Patient advocacy groups slam UnitedHealthcare over 'misleading' Medicare Advantage marketing

Several patient advocacy organizations are urging the Biden administration to look into allegedly misleading marketing from UnitedHealthcare about its Medicare Advantage plans.

The National Health Law Program, Disability Rights Connecticut, the National Disability Rights Network and the Center for Medicare Advocacy sent a joint letter to the Centers fro Medicare & Medicaid Services and the Federal Trade Commission calling for the agencies to "immediately intervene" over the advertisements.

The groups said in the letter that the marketing points to additional benefits available through Medicare Advantage, such as dental and hearing coverage, that people could not secure in the traditional program. However, the ads don't make clear that they're also likely signing on for a much smaller provider network, which could ultimately make it harder for them to access care.

In addition, the organizations argue that this is especially impactful for people who are dually eligible for Medicare and Medicaid, as they may lose access to valuable benefits in Medicaid by choosing MA.

As an example, the letter points to several newspaper ads from UnitedHealthcare that ran in the Hartford, Connecticut market. An advertisement published on Nov. 30, for instance, says that patients could "get more" by switching to UHC, including a $2,500 allowance for covered preventive and dental services as well as a $0 copay for several rides to and from doctor visits or the pharmacy.

However, these benefits are already available in Connecticut's Medicaid program, according to the letter.

"Unquestionably, this misleading advertising is intended to induce, and has induced, thousands if not tens of thousands of older adults and disabled low-income individuals we are charged with representing to sign up for UnitedHealthcare’s plan, having been led to believe this means they can get extra health care benefits," the groups said.

UnitedHealthcare said in a statement to Fierce Healthcare that the letter's accusations are "baseless." Medicare Advantage's enrollment growth is due to the value it provides consumers compared to traditional Medicare, the insurer said.

"Our Medicare Advantage marketing efforts are focused on ensuring Medicare-eligible individuals have access to clear, accurate and complete information regarding their Medicare options," UnitedHealth said. "Our plan benefits are filed and approved by CMS and our advertising factually describes these benefits and is filed in accordance with CMS marketing guidance."

The insurer noted that it deploys multiple tools to help members find the right plan, including online and through sales agents who communicate with potential customers.

In the letter, the groups urge the feds to take punitive action against UnitedHealthcare for the allegedly misleading advertisements. Beyond that, they also say the agencies should undertake a broad investigation of all advertising aimed at the dual-eligible population from Medicare Advantage plans.

Should this probe identify other MA plans issuing similar advertisements, the organizations argue, then they should also be penalized.

"The unchecked misleading advertising inducing vulnerable disabled and older dual eligible individuals to sign up for these plans, which then significantly harms their access to essential health care, has gone on long enough," according to the letter.

"It is time to put an end to this widespread abusive corporate practice so that, at least by the beginning of the open enrollment period next year, all MA-sponsoring companies will be on notice that these deceptive practices driving up their enrollment numbers to increase profits will no longer be allowed and that a rapid response enforcement mechanism will be in place to catch any violators and allow for timely sanctions and corrective action," the groups added.