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By Fred Schulte, Kaiser Health News 

Federal health officials made more than $16 billion in improper payments to private Medicare Advantage health plans last year and need to crack down on billing errors by the insurers, a top congressional auditor testified Wednesday.

James Cosgrove, who directs health care reviews for the Government Accountability Office, told the House Ways and Means oversight subcommittee that the Medicare Advantage improper payment rate was 10 percent in 2016, which comes to $16.2 billion.

Adding in the overpayments for standard Medicare programs, the tally for last year approached $60 billion — which is almost twice as much as the National Institutes of Health spends on medical research each year.

By Fred Schulte, Center for Public Integrity 

Carol Berman, of West Palm Beach speaks with pedestrians about the need for policymakers to protect Medicare Advantage benefits during the Coalition for Medicare Choices' Medicare Advantage Food Truck stop on North Capitol Street in Washington on Monday, March 9, 2015. Photo: Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call

Carol Berman, of West Palm Beach speaks with pedestrians about the need for policymakers to protect Medicare Advantage benefits during the Coalition for Medicare Choices’ Medicare Advantage Food Truck stop on North Capitol Street in Washington on Monday, March 9, 2015. Photo: Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call

Private Medicare Advantage plans treating the elderly have over-billed the government by billions of dollars, but rarely been forced to repay the money or face other consequences for their actions, according to a new Congressional audit.

In a sharply critical report made public Monday, the Government Accountability Office called for “fundamental improvements” to curb overbilling by the health plans, which are paid more than $160 billion annually. The privately run plans, an alternative to traditional fee-for-service Medicare,  have proven popular with seniors and have enrolled more than 17 million people. The plans, which were the subject of a Center for Public Integrity investigation, also enjoy strong support in Congress.

 By Fred Schulte, Center for Public Integrity 
The entrance to the Humana headquarters in Louisville, Kentucky.

The entrance to the Humana headquarters in Louisville, Kentucky.

 

Insurance giant Humana Inc., which operates some of the nation’s largest private Medicare health plans, knew for years of billing fraud at some South Florida clinics, but did little to curb the practice even though it could harm patients, a doctor alleges in a newly unsealed whistleblower lawsuit.

The suit was filed by Boynton Beach physician Mario M. Baez. It accuses Humana, and his former business partner, Dr. Isaac K. Thompson, of engaging in a lucrative billing fraud scheme that lasted years. The suit also names three other Palm Beach County doctors, two medical clinics and a doctors’ practice group as defendants. The suit was filed in October 2012, but remained under a federal court seal until Feb. 26.

By Fred Schulte, Center for Public Integrity 

Shaun Donovan, director of the Office of Management and Budget

Shaun Donovan, director of the Office of Management and Budget

White House budget director Shaun Donovan called for a “more aggressive strategy” to thwart improper government payments to doctors, hospitals and insurance companies in a previously undisclosed letter to Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Mathews Burwell earlier this year.

Government health care programs covering millions of Americans waste billions of tax dollars every year through these “improper” payments, Donovan said in the Feb. 26, 2015 letter.

By Fred Schulte, Center for Public Integrity medicarecard

Government audits just released as the result of a lawsuit detail widespread billing errors in private Medicare Advantage health plans going back years, including overpayments of thousands of dollars a year for some patients.

Since 2004, privately run Medicare Advantage plans, an increasingly popular alternative to traditional Medicare, have been paid using a risk score calculated for each patient who joins. Medicare expects to pay higher rates for sicker people and less for those in good health.