Congressional auditor said federal health officials need to crack down on billing errors by insurers

By Fred Schulte

 Updated:

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 approaches $60 billion — which is almost twice as much as the National Institutes of Health spends on medical research each year.

“Fundamental changes are necessary” to improve how the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services ferrets out billing mistakes and recoups overpayments from health insurers, he said.

Medicare serves about 56 million people, both those 65 and older and disabled people of any age. About 19 million have chosen to enroll in Medicare Advantage plans as an alternative to standard Medicare.

Federal officials predict the Medicare Advantage option will grow further as massive numbers of baby boomers retire in coming years.

Standard Medicare has a similar problem making accurate payments to doctors, hospitals and other health care providers, according to statistics presented at the hearing. Standard Medicare’s payment error rate was cited at 11 percent, or $41 billion for 2016.

Last week, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced the arrest of 412 people, some 100 doctors among them, in a scattershot of health care fraud schemes that allegedly ripped off the government for about $1.3 billion, mostly from Medicare.

CMS official Jonathan Morse said that the “largest contributors” to billing mistakes in standard Medicare were claims from home health care and inpatient rehabilitation facilities.

Some lawmakers appeared frustrated that CMS cannot say for sure how much of the “improper payments” in both Medicare options are caused by fraud. The agency uses the term broadly to cover billing fraud, waste and abuse, as well as simply overcharges and underpayments.

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