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Scammy Medicare ads and unsolicited calls bombard seniors shopping for health insurance. Will federal efforts help them?

Leslie Montgomery

New regulations designed to crack down on misleading marketing of Medicare insurance plans face their first big test when seniors begin shopping for coverage on Oct. 15.

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. The reforms face their first big test when Medicare’s open enrollment period kicks off on Oct. 15.

It’s easy to see why Montgomery is tempted by these kinds of online ads.

Leslie Montgomery
Submitted / Greg Montgomery Leslie Montgomery

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, Arizona 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 said. “They’re basically there to shaft you.”

Too many options, too little information and an alarming level of deception

Open enrollment — which runs until Dec. 7 this year — is an annual chance for the country’s 65 million Medicare beneficiaries to shop for higher quality, lower cost insurance coverage.

“It’s a potentially high stakes decision with really important implications for beneficiaries’ health and finances,” said 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, only about a third of people compare plans during this annual two month window, according to estimates by KFF, a health policy research nonprofit.

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.

Private insurers and brokers ran more than 640,000 commercials on TV alone last fall. Yet, two out of three seniors still say they would like to learn more about their options.

“It’s both too much information and too little information all at once,” said 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 KFF.

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,” Jacobson, who led the research, said. “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 leave seniors without needed help

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 said, 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 said.

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,” said Brandon Wilson of Community Catalyst referring to the new Commonwealth survey.

Leslie Montgomery was able to turn to one of those resources — a helpline run by the nonprofit Medicare Rights Center — earlier this year.

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 Fund survey report they do not know how to file a federal complaint about Medicare marketing.

State Health Insurance Assistance Programs received $55 million this year — less than a dollar per Medicare beneficiary. Advocates often argue more federal funding should go towards those programs to provide free, local one-on-one counseling. Experts 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 said.

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Side Effects is a health news service exploring the impacts of place, policy and economics on Americans' health.

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