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Extra Fees Drive Assisted Living Profits

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Jordan Rau, KFF Health News
Mon, 20 Nov 2023 10:00:00 +0000

Assisted living centers have become an appealing retirement option for hundreds of thousands of boomers who can no longer independently, promising a cheerful alternative to the institutional feel of a nursing home.

But their cost is so crushingly high that most Americans can't afford them.

These highly profitable facilities often charge $5,000 a month or more and then layer on fees at every step. Residents' bills and price lists from a dozen facilities offer a glimpse of the charges: $12 for a blood pressure check; $50 per injection (more for insulin); $93 a month to order medications from a pharmacy not used by the facility; $315 a month for daily with an inhaler.

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The facilities charge extra to help residents get to the shower, bathroom, or dining room; to deliver meals to their rooms; to have staff check-ins for daily “reassurance” or simply to remind residents when it's time to eat or take their medication. Some even charge for routine billing of a resident's insurance for care.

“They say, ‘Your mother forgot one time to take her medications, and so now you've got to add this on, and we're billing you for it,'” said Lori Smetanka, executive director of the National Consumer Voice for Quality Long-Term Care, a nonprofit.

About 850,000 older Americans reside in assisted living facilities, which have become one of the most lucrative branches of the long-term care industry that caters to people 65 and older. Investors, regional companies, and international real estate trusts have jumped in: Half of operators in the business of assisted living earn returns of 20% or more than it costs to run the sites, an industry survey shows. That is far higher than the money made in most other health sectors.

Rents are often rivaled or exceeded by charges for services, which are either packaged in a bundle or levied à la carte. Overall prices have been rising faster than , and rent increases since the start of last year have been higher than at any previous time since at least 2007, according to the National Investment Center for Seniors Housing & Care, which provides data and other information to companies.

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There are now 31,000 assisted living facilities nationwide — twice the number of skilled nursing homes. Four of every five facilities are run as for-profits. Members of racial or ethnic minority groups account for only a tenth of residents, even though they make up a quarter of the population of people 65 or older in the United States.

A public opinion survey conducted by KFF found that 83% of adults said it would be impossible or very difficult to pay $60,000 a year for an assisted living facility. Almost half of those surveyed who either lived in a long-term care residence or had a loved one who did encountered unexpected add-on fees for things they assumed were included in the price.

Assisted living is part of a broader affordability crisis in long-term care for the swelling population of older Americans. Over the past decade, the market for long-term care insurance has virtually collapsed, covering just a tiny portion of older people. Home health workers who can help people stay safely in their homes are generally poorly paid and hard to find.

And even older people who can afford an assisted living facility often find their life savings rapidly drained.

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Unlike most residents of nursing homes, where care is generally paid for by , the federal-state program for the poor and disabled, assisted living residents or their families usually must shoulder the full costs. Most centers require those who can no longer pay to move out.

The industry says its pricing structures pay for increased staffing that helps the more infirm residents and avoids saddling others with costs of services they don't need.

Prices escalate greatly when a resident develops dementia or other serious illnesses. At one facility in California, the monthly cost of care packages for people with dementia or other cognitive issues increased from $1,325 for those needing the least amount of help to $4,625 as residents' needs grew.

“It's profiteering at its worst,” said Mark Bonitz, who explored multiple places in Minnesota for his mother, Elizabeth. “They have a fixed amount of rooms,” he said. “The way you make the most money is you get so many add-ons.” Last year, he moved his mother to a nonprofit center, where she lived until her in July at age 96.

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LaShuan Bethea, executive director of the National Center for Assisted Living, a trade association of owners and operators, said the industry would require financial support from the government and private lenders to bring prices down.

“Assisted living providers are ready and willing to provide more affordable options, especially for a growing elderly population,” Bethea said. “But we need the support of policymakers and other industries.” She said offering affordable assisted living “requires an entirely different business model.”

Others defend the extras as a way to appeal to the waves of boomers who are retiring. “People want choice,” said Beth Burnham Mace, a special adviser for the National Investment Center for Seniors Housing & Care. “If you price it more à la carte, you're paying for what you actually desire and need.”

Yet residents don't always get the heightened attention they paid for. Class-action lawsuits have accused several assisted living chains of failing to raise staffing levels to accommodate residents' needs or of failing to fulfill billed services.

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“We still receive many complaints about staffing shortages and services not being provided as promised,” said Aisha Elmquist, until recently the deputy ombudsman for long-term care in Minnesota, a state-funded advocate. “Some residents have reported to us they called 911 for things like getting in and out of bed.”

‘Can You Find Me a Money Tree?'

Florence Reiners, 94, adores living at the Waters of Excelsior, an upscale assisted living facility in the Minneapolis suburb of Excelsior. The 115-unit building has a theater, a library, a hair salon, and a spacious dining room.

“The windows, the brightness, and the people overall are very cheerful and very friendly,” Reiners, a retired nursing assistant, said. Most important, she was just a floor away from her husband, Donald, 95, a retired water department worker who served in the military after World War II and has severe dementia.

She resisted her children's pleas to move him to a less expensive facility available to veterans.

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Reiners is healthy enough to be on a floor for people who can live independently, so her rent is $3,330 plus $275 for a pendant alarm. When she needs help, she's billed an exact amount, like a $26.67 charge for the 31 minutes an aide spent helping her to the bathroom one night.

Her husband's specialty care at the facility cost much more: $6,150 a month on top of $3,825 in rent.

Month by month, their savings, mainly from the sale of their home, and monthly retirement income of $6,600 from Social Security and his municipal pension, dwindled. In three years, their assets and savings dropped to about $300,000 from around $550,000.

Her children warned her that she would run out of money if her health worsened. “She about cried because she doesn't want to her community,” Anne Palm, one of her daughters, said.

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In June, they moved Donald Reiners to the VA home across the city. His care there costs $3,900 a month, 60% less than at the Waters. But his wife is not to live at the veterans' facility.

After nearly 60 years together, she was devastated. When an admissions worker asked her if she had any questions, she answered, “Can you find me a money tree so I don't have to move him?”

Heidi Elliott, vice president for operations at the Waters, said employees carefully review potential residents' financial assets with them, and explain how costs can increase over time.

“Oftentimes, our senior living consultants will ask, ‘After you've reviewed this, Mr. Smith, how many years do you think Mom is going to be able to, to afford this?'” she said. “And sometimes we lose prospects because they've realized, ‘You know what? Nope, we don't have it.'”

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Potential Buyers From the Bahamas

For residents, the median annual price of assisted living has increased 31% faster than inflation, nearly doubling from 2004 to 2021, to $54,000, according to surveys by the insurance firm Genworth. Monthly fees at memory care centers, which specialize in people with dementia and other cognitive issues, can exceed $10,000 in areas where real estate is expensive or the residents' needs are high.

Diane Lepsig, president of CarePatrol of Bellevue-Eastside, in the Seattle suburbs, which helps place people, said that she has warned those seeking advice that they should expect to pay at least $7,000 a month. “A million dollars in assets really doesn't last that long,” she said.

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Prices rose even faster during the pandemic as wages and supply costs grew. Brookdale Senior Living, one of the nation's largest assisted living owners and operators, reported to stockholders rate increases that were higher than usual for this year. In its assisted living and memory care division, Brookdale's revenue per occupied unit rose 9.4% in 2023 from 2022, primarily because of rent increases, financial disclosures show.

In a statement, Brookdale said it worked with prospective residents and their families to explain the pricing and care options available: “These discussions begin in the initial stages of moving in but also continue throughout the span that one lives at a community, especially as their needs change.”

Many assisted living facilities are owned by real estate investment trusts. Their shareholders expect the high returns that are typically gained from housing investments rather than the more marginal profits of the heavily regulated health care sector. Even during the pandemic, earnings remained robust, financial filings show.

Ventas, a publicly traded real estate investment trust, reported earning revenues in the third quarter of this year that were 24% above operating costs from its investments in 576 senior housing properties, which include those run by Atria Senior Living and Sunrise Senior Living.

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Ventas said the prices for its services were affordable. “In markets where we operate, on average it costs residents a comparable amount to live in our communities as it does to stay in their own homes and replicate services,” said Molly McEvily, a spokesperson.

In the same period, Welltower, another large real estate investment trust, reported a 24% operating margin from its 883 senior housing properties, which include ones operated by Sunrise‌, Atria, Oakmont Management Group, and Belmont Village.‌ Welltower did not respond‌‌ to requests for comment.

The median operating margin for assisted living facilities in 2021 was 23% if they offered memory care and 20% if they didn't, according to David Schless, chief executive of the American Seniors Housing Association, a trade group that surveys the industry each year.

Bethea said those returns could be invested back into facilities' services, technology, and building updates. “This is partly why assisted living also enjoys high customer satisfaction rates,” she said.

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Brandon Barnes, an administrator at a family business that owns three small residences in Esko, Minnesota, said he and other small operators had been approached by brokers for companies, including one based in the Bahamas. “I don't even know how you'd run them from that far away,” he said.

Rating the Cost of a Shower, on a Point Scale

To consistently get such impressive returns, some assisted living facilities have devised sophisticated pricing methods. Each service is assigned points based on an estimate of how much it costs in extra labor, to the minute. When residents arrive, they are evaluated to see what services they need, and the facility adds up the points. The number of points determines which tier of services you require; facilities often have four or five levels of care, each with its own price.

Charles Barker, an 81-year-old retired psychiatrist with Alzheimer's, moved into Oakmont of Pacific Beach, a memory care facility in San Diego, in November 2020. In the initial estimate, he was assigned 135 points: 5 for mealtime reminders; 12 for shaving and grooming reminders; 18 for help with clothes selection twice a day; 36 to manage medications; and 30 for the attention, prompting, and redirection he would need because of his dementia, according to a copy of his assessment provided by his daughter, Celenie Singley.

Barker's points fell into the second-lowest of five service levels, with a charge of $2,340 on top of his $7,895 monthly rent.

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Singley became distraught over safety issues that she said did not seem as important to Oakmont as its point system. She complained in a May 2021 letter to Courtney Siegel, the company's chief executive, that she repeatedly found the doors to the facility, located on a busy street, unlocked — a lapse at memory care centers, where secured exits keep people with dementia from wandering away. “Even when it's expensive, you really don't know what you're getting,” she said in an interview.

Singley, 50, moved her father to another memory care unit. Oakmont did not respond to requests for comment.

Other residents and their families brought a class-action against Oakmont in 2017 that said the company, an assisted living and memory care provider based in Irvine, California, had not provided enough staffing to meet the needs of residents it identified through its own assessments.

Jane Burton-Whitaker, a plaintiff who moved into Oakmont of Mariner Point in Alameda, California, in 2016, paid $5,795 monthly rent and $270 a month for assistance with her urinary catheter, but sometimes the staff would empty the bag just once a day when it required multiple changes, the lawsuit said.

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She paid an additional $153 a month for checks of her “fragile” skin “up to three times a day, but most days staff did not provide any skin checks,” according to the lawsuit. (Skin is a hazard for older people that can lead to bedsores and infections.) Sometimes it took the staff 45 minutes to respond to her call button, so she left the facility in 2017 out of concern she would not get attention should she have a medical emergency, the lawsuit said.

Oakmont paid $9 million in 2020 to settle the class-action suit and agreed to provide enough staffing, without admitting fault.

Similar cases have been brought against other assisted living companies. In 2021, Aegis Living, a company based in Bellevue, Washington, agreed to a $16 million settlement in a case claiming that its point system — which charged 64 cents per point per day — was “based solely on budget considerations and desired profit margins.” Aegis did not admit fault in the settlement or respond to requests for comment.

When the Money Is Gone

Jon Guckenberg's rent for a single room in an assisted living cottage in rural Minnesota was $4,140 a month before adding in a raft of other charges.

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The facility, New Perspective Cloquet, charged him $500 to reserve a spot and a $2,000 “entrance fee” before he set foot inside two years ago. Each month, he also paid $1,080 for a care plan that helped him cope with bipolar disorder and kidney problems, $750 for meals, and another $750 to make sure he took his daily medications. Cable service in his room was an extra $50 a month.

A year after moving in, Guckenberg, 83, a retired pizza parlor owner, had run through his life's savings and was put on a state health plan for the poor.

Doug Anderson, a senior vice president at New Perspective, said in a statement that “the cost and complexity of providing care and housing to seniors has increased exponentially due to the pandemic and record-high inflation.”

In one way, Guckenberg has been luckier than most people who run out of money to pay for their care. His residential center accepts Medicaid to the health services he receives.

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Most states have similar programs, though a resident must be frail enough to qualify for a nursing home before Medicaid will cover the health care costs in an assisted living facility. But enrollment is restricted. In 37 states, people are on waiting lists for months or years.

“We recognize the current system of having residents spend down their assets and then qualify for Medicaid in order to stay in their assisted living home is broken,” said Bethea, with the trade association. “Residents shouldn't have to impoverish themselves in order to continue receiving assisted living care.”

Only 18% of residential care facilities agree to take Medicaid payments, which tend to be lower than what they charge self-paying clients, according to a federal survey of facilities. And even places that accept Medicaid often limit coverage to a minority of their beds.

For those with some retirement income, Medicaid isn't free. Nancy Pilger, Guckenberg's guardian, said that he was able to keep only about $200 of his $2,831 monthly retirement income, with the rest going to paying rent and a portion of his costs covered by the government.

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In September, Guckenberg moved to a nearby assisted living building run by a nonprofit. Pilger said the price was the same. But for other residents who have not yet exhausted their assets, Guckenberg's new home charges $12 a tray for meal delivery to the room; $50 a month to bill a person's long-term care insurance plan; and $55 for a set of bed rails.

Even after Guckenberg had left New Perspective, however, the company had one more charge for him: a $200 late payment fee for money it said he still owed.

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By: Jordan Rau, KFF Health News
Title: Extra Fees Drive Assisted Living Profits
Sourced From: kffhealthnews.org/news/article/dying-broke-extra-fees-drive-assisted-living-profits/
Published Date: Mon, 20 Nov 2023 10:00:00 +0000

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Kaiser Health News

In Congress, Calls Mount for Social Security to Address Clawbacks

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David Hilzenrath and Jodie Fleischer, Cox Media Group
Thu, 30 Nov 2023 18:55:00 +0000

An investigation by KFF Health News and Cox Media Group gained further traction on Capitol Hill this as additional members of formally demanded answers from the Social Security Administration about billions of dollars it mistakenly paid to beneficiaries — and then ordered they repay.

Two members of a Senate panel that oversees Social Security sent a letter to the agency's acting commissioner, Kilolo Kijakazi, urging her to do more to prevent overpayments and “limit harm to vulnerable beneficiaries” when to recover the money.

As KFF News and Cox Media Group television stations jointly reported in September, the Social Security Administration routinely sends notices to beneficiaries saying they received to which they weren't entitled — and demanding they pay the government back, often within 30 days.

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In the 2022 federal fiscal year, for example, the agency sent overpayment notices to more than 1 million people, Kijakazi told Congress in mid-October.

Alleged overpayments can continue for years before the government notifies a recipient and seeks repayment. By then, the amount a beneficiary allegedly owes the government can reach tens of thousands of dollars or more. People living check to check likely would have spent the money.

To recoup money owed, the government can reduce or stop people's monthly benefit checks.

“[W]e have been deeply concerned by stories from our constituents and recent reports of the extreme financial hardship placed upon beneficiaries who are asked to quickly repay in full or whose payments are halted, reduced, or reclaimed as the agency attempts to correct improper payments, many of which occurred due to agency error,” Sens. Maggie Hassan (D-N.H.) and Bill Cassidy (R-La.) wrote in a Nov. 28 letter to Kijakazi.

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Citing the news ' reporting, the senators asked what Kijakazi is doing to prevent harm to beneficiaries and what Congress can do.

Hassan and Cassidy are on the Senate Finance Committee's Subcommittee on Social Security, Pensions, and Policy.

Meanwhile, Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.) sent Kijakazi a letter on Nov. 17 calling the agency's actions “unacceptable.”

“If anyone intentionally defrauded the system or lied to payments at other taxpayers' expense, they should absolutely be held accountable and repay this debt to taxpayers,” Scott wrote. “But it's completely wrong for the federal government to go after well-intentioned Americans who did all the right things and trusted that their government was doing the right thing, too.”

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Many of the people affected are disabled, low-income, or both and are enrolled in the Social Security Administration's Disability Insurance or Supplemental Security Income programs.

In the 2022 fiscal year, the agency issued an estimated $4.6 billion in SSI overpayments, which represented 8% of payments in that program, according to the agency's latest annual financial report.

Kijakazi recently told a House subcommittee the 8% was “a small percentage.”

In other programs administered by the agency, there were an estimated $6.5 billion in overpayments in fiscal 2022, which amounted to one-half of 1%. Kijakazi called that overpayment rate “extremely low.”

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During the 2023 fiscal year, which ended on Sept. 30, the agency recovered $4.9 billion in overpayments, according to a recent statement by Social Security's inspector general. At the end of that period, an additional $23 billion of accumulated overpayments remained uncollected, the statement said.

Since KFF Health News and Cox Media Group TV stations published and news reports on overpayment clawbacks in September, several members of the House and Senate have written to the Social Security Administration calling for change or answers.

“Many of these overpayment notices come as a complete surprise to SSA beneficiaries, leaving them confused, shocked, and scared that they cannot pay what SSA says they owe,” Rep. Ruben Gallego, an Arizona Democrat and Senate candidate, said in a Sept. 29 letter. “And, because of an indefinite ‘look-back period', SSA can collect funds from a recipient for an error going back decades,” he added.

Asked about the latest letters from lawmakers, Social Security spokesperson Nicole Tiggemann said the agency “will respond directly to the requestors.”

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Kijakazi said in October that she ordered a “top-to-bottom” review of how the agency handles overpayments.

Under federal law, the agency must seek recovery of overpaid amounts unless circumstances warrant waiving the debts, Kijakazi said in recent testimony to Congress. There's no time limit on efforts to collect the debts, she said.

In their letter to the acting commissioner, Cassidy and Hassan asked what the agency is doing to make it less burdensome for beneficiaries to appeal or seek a waiver when an overpayment is the government's fault.

In response to questions for this article, Tiggemann, the Social Security spokesperson, said, “We will examine our policies and procedures — including our regulations — to determine where administrative updates to the overpayment recovery and waiver may reduce the complexity and burden for the people we serve.”

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Scott, the Florida Republican, asked if the review Kijakazi announced in October would be disclosed to the public. In a written response to questions for this article, the Social Security spokesperson didn't say.

Do you have an experience with Social Security overpayments you'd like to share? Click here to contact our reporting team.

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By: David Hilzenrath and Jodie Fleischer, Cox Media Group
Title: In Congress, Calls Mount for Social Security to Address Clawbacks
Sourced From: kffhealthnews.org/news/article/social-security-senators-letter-cox-media-group-kff-health-news/
Published Date: Thu, 30 Nov 2023 18:55:00 +0000

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https://www.biloxinewsevents.com/ftc-chief-gears-up-for-a-showdown-with-private-equity/

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FTC Chief Gears Up for a Showdown With Private Equity

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Harris Meyer
Thu, 30 Nov 2023 10:00:00 +0000

A recent Federal Trade Commission civil accusing one of the nation's largest anesthesiology groups of monopolistic practices that sharply drove up prices is a warning to private equity investors that could temper their big push to snap up physician groups.

Over the past three years, FTC and Department of Justice officials have signaled they would apply more scrutiny to private equity acquisitions in health care, including roll-up deals in which larger provider groups buy smaller groups in a local market.

Nothing happened until September, when the FTC sued U.S. Anesthesia Partners and the private equity firm Welsh, Carson, Anderson & Stowe in federal court in Houston, alleging they had rolled up nearly all large anesthesiology practices in . In the first FTC legal challenge against a private equity purchase of medical practices, the federal agency targeted one of the most aggressive private equity firms involved in building large, market-dominating medical groups.

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In an interview, FTC Chair Lina Khan confirmed that her agency wants to send a message with this suit. Welsh Carson and USAP “bought up the largest anesthesiology practices, then jacked up prices and entered into price-setting and market-allocation schemes,” said Khan, who was appointed by President Joe Biden in 2021 to head the antitrust enforcement agency, with a mandate to combat health care consolidation. “This action puts the market on notice that we will scrutinize roll-up schemes.”

The large and growing volume of private equity acquisitions of physician groups in recent years has raised mounting concerns about the impact on health costs, quality of care, and providers' clinical autonomy. A JAMA Internal Medicine study published last year found that prices charged by anesthesiology groups increased 26% after they were acquired by private equity firms.

“Now we're seeing that scrutiny with this suit,” said Ambar La Forgia, an assistant professor of business management at the University of California-Berkeley, who co-authored the JAMA article. “This suit will cause companies to be more careful not to create too much local market power.”

The FTC's lawsuit alleges that USAP and Welsh Carson engaged in an anti-competitive scheme to gain market power and up prices for hospital anesthesiology services. The FTC also accuses USAP and Welsh Carson — which established the medical group in 2012 and has expanded it to eight states — of cutting deals with competing anesthesiology groups to raise prices and stay out of one another's markets.

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USAP now controls 60% of Texas' hospital anesthesia market, and its prices are double the median rates of other anesthesia providers in the state, according to the lawsuit. Learning that USAP would boost rates following one acquisition, a USAP executive wrote, “Awesome! Cha-ching,” the civil complaint said.

In a written statement, Welsh Carson, which also holds sizable ownership shares in radiology, orthopedic, and primary care groups, called the FTC lawsuit “without merit in fact or .” It said USAP's commercial rates “have not exceeded the rate of medical cost for close to 10 years.”

The New York firm also said its investment in USAP “has allowed independent anesthesiologists to deliver superior clinical outcomes to underserved populations” and that the FTC's action will harm clinicians and . Welsh Carson declined a request for interviews with its executives.

“This is a pretty common roll-up strategy, and some of the big private equity companies must be wondering if more FTC complaints are coming,” said Loren Adler, associate director of the Brookings Schaeffer Initiative on Health Policy. “If the FTC is successful in court, it will have a chilling effect.”

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Since the FTC filed the USAP lawsuit, Khan said, the agency has received information from people in other health fields about roll-ups it should scrutinize. “We have limited resources, but it's an area we are interested in,” she said. “We want to focus on where we see the most significant harm.”

In physician acquisition deals, PE firms typically use mostly borrowed money to acquire a controlling interest in a large medical group, pay the physician owners a substantial upfront sum in exchange for sharply cutting their future compensation, and install a management team. Then they seek to acquire smaller groups in the same geographic market and bolt them onto the original medical group for more bargaining clout and operating efficiencies.

The PE firm's goal is to garner at least 20% dividends a year and then sell the group to another investor for at least three times the purchase price in three to seven years. Critics say this short-term investment model spurs the investors and medical groups to boost prices and cut staffing to generate large profits as fast as possible.

“Private equity is trying to extract value quickly and sell the company for a profit, so there's a lot more incentive to increase prices quickly and extract higher revenue,” La Forgia said.

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In the two years after a sale, PE-owned practices in dermatology, gastroenterology, and ophthalmology charged insurers 20% more per claim on average than did practices not owned by private equity, according to a JAMA study published last year.

There are similar concerns about hospital acquiring physician practices, which also have raised prices. “The evidence shows that both private equity and hospital acquisitions of physician practices are bad for consumers, and scrutiny should be applied to all acquirers,” Adler said.

Critics warn that private equity roll-ups of medical groups can jeopardize quality of care, too. Chris Strouse, a Denver anesthesiologist who served on USAP's national board of directors but left the company's Colorado group out of disapproval in 2020, cited patient safety issues arising from short staffing and mismanagement. He said USAP would schedule shifts so that three or four providers would hand off to each other a single surgical procedure, which he said is risky. In addition, USAP frequently asked anesthesiologists to work the day after working a 24-hour on-call shift, he said. “The literature shows that's outside the safety range,” he said. As a result, many providers have left USAP, he added.

The FTC has long been lax in monitoring roll-ups of physician groups, in part because federal law does not require public of these deals unless they exceed $111.4 million in value, a threshold adjusted over time. Lowering the threshold would require congressional action. As a result, regulators may be unaware of many deals that lead to gradual market concentration, which allows providers to demand higher prices from insurers and employer health plans.

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Recognizing that problem, the FTC proposed in June to beef up its reporting requirements for companies planning mergers, in hopes of spotting previous acquisitions of smaller groups that could lead to excessive market power and higher prices. In addition, in a draft of their merger review guidelines, issued in July, the FTC and the Department of Justice said they would consider the cumulative effect of a series of smaller acquisitions.

“The ways PE firms are making serial acquisitions, each individual acquisition is under the radar, but in aggregate they roll up the whole market,” Khan said. “Between the merger reporting form and the new merger guidelines, we want to be able to better catch unlawful roll-up schemes. … This would enable us to stop roll-ups earlier.”

But Brian Concklin, a lawyer with the law firm Clifford Chance, whose clients include private equity firms, said the FTC's proposed reporting requirements would hamper many legitimate mergers. “The notion that they need all that information to catch deals that lessen competition seems overblown and false, given that the vast majority of these deals do not lessen competition,” he said. “It will be a substantial burden on most if not all clients to comply.”

Researchers and employer groups, however, were encouraged by the FTC's action, though they fear it's too little, too late, because consolidation already has reduced competition sharply. Some even say the market has failed and price regulation is needed.

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“Providers have been able to extort higher prices on services with no improvement in quality or value or access,” said Mike Thompson, CEO of the National Alliance of Purchaser Coalitions. “The FTC stepping up its game is a good thing. But this horse is out of the barn. If we don't have better enforcement, we won't have a marketplace.”

——————————
By: Harris Meyer
Title: FTC Chief Gears Up for a Showdown With Private Equity
Sourced From: kffhealthnews.org//article/ftc-chair-lina-khan-private-equity-regulation/
Published Date: Thu, 30 Nov 2023 10:00:00 +0000

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Uncle Sam Wants You … to Help Stop Insurers’ Bogus Medicare Advantage Sales Tactics

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Susan Jaffe
Thu, 30 Nov 2023 10:00:00 +0000

After an unprecedented crackdown on misleading advertising claims by insurers selling private Medicare Advantage and drug plans, the Biden administration hopes to unleash a special weapon to make sure companies follow the new rules: you.

Officials at the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services are encouraging seniors and other members of the public to become fraud detectives by reporting misleading or deceptive sales tactics to 800-MEDICARE, the agency's 24-hour information hotline. Suspects include postcards designed to look like they're from the government and TV ads with celebrities promising benefits and low fees that are available only to some people in certain counties.

The new rules, which took effect Sept. 30, close some loopholes in existing requirements by describing what insurers can say in ads and other promotional materials as well as during the enrollment .

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Insurance companies' advertising campaigns kick into high gear every fall, when seniors can buy policies that take effect Jan. 1. People with traditional government Medicare coverage can add or change a prescription drug plan or join a Medicare Advantage plan that combines drug and medical coverage. Although private Advantage plans offer extra benefits not available under the Medicare program, some services require prior authorization and beneficiaries are confined to a network of care providers that can change anytime. Beneficiaries in traditional Medicare can see any provider. The open enrollment season ends Dec. 7.

Catching Medicare Advantage plans that step out of line isn't the only reason to keep an eye out for marketing scams. Accurate plan information can help avoid enrollment traps in the first place.

Although insurers and advocates for older adults have generally welcomed the new truth-in-advertising rules, compliance is the big . Expecting beneficiaries to monitor insurance company sales pitches is asking a lot, said Semanthie Brooks, a social worker and advocate for older adults in northeast Ohio. She's been helping people with Medicare sort through their options for nearly two decades. “I don't think Medicare beneficiaries should be the police,” she said.

Choosing a Medicare Advantage plan can be daunting. In Ohio, for example, there are 224 Advantage and 21 drug plans to choose from that take effect next year. Eligibility and benefits vary among counties across the state.

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“CMS ought to be looking at how they can educate people, so that when they hear about benefits on television, they understand that this is a promotional advertisement and not necessarily a benefit that they can use,” Brooks said. “If you don't realize that these ads may be fraudulent, then you won't know to report them.”

The agency relies on beneficiaries to help improve services, Meena Seshamani, CMS' Medicare director, told KFF Health News in a written statement. “The voices of the people we serve make our programs stronger,” she said. Beneficiary complaints prompted the government's action. “That's why, after hearing from our community, we took new critical steps to protect people with Medicare from confusing and potentially misleading marketing.”

Although about 31 million of the 65 million people with Medicare are enrolled in Medicare Advantage, even that may not be enough people to monitor the tsunami of advertising on TV, radio, the internet, and paper delivered to actual mailboxes. Last year more than 9,500 ads aired daily during the nine-week marketing period that started two weeks before enrollment opened, according to an analysis by KFF. More than 94% of the TV commercials were sponsored by health insurers, brokers, and marketing companies, with only 3% from the federal government touting the original Medicare program.

During just one hourlong Cleveland news program in December, researchers found, viewers were treated to nine Advantage ads.

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For the first time, CMS asked insurance and marketing companies this year to submit their Medicare Advantage television ads, to make sure they complied with the expanded rules. Officials reviewed 1,700 commercials from May 1 through Sept. 30 and nixed more than 300 deemed misleading, according to news reports. An additional 192 ads out of 250 from marketing companies were also rejected. The agency would not disclose the total number of TV commercials reviewed and rejected this year or whether ads from other were scrutinized.

The new restrictions also apply to salespeople, whether their pitch is in an ad, written material, or a one-on-one conversation.

Under one important new rule, the salesperson must explain how the new plan is different from a person's current health insurance before any changes can be made.

That information could have helped an Indiana woman who lost coverage for her prescription , which cost more than $2,000 a month, said Shawn Swindell, the State Health Insurance Assistance Program supervisor of volunteers for 12 counties in east-central Indiana. A plan representative enrolled the woman in a Medicare Advantage plan without telling her it didn't include drug coverage because the plan is geared toward who can get drug coverage through the Department of Veterans Affairs instead of Medicare. The woman is not a veteran, Swindell said.

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In New York, the Medicare Rights Center received a complaint from a man who had wanted to sign up just for a prepaid debit card to purchase nonprescription pharmacy items, said the group's director of education, Emily Whicheloe. He didn't know the salesperson would enroll him in a new Medicare Advantage plan that offered the card. Whicheloe undid the mistake by asking CMS to allow the man to return to his previous Advantage plan.

Debit cards are among a dizzying array of extra nonmedical perks offered by Medicare Advantage plans, along with transportation to medical appointments, home-delivered meals, and money for utilities, groceries, and even pet supplies. Last year, plans offered an average of 23 extra benefits, according to CMS. But some insurers have told the agency only a small percentage of patients use them, although actual usage is not reportable.

This month, CMS proposed additional Advantage rules for 2025, including one that would require insurers to tell their members about available services they haven't used yet. Reminders will “ensure the large federal investment of taxpayer dollars in these benefits is actually making its way to beneficiaries and are not primarily used as a marketing ploy,” officials said in a fact sheet.

Medicare Advantage members are usually locked into their plans for the year, with rare exceptions, including if they move out of the service area or the plan goes out of business. But two years ago, CMS added an escape hatch: People can a plan they joined based on misleading or inaccurate information, or if they discovered promised benefits didn't exist or they couldn't see their providers. This exception also applies when unscrupulous plan representatives withhold information and enroll people in an Advantage policy without their consent.

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Another new rule that should prevent enrollments from going awry prohibits plans from touting benefits that are not available where the prospective member lives. Empty promises have become an increasing source of complaints from clients of Louisiana's Senior Health Insurance Information Program, said its state director, Vicki Dufrene. “They were going to get all these bells and whistles, and when it comes down to it, they don't get all the bells and whistles, but the salesperson went ahead and enrolled them in the plan.”

So expect to see more disclaimers in advertisements and mailings like this unsolicited letter an Aetna Medicare Advantage plan sent to a New York City woman: “Plan features and availability may vary by service area,” reads one warning packed into a half-page of fine print. “The formulary and/or pharmacy network may change at any time,” it continues, referring to the list of covered drugs. “You will receive notice when necessary.”

However, the rules still allow insurers to boast about their ratings from CMS — five stars is the top grade — even though the ratings do not reflect the performance of the specific plan mentioned in an ad or displayed on the government's Medicare plan finder website. “There is no way for consumers to know how accurately the star rating reflects the specific plan design, specific provider network, or any other specifics of a particular plan in their county,” said Laura Skopec, a senior researcher at the Urban Institute who recently co-authored a study on the rating system.

And because ratings data can be more than a year old and plans change annually, ratings published this year don't apply to 2024 plans that haven't even begun yet — despite claims to the contrary.

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How to spot misleading Medicare Advantage and drug plan sales pitches (and what to do about it)

The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services has new rules cracking down on misleading or inaccurate advertising and promotion of Medicare Advantage and drug plans. Watch out for pitches that:

  • Suggest benefits are available to all who sign up when only some individuals qualify.
  • Mention benefits that are not available in the service area where they are advertised (unless unavoidable because the media outlet covers multiple service areas).
  • Use superlatives like “most” or “best” unless claims are backed up by data from the current or prior year.
  • Claim unrealistic savings, such as $9,600 in drug savings, which apply only in rare circumstances.
  • Market coverage without naming the plan.
  • Display the official Medicare name, membership card, or without CMS approval.
  • Contact you if you're an Advantage or drug plan member and you told that plan not to notify you about other health insurance products.
  • Pretend to be from the government- Medicare program, which does not make unsolicited sales calls to beneficiaries.

If you think a company is violating the new rules, contact CMS at 800-MEDICARE, its 24-hour information hotline. If you believe you chose a plan based on inaccurate information and want to change plans, contact CMS or your State Health Insurance Assistance Program: www.shiphelp.org or 877-839-2675. For more information about protecting yourself from marketing violations, go to www.shiphelp.org/about-medicare/blog/protecting-yourself-marketing-violations.

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By: Susan Jaffe
Title: Uncle Sam Wants You … to Help Stop Insurers' Bogus Medicare Advantage Sales Tactics
Sourced From: kffhealthnews.org/news/article/medicare-advantage-deceptive-sales-tactics-federal-crackdown/
Published Date: Thu, 30 Nov 2023 10:00:00 +0000

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