Matthew Holt

Matthew’s health care tidbits: Medicare Advantage is now a provider fracking contest

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

Yes it’s time to talk Medicare Advantage (MA). It’s been a huge couple of weeks for the world of MA. On the commercial side, CVS bought the biggest pure play MA provider, Oak Street Health for $10bn. This pissed me off as if they paid $2 a share more I’d have made a profit on the stock I foolishly bought “on a dip” in 2021.

But this amazed many of us on THCB Gang, as they paid a huge premium and it works out to some $60k per patient. Now health care organizations have been overpaying for patient “lives” as long as I can remember–going at least as far back as Aetna nearly going out of business when it bought US Healthcare in 1996. So why is today’s incarnation of Aetna buying providers?

Well that’s to do with the regulatory side of MA. I have been on record since the very first post of THCB that Medicare FFS is an inefficient and expensive program–even if 80% of American hospitals say they lose money on it and have to charge commercial insurers more to make up for it. But while it’s possible to agree with George Halvorson that MA delivers better care at a lower cost than FFS Medicare, it is simultaneously possible to believe that MA costs more than it should. That’s because of aggressive RAF upcoding that’s been built both into home visits from companies like Signify and also into the EMRs doctors have been using to code MA members’ health status.

There are lots of proposals on how to fix this–including this one from Chenmed on how to change MA from paying for inputs (i.e how sick people are when they join MA) to outputs (how much better they got while in MA). But it’s clear that CMS is now officially coming after upcoding including full cross plan audits back to 2018. Even if not back to 2011. The MA plans will grumble about those past audits and tie CMS up in court but they know going forward the game is up

To make more money in MA they need to get hold and shake loose or frack some of the 85% of the premium that goes to provider organizations. Hence they are all getting into bed with them or buying them outright. UHG, Humana & now Aetna/CVS have been buying physician groups that serve MA populations at a quickening rate, and their goal is to put more of the 50% of seniors already into MA into those groups.

Will this save any money?  Well probably not, at least not yet. Humana has been reporting on the costs in its full risk capitated MA groups versus its FFS ones for a couple of years, and the difference is a rounding error. But the point is that the next war in Medicare Advantage is going to be what happens inside these plan-owned medical groups. So expect a lot more scrutiny of both costs, outcomes and patient experience within MA focused medical groups starting about now.