Three-fourths of Medicare Advantage denials overturned on appeal, OIG finds

Dive Brief:

  • An investigation by the HHS Office of Inspector General found large numbers of overturned denials upon appeal from Medicare Advantage organizations, raising concerns that some needed payments and services aren’t going to providers and patients.
  • Between 2014 and 2016, MAOs reversed 75% of their own denials, or about 216,000 a year, according to a report released Thursday. Additional denials were overturned by independent reviewers at higher levels of the appeals process.
  • The numbers are particularly troubling because of the infrequency with which beneficiaries and providers used the appeals process — for just 1% of denials at the initial appeal level, according to the report. 

Dive Insight:

The findings are important in light of the growing popularity of Medicare Advantage. Payers like the stability of the marketplace, and it’s popular with patients, too. In a recent Avalere Health study, MA beneficiaries with chronic conditions had 23% fewer inpatient stays and 33% fewer emergency department visits than people enrolled in Medicare fee-for-service plans.

That said, neither providers nor patients want to feel like they regularly have to appeal payment or service denials, especially with out-of-pocket costs on the rise.

Of the roughly 216,000 overturned denials, more than 80% were payments to providers for services the beneficiary had already received. The remainder — 18% — were for preauthorization of services not yet rendered.

But while some denials are justified, filing and processing appeals puts a burden on providers, MAOs and beneficiaries, especially those needing immediate care, OIG says. 

“Further, although overturned payment denials do not affect access to services for the associated beneficiaries, the denials may impact future access,” the report states. “Providers may be discouraged from ordering services that are frequently denied — even when medically necessary —to avoid the appeals process.”

OIG also points to CMS audits that show “widespread and persistent” problems with MAO denials of payment and care. In 2015, for instance, CMS cited more than half of audited contracts for inappropriate denials and 45% for sending incomplete denial letters. The latter could hinder efforts to successfully appeal a denial, the report notes.

While the agency imposed penalties and sanctions against the affected MAOs, more action is needed, the HHS watchdog says.

Specifically, OIG recommends CMS boost oversight of MAO contracts, with an eye toward identifying those with high overturn rates, and take enforcement actions when needed. The report also calls on CMS to address chronic issues around inappropriate denials and deficient denial letters and inform beneficiaries of serious MAO violations. 

CMS agreed to all three suggestions.


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