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August 2017
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KHN: Kaiser Health News
by Fred Schulte

Whistleblowers: United Healthcare Hid Complaints About Medicare Advantage

United Healthcare Services Inc., which runs the nation’s largest private Medicare Advantage insurance plan, concealed hundreds of complaints of enrollment fraud and other misconduct from federal officials as part of a scheme to collect bonus payments it didn’t deserve, a newly unsealed whistleblower lawsuit alleges.

The suit, filed by United Healthcare sales agents in Wisconsin, accuses the giant insurer of keeping a “dual set of books” to hide serious complaints about its services and of being “intentionally ineffective” at investigating misconduct by its sales staff. A federal judge unsealed the lawsuit, first filed in October 2016, on July 25, 2017.

The company knew of accusations that at least one sales agent forged signatures on enrollment forms and had been the subject of dozens of other misconduct complaints, according to the suit. In another case, a sales agent allegedly engaged in a “brazen kickback scheme” in which she promised iPads to people who agreed to sign up and stay with the health plan for six months, according to the suit.

Though it fired the female sales agent, United Healthcare concluded the kickback allegations against her were “inconclusive” and did not report the incident to the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, according to the suit.

Asked for comment on the allegations in the suit, United Healthcare spokesman Matt Burns said: “We reject them.”

Medicare serves about 56 million people, both people with disabilities and those 65 and older. About 19 million have chosen to enroll in Medicare Advantage plans as an alternative to standard Medicare. United Healthcare is the nation’s biggest operator, covering about 3.6 million patients last year.

The whistleblowers accuse United Healthcare of hiding misconduct complaints from federal officials to avoid jeopardizing its high rankings on government quality scales. These rankings are used both as a marketing tool to entice members and as a way for the government to pay bonuses to high-quality plans.

Medicare paid United Healthcare $1.4 billion in bonuses in fiscal 2016 based upon their high quality ratings, compared with $564 million in 2015, according to the suit. CMS relies on the health plans to report problems and does not verify the accuracy of these reports before issuing any bonus payments.

The suit alleges the bonuses were “fraudulently obtained” because the company concealed the true extent of complaints. In March 2016, for instance, the company advised CMS only of 257 serious complaints, or about a third of the 771 actually logged, according to the suit.

In May, the Justice Department accused United Healthcare of overcharging the federal government by more than $1 billion by improperly jacking up risk scores over the course of a decade.