CMS emails extol the virtues ofMedicare Advantage plans with such subject lines as “Get morebenefits for your money,” and “See if you can save money withMedicare Advantage.” (Photo: Shutterstock)

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The government isn't expending much effort on signups for coverage under the Affordable CareAct, but the same can't be said for its e-mails urging seniors tosign up for private Medicare Advantage plans.

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The New York Times reports that enrollment is substantially up inthe latter plans, from 28 percent of the 60 million Medicarebeneficiaries five years ago to nearly 37 percent thisyear—according to administration predictions.

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Related: CMS's Verma says Medicare is riddled withproblems

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E-mail messages that say in small print that they were “createdand distributed by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services”have been sent to people who “signed up for email updates from theMedicare team” extol the virtues of Medicare Advantage plans withsuch subject lines as “Get more benefits for your money,” and “Seeif you can save money with Medicare Advantage.”

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NYT writes, “The messages—'paid for by the U.S.Department of Health and Human Services'—urge beneficiaries to'check out Medicare Advantage'and point to an online tool, theMedicare plan finder, to compare the different options.”

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Yet others have provided messages including, “You may be able tolower your out-of-pocket costs while getting extra benefits, likevision, hearing, dental and prescription coverage,” and “WithMedicare Advantage, one plan covers all of your care.”

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Although Seema Verma, administrator of the Centers for Medicareand Medicaid Services, said CMS did not favor private plans overoriginal Medicare, others aren't so sure. Richard S. Foster, whoformerly served for many years as the nonpartisan chief actuary ofthe Medicare program, told NYT the e-mails were“more like Medicare Advantage plan advertising than objectiveinformation from a public agency.”

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“The statements made in the emails are generally accurate, butthey are one-sided,” he added. ”The advantages of M.A.plans are emphasized, while the disadvantages are notmentioned.”

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One thing not mentioned is the fact that private plans usuallyrestrict beneficiaries to a specific network of providers or haveto pay more for services outside the network—something traditionalMedicare does not do.

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In addition, Jo Murphy, who has counseled thousands of Medicarebeneficiaries as the director of Michigan's State Health InsuranceAssistance Program, told NYT, “It seems that there are a whole lotof promotional e-mails coming from the federal government. Theredoes seem to be encouragement to go to Medicare Advantage, part ofa trend favoring private companies over traditional Medicare, forwhatever reason.”

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And Democratic members of Congress from Connecticut have writtento the administration “expressing concern that officials were'inappropriately working to steer Medicare beneficiaries toMedicare Advantage plans,'” according to NYT. It quotes the lettersaying that the agency is obligated to “provide beneficiaries withaccurate information from a neutral, balanced perspective.” Theletter was signed by Senators Richard Blumenthal and Christopher S.Murphy and Representative Rosa DeLauro, among others.

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NYT says that although many Medicare beneficiaries havebeen gravitating toward such plans, “researchers have found thatpatients in poor health are somewhat more likely than others todisenroll from Medicare Advantage and switch to traditionalMedicare.”

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Marlene Satter

Marlene Y. Satter has worked in and written about the financial industry for decades.