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Bill would give states say over Medicare alternatives

BISMARCK -- North Dakota and other states could soon get the power to crack down on abusive sales tactics used to sell Medicare Advantage insurance plans to seniors.

BISMARCK -- North Dakota and other states could soon get the power to crack down on abusive sales tactics used to sell Medicare Advantage insurance plans to seniors.

State Insurance Commissioner Jim Poolman recently testified in Congress about the problem. He had blasted companies and agents earlier this year, saying agents were harassing and tricking North Dakotans into dropping government Medicare coverage to buy substitute policies known as Medicare Advantage.

Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., is among sponsors of new legislation that would allow states to enforce standardized marketing and sales regulations for Medicare Advantage plans.

Under current law, the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services is supposed to regulate the marketing and sales, but North Dakota and several other states' insurance regulators have outlined questionable sales practices they have discovered, such as switching people to such plans without their knowledge. They said CMS is doing little about the problem.

If the federal government isn't going to protect seniors, "it makes sense to authorize state governments to do so," Dorgan said.

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Poolman said Friday, "I'm pleased that Dorgan has stepped up to the plate to help me do my job."

The insurance commissioner had threatened action against North Dakota agents and brokers' state licenses when he revealed the problems in May. His department's investigation is continuing, he said Friday.

Though critical of some sales tactics, Poolman said that, for some seniors, Medicare Advantage plans can offer more coverage for things traditional Medicare doesn't, such as vision.

Consumer groups, including NDPeople.Org of Bismarck, have also criticized the way the federal government pays private companies selling Medicare Advantage.

Don Morrison of NDPeople.Org said the plans are costing North Dakotans $6 million in corporate overpayments. The private alternative to Medicare "has not lived up to its hype," he said.

The national Medicare Rights Center said Thursday new bills in Congress would improve Medicare because "taxpayers would no longer be forced to overpay private Medicare Advantage plans, which get an average 12 percent more per member than what it would cost under original Medicare."

Dr. Vinod Seth of Bismarck, vice president of a third group, USAction, said when the government pays Medicare Advantage companies more, it reduces the number of dollars available for those on traditional Medicare.

Cole works for Forum Communications Co., which owns The Jamestown Sun

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