Soaring complaints and aggressive sales efforts result in tighter rules from regulators


If it’s football season, you can count on seeing Joe Namath on television, along with William Shatner and Jimmie “J J” Walker. They are the most prominent pitchmen for what has become an annual fall selling frenzy for Medicare Advantage policies. 

After a surge in consumer complaints, and stiffer government rules, the sales pitches will likely be tamer this year. If there is confusion, “we’ll change things so it satisfies everybody and eliminates the confusion,” said Mr. Shatner, best known for his role as Captain Kirk in the “Star Trek” franchise 

The federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services toughened its oversight after consumer marketing complaints surged 165% last year to 41,136 compared with 2020. Brokerages, agents and other marketing businesses tried to convince Medicare recipients to switch plans, with promises of perks in their new plans such as home-delivered meals, rides to doctors’ appointments and cash. 

In some cases, beneficiaries would effectively pay for the perks with more-limited provider networks, forcing them to find new doctors, regulators say. The celebrity pitchmen haven’t been accused of violating any rules.

The aggressive sales efforts by marketers are the result of billions invested by private-equity firms, financial-services companies and stock-market investors into virtual call centers, internet-based lead-origination firms and other marketing businesses over the past several years.

 The investors all focused on the annual sign-up period for Medicare Advantage plans, which are an alternative to the traditional fee-for-service Medicare plans. Enrollment in the plans, which are offered by private insurers and paid for by the government, grew 8% last year to 28.4 million in 2022, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation. 

Consumers can sign up for new plans every year, making them a prime opportunity to generate sales commissions for brokers. “Seniors are being bombarded,” said Ron Henderson, a deputy insurance commissioner in Louisiana. The sign-up period runs from Oct. 15 to Dec. 7.

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