This article was published by the Center for American Progress.
Doing the Math

Republicans routinely claim that shrinking the government’s involvement in health care would eliminate waste, inefficiency and significantly lower health care costs. But during the debate over the Affordable Care Act, these same politicians lambasted Democrats for cutting $500 billion from Medicare and Medicaid, and specifically argued that the government’s overpayments to private health insurance plans participating in Medicare Advantage (MA) were essential for preserving seniors’ access to services — particularly in rural areas. “The fact of the matter is, the bottom line, is that these are 10 million people that are going to lose benefits. And that’s what it boils down to,” Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT) warned during the mark-up process in the Senate Finance Committee.

Since President Obama signed reform into law, however, the GOP’s doomsday predictions have gone unrealized, and today a new report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) shows that some private plans are still abusing the system and reporting higher patient severity than is actually supported by medical records. As a result, the government is paying private insurers substantially more than it spends on traditional fee-for-service Medicare:

GAO found that diagnostic coding differences exist between MA plans and Medicare FFS. Using data on beneficiary characteristics and regression analysis, GAO estimated that before CMS’s adjustment, 2010 MA beneficiary risk scores were at least 4.8 percent, and perhaps as much as 7.1 percent, higher than they likely would have been if the same beneficiaries had been continuously enrolled in FFS. The higher risk scores were equivalent to $3.9 billion to $5.8 billion in payments to MA plans. Both GAO and CMS found that the impact of coding differences increased over time. This trend suggests that the cumulative impact of coding differences in 2011 and 2012 could be larger than in 2010.

In contrast to GAO, CMS estimated that 3.4 percent of 2010 MA beneficiary risk scores were attributable to coding differences between MA plans and Medicare FFS. CMS’s adjustment for this difference avoided $2.7 billion in excess payments to MA plans. CMS’s 2010 estimate differs from GAO’s in that CMS’s methodology did not include more current data, did not incorporate the trend of the impact of coding differences over time, and did not account for beneficiary characteristics other than age and mortality, such as sex, health status, Medicaid enrollment status, beneficiary residential location, and whether the original reason for Medicare entitlement was disability. […]

GAO’s findings underscore the importance of both CMS continuing to adjust risk scores to account for coding differences and ensuring that those adjustments are as complete and accurate as possible.

In other words, Republicans were wrong in trying to preserve the government’s subsidies for private insurers during the health care battle and they’d be foolish to stand in the way of more reforms now. Medicare Advantage can only be a viable option for seniors if it can help control health care spending. Eliminating waste, fraud and abuse from the program is crucial to improving Medicare’s sustainability and bending the cost curve.

Amanda Peterson Beadle

Amanda Peterson Beadle

Amanda Peterson Beadle is an editorial assistant at She received her B.A. in journalism and Spanish from the University of Alabama, where she was editor-in-chief of the campus newspaper The Crimson White and graduated with honors. Before joining ThinkProgress, she worked as a legislative aide in the Maryland House of Delegates. In college, she interned at the Scripps Howard Foundation Wire, the Press-Register (Mobile, Alabama), and the Ludington Daily News. She is from Birmingham, Alabama.