Each fall, Medicare advertising intensifies as the open enrollment period for coverage takes place. From October 15 to December 7, seniors nationwide have the option to sign up for a new Medicare plan.
With dozens of plan choices available, shopping for Medicare can be overwhelming. Not to mention, so many people over the age of 65 have proven vulnerable to misleading Medicare marketing and advertising practices that, over the past year, the federal government has instituted laws and proposed other changes seeking to regulate inaccurate and predatory marketing. Regulations focus on everything from curbing deceptive television ads to unsolicited sales calls.
Recent research reveals that older adults are encountering a high volume of advertising during Medicare’s open enrollment period. In addition, the barrage of options they face may in fact steer them away from considering other plans that could lower their costs.
The Commonwealth Fund, a private foundation that strives to promote equitable health care in the U.S., published findings from a survey on older adults’ experiences with Medicare marketing and advertising practices. The results include the following highlights:
- Nearly all survey participants reported having received at least one phone call, direct mail piece, or email message every week during Medicare’s open enrollment period.
- Two in five seniors said that they had gotten seven or more marketing appeals each week, while one in three seniors said they received at least seven Medicare advertising phone calls per week.
- 96 percent of respondents said when they had too many plan options, they would lean toward maintaining their current plan.
Misleading Advertising During Medicare Open Enrollment Period
Older adults must keep a lookout for fraudulent and false Medicare advertising, misleading advertising tactics, high-pressure sales pitches, and violations of federal law.
For example, it is illegal to contact Medicare recipients or applicants to request their Medicare or Social Security number. Yet the survey results suggest that marketers are in fact targeting low-income seniors with these requests. Seniors should know that they never need to provide any of that information to anyone contacting them to advertise new coverage plans.
Some advertising practices are not illegal but misleading. Survey respondents reported having received inaccurate plan information through confusing ads. One in 10 seniors said that because of this misleading information, they enrolled in a plan thinking that their doctor was covered, later learning that they were not.
In addition to the above issues, some seniors report having received phone calls promoting time-limited discounts for Medicare private plans. These discounts do not exist. If a caller tries to sell you a special discounted plan, this is fraudulent. Disconnect the call and report the violation.
Low-Income Seniors Are Vulnerable to False Advertising
Low-income seniors appear to be at the highest risk of facing these problems with false advertising. Data from the survey suggests that inaccurate marketing practices target seniors who make less than $25,000 annually, and that seniors with less income may fall prey to misleading advertising.
- Most requests for Medicare and Social Security numbers are made to low-income people aged 65 and older. Nearly a quarter (22 percent) of seniors who make less than $25,000 per year said they received these requests. In contrast, those who earn more than $50,000 received requests for Medicare and Social Security numbers at a rate of 6 percent.
- The same proportion of seniors making less than $25,000 said they encountered “special discount” advertising. Comparatively, 19 percent of seniors who make between $25,000 and $50,000 or over $50,000 per year receive calls about time-limited discounts.
How Can Seniors Protect Themselves From Bad Medicare Advertising Practices?
Seniors must learn how to protect themselves against bad Medicare advertising practices. Keep in mind that it is against the law for a private plan representative to visit your home unannounced, call you if you do not have a plan with their company, or use Medicare’s logo to suggest that they are endorsed by or represent the federal government’s health insurance program. Consider the following to keep yourself safe from bad actors.
- Always ignore threats from a caller about taking away your benefits. You cannot lose your Medicare benefits if you qualify.
- Do not be bullied into immediately deciding on a plan.
- Immediately hang up if someone asks for your Medicare number or Social Security Number.
- Do not believe anyone who says that their plan is preferred by Medicare.
- Do not answer spam calls.
Reporting Illegal Medicare Advertising Practices
The study also found that most older adults did not know how to report an advertising practice that violates federal law. If you have fallen victim to a Medicare fraud or illegal advertising practices, you can report the violation to:
- The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) by phone (1-877-808-2468), mail, online, or fax
- The Office of the Inspector General’s hotline, at 1-800-HHS-TIPS
- Your local law enforcement
For guidance on navigating your Medicare options, you can seek out objective advice from trained counselor through your State Health Insurance Program (SHIP); search for your local SHIP online.