Are Insurers Exploiting Health Care Debate To Mislead Seniors And Drum Up Business?

September 29, 2009 12:00 p.m.

A mailer being sent by health insurers to seniors, and obtained by TPMmuckraker, seeks to exploit fears about Congressional changes to the health care system to sell supplemental insurance. And it contains false claims about “new” reductions in Medicare benefits imposed by Congress.

Yesterday, 66-year-old Donna Price of Battle Ground, Washington, received this official-looking mailer in a pull-apart envelope from direct mail firm Target Leads (aka TL Service Center).

It announces: “IMPORTANT: NEW MEDICARE CHANGES.” And continues:“Your Medicare benefits have been reduced by Congress due to increases in your Deductibles and ‘Part A’ Co-Insurance payment. Now, Medicare pays less of your health care cost and you are responsible for the unpaid balance.”

At the bottom, the mailer notes “Tim Manry, licensed insurance agent” may get in touch if you return the card with your contact information. Manry is the Seattle branch manager for Connecticut-based insurance company Futurity First. The Web site of the direct mail firm, Target Leads, advertises the mailer as a way to sell supplementary insurance for seniors on Medicare.

But Price, who is on Medicare Advantage, tells TPMmuckraker there have been no reductions in her coverage. And we hadn’t heard of any Congressional action cutting Medicare benefits either.

Target Leads Vice President Richard Bufkin declined to comment. And Futurity First hasn’t returned our calls. So we asked several health care experts: had they heard of any “new” Congressional reduction in benefits like the one referenced in the mailer?

None of three experts we asked knew of any action. Because Medicare deductibles and co-payments are indexed to keep pace with medical costs, they do go up modestly every year. But that’s not new. It’s been enshrined in law for years.

So the mailer is very narrowly correct that there have been “increases in your deductibles,” but appears highly misleading, if not out and out false, when it refers to “new Medicare changes.” And the tone of the whole thing seems designed to drum up business by scaring seniors about a drastic change, right when the health care debate — and GOP claims that Medicare is at risk — are dominating the news.

And it’s not just in Washington state: Another senior in Pennsylvania complained in August to a local newspaper about the same mailer. Because Target Leads appears to be selling this same mailer to any takers, it’s not clear if Futurity First or a different insurer was behind the Pennsylvania mailing.

It’s not a new strategy to peg a misleading solicitation to the health care policy news of the moment. A California senior reported a similar mailer from TL Service Center in October 2006, except this one was pegged to President Bush’s push for Medicare reform. The senior wrote to the San Jose Mercury News (via Nexis):

The card noted that the president has announced guidelines for Medicare reform and asked that you provide several answers to general questions regarding your particular areas of concern.

Among these choices are fixed annuities, long-term care protection, supplemental protection and other frequent scam-type options.

The catch here is that the card also asks for your and your spouse’s names, dates of birth and phone number.

Have you gotten this same mailer? If you have, let us know in the comments section.

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