WASHINGTON — Medicare proposed new rules Thursday to curb a rash of marketing abuses that have cropped up as the role of private insurance plans has grown in the giant health care program for the elderly and disabled.
Critics called the rules an improvement but questioned whether the federal government could enforce them. They said Medicare lacks the staff and local presence to oversee thousands of sales agents — a role traditionally carried out by state insurance commissioners but which the Bush administration has claimed.
"At first glance, the proposed rule offers an improvement over the status quo," said Rep. Pete Stark, D-Calif. "However, in order for it to be effective, the rule must be accompanied by a commitment to aggressive enforcement."
The new rules would cover the Medicare prescription drug plans that began offering benefits in 2006, as well as private medical insurance plans that operate under the program's umbrella. Enrollment in such plans has spurted in recent years.
But along with the increased use of private plans came an outpouring of complaints about sales tactics that left some seniors stuck with coverage they didn't want or need. Such tactics included switching beneficiaries without consent and misrepresentation by sales agents.
In many cases, such tactics would be illegal under state laws. And in the past, state insurance commissioners would have pursued the complaints. But the 2003 law that created the Medicare prescription benefit — and also expanded the kinds of private medical plans available to seniors — severely limited the ability of state insurance regulators to police the plans. Backers of the law supported a national program overseen at the federal level.
Critics said Congress should intervene to restore the oversight role of state insurance commissioners.
"Even with all the positive changes proposed in this new rule, there is still a significant issue left unaddressed," said Kansas Insurance Commissioner Sandy Praeger, president of the National Association of Insurance Commissioners. "There is no change to address the fundamental problem that states do not have sufficient regulatory authority to ensure proper enforcement in the marketing and sales of Medicare private plans."
Medicare officials said they hoped to issue a final rule by late October, which would allow for the changes to take effect before the next open enrollment season for the drug benefit.