How Corporate Health Insurers Harm America’s Seniors

Physicians for a National Health Program
May 23, 2024
Executive Summary
Medicare Advantage (MA), the privately-administered version of Traditional Medicare (TM), is causing significant harm to America’s patients, providers, and health care system. The insurers who run MA plans claim that they lead to better patient care and outcomes while saving money, but this is far from the truth.
Patients who sign up for Medicare Advantage are forced to deal with narrow networks which heavily restrict their access to physicians and hospitals, and are often misled about the size of these networks through inaccurate listings. They must seek prior authorization for many of the tests, treatments, and other procedures ordered by their doctor, often waiting days or weeks just to be inappropriately denied approval for necessary health care. These delays can have serious consequences for a patient’s health, even sometimes resulting in death.
MA plans aggressively advertise their supplemental perks, particularly their offering of dental, vision, and hearing benefits. However, plan benefits are often highly limited and do not come close to meeting the needs of enrollees. Even worse, patients in MA who become seriously ill or develop chronic conditions end up paying thousands of dollars for their care, often struggling to afford treatment and incurring medical debt in the process. These issues often have a disproportionate impact on the most vulnerable communities, reinforcing inequities in health care access and outcomes.
When patients encounter these issues in MA and wish to switch back to Traditional Medicare, they often find that they are unable to do so. In all but four states, regulations allow insurers to deny Medigap coverage to patients who have been in MA for more than a year. Without a Medigap policy to cover additional costs, Traditional Medicare is not an affordable option for many seniors who are then forced to remain in MA despite its many flaws.
MA doesn’t just hurt patients. Physicians, nurses, and other health care workers face serious barriers to caring for patients as a result of the excessive administrative burden placed on them by MA insurers. These workers must spend hours filling out authorization forms and fighting with insurers to get necessary care approved, limiting the time they can spend on their actual jobs. MA plans also frequently delay payments for the care of enrollees, or even refuse to pay altogether, causing serious financial harm to hospitals and medical practices that have limited resources to begin with.
Medicare was created to serve the people, and MA betrays that promise. We must rein in the abuses of MA insurers, eliminate profit-seeking in Medicare and beyond, and put an end to these egregious harms.
By the Numbers

  • 11.1-20.5 million: Hours per year wasted by medical practices on Medicare Advantage prior authorization requests
  • 11.7 million: Number of MA beneficiaries in a “narrow network” plan that excludes more than 70% of physicians in their county, based on 2017 KFF study (i) and STAT estimate of 2024 enrollment (ii)
  • 7.3 million: Number of MA beneficiaries who are underinsured based on their reporting of high health care costs, based on 2023 Commonwealth Fund study (iii) and STAT estimate of 2024 enrollment (iv)
  • 36: Number of studies cited in this paper collectively finding negative outcomes for patients and providers in MA
  • 2x: Increased likelihood of death after pancreatic surgery in cancer patients with MA, based on study in the Journal of Clinical Oncology (v)

Insurance corporations in the privatized Medicare Advantage program are harming millions of America’s most vulnerable, while costing the Medicare Trust Fund tens of billions more than if those people enrolled in Traditional Medicare. These insurers force patients and health care workers alike to deal with unjustifiable prior authorization requirements, limited networks, endless denials of care, and inadequate coverage, severely disrupting care in the name of financial gain. This report will summarize, through a review of relevant academic literature, research, journalism, and original interviews conducted by PNHP, the many ways in which corporate-run Medicare harms both patients…