Medicare Marketing Can Be Shady. Here’s How To Protect Yourself.

Senior couple consulting an independent advocate to review Medicare marketing messages and options

Every fall, Medicare ads flood the airwaves. Any time you turn on your TV, you can’t miss the Medicare marketing overload.

If you’re one of 65 million Americans on Medicare, these ads are trying to reach you! Each year, the Medicare Annual Enrollment Period (AEP) takes place between October 15 and December 7. This open enrollment window is when people on Medicare can switch plans or types of coverage. Once the window closes, you’re stuck with whatever you have for at least another year.

The average person on Medicare has 43 Medicare Advantage plan options. That’s not even counting other types of coverage, such as supplemental prescription drug coverage paired with Original Medicare.

But many Medicare marketers have questionable track records at best. According to an analysis conducted by KFF, many Medicare ads are misleading and may even violate federal rules.

KFF analyzed 650,000 airings of Medicare ads that ran during the Medicare Annual Enrollment Period in 2022. Most ads (85%) in the analysis were for private Medicare Advantage plans. Still, more than one-quarter (27%) of those showed images of the official Medicare card, potentially implying that the ads represented Medicare.

A majority (83%) of Medicare Advantage ads also asked people to call a private hotline instead of the official Medicare helpline, leading to confusion among some consumers about who they were talking to when they called.

Many of the ads used high-pressure or misleading tactics. For example, more than 50,000 airings warnings that consumers may be missing benefits and two-thirds of broker ads promoted benefits that very few beneficiaries can actually get.

Alongside the analysis of ads, KFF also did focus groups with consumers and found that many people on Medicare were confused about their options. Many focus group participants reported feeling overwhelmed by the volume of ads

At a briefing on the research, a representative from the nonprofit Medicare Rights Center said that consumers often call them to report feeling pressured to switch plans based on ads or mailings they receive. They sometimes find official-looking mail to be confusing, assuming it’s coming from Medicare when it is not. One in five consumers calling the Medicare Rights Center report that someone signed them up for a health plan that they didn’t consent to or understand.

Another analysis of Medicare marketing during last year’s open enrollment released from the Commonwealth Fund this fall showed that three-quarters (76%) of survey respondents had seen a Medicare ad on TV or online at least once per day. Nearly one-third (30%) said they got seven or more phone calls from Medicare marketers each week.

A lot of these Medicare marketing tactics apparently violate Medicare rules. For example, Medicare marketers are not allowed to call Medicare enrollees unless enrollees agree to be called, yet 74% of survey respondents said they had gotten an unsolicited call from a Medicare plan or plan representative.

Medicare marketers are not allowed to ask for a consumer’s Medicare or Social Security number outside of an actual sign-up process. But one in ten respondents said that a Medicare marketer had asked them for this information.

Finally, one in five (19%) of respondents said they had gotten Medicare marketing messages implying that they could access special discounts but only if they signed up within a specified period. However, time-limited discounts are not allowed under Medicare rules.

How to protect yourself from misleading Medicare marketing

Just because Medicare marketing tactics can be aggressive and downright shady doesn’t mean you have to fall victim to them. Here are a few ways to protect yourself:

  • Learn the basic rules

Medicare marketing rules outlaw calling you without your permission, asking for your Medicare ID or Social Security number, or pushing time-limited discounts. This year, CMS issued new rules to protect consumers based on an increase in consumer complaints. The new rules prohibit Medicare marketers from implying that they are representing the official Medicare agency. Medicare marketing materials can’t use the official Medicare logo or images of the official Medicare ID card. Other rules require that Medicare marketers disclose which plans they represent, and which benefits may not be available for everyone.

  • Be cautious, even skeptical of Medicare marketing

Armed with an understanding of basic Medicare marketing rules, you will hopefully feel better able to recognize unlawful practices. But Medicare marketing may not look like marketing. It may seem official, like it’s coming from the Medicare agency. It may also seem helpful. To avoid falling for scams or questionable practices, take any Medicare marketing messages and contacts with a healthy dose of skepticism. Ask who the caller represents. Make sure you understand what they are trying to sell you. Above all, don’t give out your Medicare ID or Social Security number.

  • Check your coverage — on your own terms

The Commonwealth Fund found that when people feel overwhelmed by their options, 96% stay with their current plan. That’s not necessarily the best approach because plan options do change year to year, as might your needs. It’s a good idea to check your coverage every year to make sure you’re still on the best plan for you. Proactively reviewing your options will help protect you from unwanted Medicare marketing.

  • Don’t go it alone: Hire an expert to help guide you through the process

As an individual, it can be hard to stay on top of rules and to sift through so many options. Brokers may seem helpful, and they’ll offer “free” help. But brokers have a financial stake in your choice, earning money from insurers if you choose certain plans. You deserve unbiased help. That’s where expert, independent advocates come in. Independent advocates answer only to you.

Find your own expert in the Umbra Health Advocacy Directory or sign up for a quick Medicare coverage checkup from Umbra. Rest a little easier knowing that you have Medicare coverage that’s good for you, not just for the Medicare marketers trying to win your business.