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The Medicare Sales Season Begins: As Always, Buyer Beware!
Trudy Lieberman | October 7, 2010
It happens every fall'sellers bombarding seniors with pitches for Medigap policies and Medicare Advantage plans'some legit and some not.' Having watched this rite for years, I was intrigued by an envelope that arrived in the mail announcing on the front:' ' 'The U.S. Government has APPROVED new benefits not available in your current Medicare plan.'' Why, I am not even eligible for Medicare, let alone Medigap coverage.' Presumably, that big, bold, enticing statement referred to the new preventive care benefits tucked into the health reform law passed last March.
A letter inside began with this pitch in large, black letters: 'Get free information about a new lower-cost health coverage option only for seniors' and gave a number to call.' ' Who doesn't like something for nothing?' I read on and learned that I was 'eligible for several new health plans,' some of which the letter said would save me money.' The letter went on.' An outfit called SafePath Benefits, or SBI, was 'uniquely qualified' to help me 'understand and appraise these changes.'' '
The letter said that SBI is not an insurance company.' They are 'Benefit Advisors who analyze health plans and recommend the ones that suit you best.'' Once a decision is made, advisers are available to answer questions and 'provide solutions' when 'new options become available.'' Solutions?' Sure sounded like they would be selling insurance.' The envelope and letter were lead generators as they are called in the insurance biz'ways to snag sales prospects.' ' The letter advised that there was no charge for the consultation service.' That raised an immediate red flag.' What business can afford to offer a completely free service without being paid by someone?
The envelope also contained a small flyer noting that SafePath was 'Your advocate in health care' and an affiliate of a 100-year-old not-for-profit health services provider serving the five boroughs of New York City.' ' But which provider?' The flyer didn't say.' There was also a form to return indicating that I wanted a free consultation about my health care choices.' It offered the phone number of a Benefits Advisor.
When I called, a customer service rep explained that SBI was a benefits adviser for health plans.' 'We are not an insurance company,' she said.' 'We do not touch your Medicare or Medicaid insurance.'' She said SBI had what she called 'licensed advisers who explain any supplemental plans you may need.'' She mentioned prescription drug plans, dental, and eye glasses.' 'We just give advice to elders,' she said and pointed out the free consultation, adding that advisers could meet me in a library or in an apartment building rec. room since people didn't like strangers coming into their homes. 'If you need a new plan, we'd refer you to Mutual of Omaha, AARP, Nationwide.' It's supplemental insurance,' she said.' At the end of our conversation she said they were a 'sales agency licensed by the state.'
Wanting to know more, I checked with Google and found three sites that made it clear SafePath was recruiting sales people.' One site said that 'SafePath Benefits Inc. (SBI) is a newly formed wholly owned for-profit subsidiary of Metropolitan Jewish Health System.' SBI is licensed in New York to provide accident, life and health insurance products to the senior market.'' Another site revealed that' 'SafePath Benefits Inc. is an insurance agency focused on the senior market in New York City.'' It also noted that the firm 'has built a robust product portfolio' and that there were immediate openings for Benefits Advisors/Producers.' In insurance lingo, producers usually means sales agents.
A third site gave a job description for a 'Benefits Adviser.'' It said: 'As a Benefits Advisor, you will present various lines of insurance from Medicare Supplements and Medicare Advantage, to life, disability, dental and more.' SBI's seasoned management team will work with you on strategies yielding high close ratios and high paying commissions.'' ' In other words, they expect their advisers to sell.' One requirement for the job was the ability 'to conduct a consultative sale.'
Seniors can be forgiven if they don't understand what's going on.' I don't understand either.' The bottom of the letter said:' ' 'SafePath Benefits, Inc. is a New York State licensed sales agency.'' But what are they licensed to sell?' The letter didn't say or disclose any license number so I phoned the New York State Department of Insurance, where officials told me they had issued no insurance license to SafePath Benefits, SBI, or Metropolitan Jewish Health System. Spokesman Andy Mais said the department had just checked the websites I looked at and 'based on the websites they are soliciting for insurance in which case they should be licensed as an insurance agency.'' Said Mais:' 'We are opening an investigation as of today.'
More Blog Posts by Trudy Lieberman
Trudy Lieberman, a journalist for more than 40 years, is an adjunct associate professor of public health at Hunter College in New York City. She had a long career at Consumer Reports specializing in insurance, health care, health care financing and long-term care. She is a longtime contributor to the Columbia Journalism Review and blogs for its website, CJR.org, about media coverage of health care, Social Security and retirement. As a William Ziff Fellow at the Center for Advancing Health, she contributes regularly to the Prepared Patient Blog. Follow her on twitter @Trudy_Lieberman.
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