If you watch daytime television, especially talk shows, game shows or reality court dramas, brace yourself for the annual barrage of commercials featuring one-time celebrities urging you to sign up for their favorite Medicare plan.
A new analysis by the nonpartisan KFF found ads mainly hawking Medicare Advantage (MA) plans ran 650,000 times during last year’s open enrollment period, from Oct. 15 to Dec. 7, 2022. Medicare enrollees tell KFF that they get many unsolicited telephone calls touting Advantage plans, the private alternative to original Medicare, in addition to the constant drumbeat of television ads.
The come-ons, consumers say, often are misleading and confusing. Focus group participants complain that they can’t tell who has sponsored an ad, that they don’t believe everything an ad claims is free really is free and that they often mistake the spots for official government communications.
Feds crack down on ads
The KFF analysis comes as new Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) regulations designed to clamp down on misleading advertising will go in effect on Sept. 30, just in time for this year’s open enrollment period, which will run from Oct. 15 through Dec. 7. Starting then, advertisers are going to have to disclose what insurance plan their ads are representing. They also can’t misuse the Medicare logo or images of the Medicare card, or suggest that they represent the federal government.
“We are viewing all television, radio and web-based video advertisements in advance to make sure they meet these and other requirements,” CMS Administrator Chiquita Brooks-LaSure said at a Sept. 20 KFF briefing on Medicare Advantage marketing. CMS will be preapproving the Medicare marketing ads this year. “It is incredibly important that people understand as they are being marketed to what they are going to be getting.”
More than 85 percent of all Medicare ads aired during the 2022 open enrollment season were for Medicare Advantage. Most of the remaining advertising was aimed at Medicare Part D prescription drug plans or supplemental — or Medigap — insurance.
Over half of the Advantage spots (55 percent) that were run by brokers and other third parties featured endorsements from celebrities, including actors, athletes and politicians, the KFF analysis found. But only 3 percent of the MA ads from insurance companies used such spokespeople. Most of the ads appeared during the day, although some also aired later during local news programs.
“Enrollees should be protected from bad actors who engage in misleading advertising and marketing tactics,” Mark Hamelburg of America’s Health Insurance Plans, a trade association for health insurance plans, said at the KFF briefing.
The Medicare Advantage ads rarely mentioned the choice between original Medicare and MA plans, the KFF analysis found. CMS runs very few official TV announcements about open enrollment.