Health Policy

Matthew’s health care tidbits: #Does Medicare Advantage Save the Taxpayer Money?

Each week I’ve been adding a brief tidbits section to the THCB Reader, our weekly newsletter that summarizes the best of THCB that week (Sign up here!). Then I had the brainwave to add them to the blog. They’re short and usually not too sweet! –Matthew Holt

For my health care tidbits this week, the controversy about Medicare Advantage is getting louder and louder. There’s no question that it results in lower out of pocket payments for its members than traditional FFS Medicare. Medicare Advantage members use fewer services, and their care appears to be better “managed” –then again FFS Medicare’s “members” are barely managed at all. 

But the big question is, Does Medicare Advantage save the government money? Critics (notably ex CMS veterans Berwick & Gilfillan) claim that risk adjustment games played by the private plans who run Medicare Advantage have cost up to $200bn over 10 years. Medpac (the independent body that advises Congress) estimates that “Medicare spends 4 percent more for MA enrollees than it would have spent if those enrollees remained in FFS Medicare” and go on to say “In aggregate, for the entire duration of their Medicare participation, private plans have never produced savings for Medicare”. However data from the Medicare Trustees and other research from ACHP & the trade group Better Medicare Alliance suggests that Medpac’s analysis is incorrect and that Medicare Advantage saves the government about 9% per enrollee.

THCB ran a long piece (pt 1pt 2) about Medicare Advantage from former Kaiser Permanente CEO George Halvorson earlier this year, and a related one from current Permanente Federation CEO Richard Isaacs. But it’s much more nuanced than that. J Michael McWilliams has long piece on Health Affairs Forefront trying to capture the various strands of the argument. His conclusion? “The substantial subsidies MA receives are largely responsible for the extra benefits and have more than offset savings from any efficiencies, posing a net cost to Medicare and complicating assessments of MA’s added value.”

Meanwhile CMS has just changed the most controversial aspect of risk adjustment (which is the most controversial part of Medicare Advantage) by banning the plans from doing it, and only allowing providers to be involved.

Whether any of this is going to change CMS regulations or wider government policy regarding MA payments is less certain. CMS is currently dealing with its replacement for the even more controversial Direct Contracting (now called ACO REACH). But Medicare Advantage is the most profitable part of private health insurance and has many knock on effects for care services and technology. So I’ll be watching this space and you should too!

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