparently used to cheat the Medicare program.

Medicare Advantage plans are paid more yet take away choice by limiting care to provider networks. So why do people enroll in them? It is primarily because of the lower cost sharing of the plans that have premiums that are much lower than the Medigap plans, which also offer similar cost sharing reductions. To reduce out-of-pocket spending, Medicare Advantage plans take away choice and Medigap plans charge excessive premiums.

If the same out-of-pocket cost reductions were rolled into the traditional Medicare program then patients could receive the same level of benefits as in Medigap or Medicare Advantage, while preserving free choice of hospitals and health care professionals. Even better, if the other flaws in Medicare were also fixed then we could use it for health care coverage for everyone - an improved Medicare for all.