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Part D insurers bilk Medicare and taxpayers

Written by Diane Archer

The Wall Street Journal reports on a longstanding practice of health insurance companies, which offer Medicare Part D prescription drug benefits, bilking Medicare and taxpayers. As a result, the government overpaid these insurers to the tune of more than $9 billion over ten years. How did this happen and when will it stop?

As the WSJ explains, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) pays these insurance companies in two parts, based on federal legislation. The goal is to help ensure that they keep down Part D premiums, as well as to protect the insurers if they end up with too many members who take a lot of prescription drugs. But, the result is that many of the insurers, including the very biggest, project their base costs to be significantly higher than they end up being. These insurers benefit from their overestimates.

Under federal law, if Part D insurers estimate their costs at up to 5 percent more than they spend on prescription drugs and administration, they can keep the full amount of the overestimate. That money is on top of the profits embedded in their estimates, which are part of their administrative costs. If their estimate is more than 5 percent above their costs, they get to split the extra dollars, above the 5 percent, with the government.

It’s a confusing formula. But, there are some big takeaways. Part D insurers make off like bandits with taxpayer dollars if they overestimate their costs. If Medicare administered the drug benefit directly, it would save billions of dollars. If it negotiated drug prices or paid drug prices based on the average of what other countries pay, it was save some $250 billion a year more.

CVS Health, UnitedHealth and Humana, three of the largest Part D insurers covering about half of all Part D participants, profit most at the expense of taxpayers. And, CVS effectively concedes that it cannot afford not to overestimate costs if it is to protect its finances.  “[W]e can’t have years where we lose money.”

The WSJ analysis revealed that almost seven in ten people with Medicare were enrolled in a Part D plan that overestimated its costs by 5 percent or more. More than nine in ten people (93 percent) enrolled in a  UnitedHealth Part D plan were in a plan that had overestimated costs by at least 5 percent.

The big Part D health insurance companies have the data they need to submit accurate bids to CMS. They would not so consistently overestimate their costs to such a high degree if there were a financial disincentive for them to do so. But, they have every incentive to overestimate their costs, bilk taxpayers and deliver their shareholders greater returns. Rather than penalizing them for their overestimates, the government rewards them. It allows the insurers to keep all of the excess funds up to five percent, along with some of the excess funds over that amount.

Isn’t it time for the government to rein in drug prices and fold the prescription drug benefit directly into traditional Medicare?

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