Medicare shoppers often face a barrage of unsolicited calls and aggressive ads
One minute last December Leslie Montgomery was a medieval warlord pillaging a nearby kingdom. The next she was a retiree drowning in a flood of confusing Medicare sales calls.
The 75-year-old had been deeply immersed in her favorite free online game when a banner ad appeared warning her that she might be missing out on money from the federal government. She clicked, and within minutes, she received an avalanche of calls with health insurance quotes she had never requested.
A batch of federal regulations issued this year aim to protect consumers like Montgomery. Following a sharp rise in complaints of misleading marketing of private Medicare plans and a damning report by Senate Democrats, the Biden administration finalized new rules to rein in deceptive Medicare marketing tactics.
Those reforms face their first big test as Medicare's open enrollment period kicks off. It's an annual chance for the country's 65 million Medicare beneficiaries to shop for higher quality, lower cost insurance coverage.
It's easy to see why Montgomery gets tempted by these kinds of online ads. She's one of about 12 million people in the U.S. whose medical and social vulnerabilities qualify them for both Medicare and Medicaid.
Earlier this year, she was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease, and not long after was evicted from her home in an R.V. park for seniors. The Phoenix, Ariz., resident now lives on just $50 a month of disposable income. So, she clicks.
As insurance brokers peppered her phone last December, Montgomery repeatedly explained that she was interested in the offer of extra cash from the federal government, not in switching plans.
"And they say, 'Well, you have to have the right insurance policy to get it,' " she recalls. As soon as she hears that she hangs up — she doesn't want a new health plan.
"It's extremely frustrating to figure that somebody is there to help you and then you find out they're not there to help you," Montgomery says. "They're basically there to shaft you."
Too many options, too little information and an alarming level of deception
Open enrollment — which runs from Oct. 15 to Dec. 7 this year — allows seniors to choose a new Medicare plan if they wish.
"It's a potentially high stakes decision with really important implications for beneficiaries' health and finances," says Gretchen Jacobson, a vice president at the Commonwealth Fund, a private foundation that also conducts health policy research.
Research shows that picking a flawed plan can waste seniors' often limited income, and even lead people to get lower quality care or leave lifesaving prescriptions unfilled. Some of the enrollment choices people make can also be hard and expensive to undo down the road.
Yet, the Kaiser Family Foundation estimates that only about a third of people compare plans during this annual two month window.
Medicare shopping is tough.
In addition to the traditional Medicare coverage offered by the federal government, the average person can now choose from more than 60 other products, including Medicare plans run by private insurers (known as Medicare Advantage) and separate prescription drug coverage.
Every fall, millions of Medicare shoppers are bombarded by information about these dozens of options — and that information is often incomplete and in some cases fraudulent.
"It's both too much information and too little information all at once," says Brandon Wilson, a senior director at consumer advocacy group Community Catalyst.
Paid marketing skews heavily toward Medicare Advantage, which is more than twice as profitable for private insurers than any other type of coverage they offer. Nearly 9 out of 10 TV ads that ran last fall focused on Medicare Advantage, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.
A new survey by the Commonwealth Fund also found that deceptive marketing tactics further muddy the waters. Three-quarters of respondents reported receiving unsolicited calls, which are federally prohibited. Half said they'd received information about a specific plan from the government, which does no such outreach.
"We were very surprised," says Jacobson, who led the research. "What was really concerning was that low-income people consistently reported these activities more frequently than higher-income people across almost every measure that we asked about."
Nearly a third of people living on less than $25,000 a year reported that an ad had misled them. The same group was twice as likely as peers with higher incomes to say they'd felt pressured to switch coverage.
People with low incomes who are eligible for both Medicare and Medicaid have even more options in the form of special Medicare Advantage plans called Dual-Eligible Special Needs Plans. These offerings often include extra benefits, but can increase confusion. This year the situation is even trickier as many pandemic-era protections that kept people enrolled in Medicaid are ending.
New regulations target deceptive ads, but still leave seniors vulnerable to aggressive sales pitches
Insurance brokers and agents are a top source of advice as older adults attempt to navigate this enrollment maze, but the information they offer is incomplete.
Private insurers pay these third party intermediaries commissions that can range from $50 to $762 per sign-up and other unreported payments to push certain plans. Brokers and agents are not legally required to present clients with all available options in their area.
"Their compensation is not always aligned with how they would like to advise beneficiaries," Jacobson says, pointing to findings from focus groups conducted with insurance brokers.
That disconnect is especially true for lower income clients, Jacobson noted. Advising potential clients to stick with traditional Medicare generates little to no money for the broker — unless the person purchases private insurance to supplement their government coverage.
"So when a low-income person talks with a broker, for the most part, the only avenue for that broker to make money is to enroll that person in a Medicare Advantage plan," Jacobson says.
That means, just like with advertisers, people cannot assume brokers are painting a full, unvarnished picture of their coverage options. The details of Medicare Advantage plans are especially important for consumers to understand since they can restrict people's access to certain doctors and drugs more than traditional Medicare coverage does.
"This research highlights the need to make more trusted, neutral resources available," says Brandon Wilson of Community Catalyst referring to the new Commonwealth survey.
Help for seniors navigating a confusing landscape
Another alluring ad had caught her eye — this time on a postcard in her stack of mail, and she wanted to run it by an expert.
A trained helpline volunteer helped Montgomery weigh the new plan's shiny offer of $100 per month to spend on vitamins, aspirin and other over-the-counter items against the benefits of her current coverage. She realized she was better off staying put.
The Medicare Rights Center says its call volume spikes by about a third around open enrollment. Still, people are far more likely to make enrollment decisions alone or turn to brokers than to use unbiased helplines or the federal government's plan comparison tool.
Recent regulatory changes by the Biden administration aim to elevate the overall quality and transparency of promotional materials.
New restrictions limit how the Medicare logo and name can be used. The federal government has also cracked down on misleading promises of cost savings and on the use of superlatives like "best" or "most."
Despite these efforts, many people on Medicare remain confused by what constitutes fraud and 90% of seniors in the Commonwealth survey report they do not know how to file a federal complaint about Medicare marketing.
Sen. Ron Wyden also recently announced that the Senate Finance Committee will hold a hearing about deceptive marketing practices on October 18, suggesting that lawmakers also believe that further reforms might be needed.
In the meantime, Medicare experts and advocates say more federal funding should go toward State Health Insurance Assistance Programs, which received $55 million this year — less than a dollar per Medicare beneficiary — to provide free, local one-on-one counseling. They have also called for more reforms to broker compensation, such as requiring reporting of bonus payments or making sales commissions equal across all plan types.
Leslie Montgomery still believes in the importance of open enrollment as a chance for seniors to stretch their often limited dollars.
She also knows how treacherous a time it can be.
"I do my research on things, but somebody who doesn't do that can really get themselves into a lot of bad trouble," Montgomery says.
This story comes from the health policy podcast Tradeoffs, whose coverage of complex care is supported, in part, by Arnold Ventures. Dan Gorenstein is Tradeoffs' executive editor, and Leslie Walker is a senior reporter/producer for the show, where a version of this story first appeared.
Carmel Wroth edited this story for NPR.
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