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Category: Medicare

Medicare Advantage Poses Challenges to Health Care Cost-Effectiveness and Equity

BY NIRBAN SINGH AND AMY HELBURN

Introduction

Medicare Advantage (Advantage), originally conceived in 1997 during the Clinton Administration as ‘Medicare + Choice’, has progressively grown and become an established health insurance option for those 65 and older. According to data collected and aggregated by the Kaiser Family Foundation, Advantage has more than doubled in total enrollment between 2010 and 2021. In 2021 alone, 26 million people were enrolled in Medicare Advantage, which is over 40% of the total Medicare beneficiary population. In 2021, 85% of Medicare Advantage growth was concentrated among for-profit health plans, with UnitedHealthCare, Centene, and Humana leading the way.

Overall, the Medicare Advantage market is dominated by UnitedHealthCare, Humana, and CVS Health/Aetna, with this trio responsible for over half of all Advantage beneficiaries.As of October 2020, about 80% of Advantage enrollees directly purchased individual policies, while employer-sponsored Advantage enrollment has been steadily growing, comprising 18.1% of the Advantage market overall in 2020. Analysis from The Chartis Group indicates that half of all Medicare beneficiaries will be enrolled in Advantage plans by 2025, so the trio of existing leaders in providing Advantage plans may continue to innovate and profit immensely while new market entrants may grow their footprint rapidly, in response to growing demand.

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Medicare Advantage Is a Superior Program (Part two)

By GEORGE HALVORSON

Former Kaiser Permanente CEO George Halvorson has written on THCB on and off over the years, most notably with his proposal for Medicare Advantage for All post-COVID. He wrote a piece in Health Affairs last week arguing with the stance of Medicare Advantage of Don Berwick and Rick Gilfillan (Here’s their piece pt1, pt2). Here’s a longer exposition of his argument. We published part one last week so please read that first. This is part two – Matthew Holt

Medicare Advantage is better for the underserved

The African American and Hispanic communities who were particularly hard hit by those conditions and by the Covid death rates have been enrolling in significant numbers in Medicare Advantage plans.

The sets of people who were most damaged by Covid have chosen in disproportional numbers to be Medicare Advantage members. Currently 51 percent of the African Americans on Medicare are in Medicare Advantage plans and more than 60 percent of the Hispanic Medicare members will be on Medicare Advantage this year.

That disproportionate enrollment in Medicare Advantage surprises some people, but it really should not surprise anyone because the Plans have made special,  direct, and inclusive efforts to be attractive to people with those sets of care needs and have delivered better care and service than many of the new enrollees have ever had in their lives. 

The Medicare Advantage plans have language proficiency support competencies, and language requirements and capabilities that clearly do not exist anywhere for fee-for-service Medicare care sites. A combination of team care,  language proficiency, and significantly lower direct health care costs for each member has encouraged that pattern of enrollment as well.

The $1600 savings per person has been a highly relevant factor as more than twice as many of the lowest income Medicare members — people who make less than $30,000 a year — are now enrolled in Medicare Advantage plans.

Medicare Advantage’s critics tend to explicitly avoid discussing those enrollment patterns, and some of the most basic critics actually shamelessly say, with what must be at least unconscious malicious intent in various publications and settings, that the Medicare Advantage demographics for both ethnicity and income levels are a clone for standard Medicare membership. Those critics have said that  there is nothing for us to learn or see from any enrollment patterns or care practices based on those sets of issues.

Many people who discuss Medicare Advantage in media and policy settings generally do not focus on or even mention the people in our population who most need Medicare Advantage — the 4 million people who are now enrolled in the Special Needs Plans.

Special Needs Plans for Dual Eligibles

The Special Needs Plans take care of low-income people who have problematic levels of care needs and who very much need better care.

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Medicare Advantage Is a Superior Program (Part one)

By GEORGE HALVORSON

Former Kaiser Permanente CEO George Halvorson has written on THCB on and off over the years, most notably with his proposal for Medicare Advantage for All post-COVID. He wrote a piece in Health Affairs last week arguing with the stance of Medicare Advantage of Don Berwick and Rick Gilfillan (Here’s their piece pt1, pt2). Here’s a longer exposition of his argument. We are publishing part one today with part two coming soon – Matthew Holt

The evidence for Medicare Advantage being a superior program compared to standard fee-for-service Medicare is so overwhelming that anyone who cares about actual Medicare Patients or who cares about the financial future of Medicare should be strongly supporting having as many people as possible enrolled in that program as soon as we can effectively make that happen.

Compared to fee-for-service Medicare, Medicare Advantage has better benefits.

Compared to fee-for-service Medicare, Medicare Advantage has a better tool kit at multiple levels.

Medicare Advantage has team care, connected care, and electronically supported care processes — and we know beyond any debate or dispute that those advantages exist for Medicare Advantage over standard fee-for-service Medicare because fee-for-service Medicare does not pay for those sets of services and literally labels it billing fraud if a caregiver who provides team care in a patients home to prevent a congestive heart failure crisis or to keep a life threatening and function impairing asthma attack from happening sends a bill to standard Medicare for those services.

The superiority of Medicare Advantage is beyond question.

Standard fee-for-service Medicare has no quality care processes, no quality reports and no quality standards or expectations at all. Standard Medicare actually has absolutely no quality data and does not hold any provider accountable for the quality of the care they deliver.

Medicare Advantage has an extensive quality agenda and tracks more than 40 categories of quality and service at the plan level. Medicare Advantage plans build continuously improving programs around those Five-Star priorities and measures, and we know from our current reporting that even during Covid, the percentage of Medicare Advantage patients with cardiovascular disease who are currently on statin therapy went up from 80.86% of patients a year ago to 83.36% this year.

The ratings by the Medicare Advantage members for customer service by their plans went from 90.56% a year ago to 90.87% this year.

That is not a big improvement but having satisfaction numbers that start out that high actually go up during Covid days is an accomplishment and it is one of the reasons why we should be encouraging people to join the plans and its why fee-for-service Medicare is a measurably inferior approach for so many people.

Standard Medicare does not have a clue about who is getting their statin Medications and they officially don’t care.

In fact, some of the fee-for-service Medicare doctors and care sites who are paid only by the piece for care from the standard Medicare program actually often make more money when care fails, because when a patient has a major asthma crisis or a congestive heart failure crisis, that negative outcome for a patient can generate multiple medical fees and it can too often trigger a $10,000–$20,000 total additional cash flow to the caregivers whose care sites failed that patient by not helping improve the health of the patient before the crisis was triggered.

Why is Medicare Advantage’s purchasing system better?

Medicare Advantage plans are paid by Medicare by the month for each patient and they are not by the piece for each item of care.

Because Medicare Advantage plans are paid by the month for each patient, and must, by contract, provide complete care to each patient, it makes extremely good sense for the plans to help patients in ways that prevent asthma attacks and that prevent congestive heart failure crisis, and that avoid and help reduce the levels of blindness and amputations for their diabetic patients that can too easily happen to those patients if you don’t manage and guide that care.

The Medicare Advantage approach for all of those categories of care is obviously far better for the patients than the fee-for-service Medicare inadequacies in care.

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Time to Reboot “Medicare-For-All”

By MIKE MAGEE

In the fog of the Covid pandemic, many are wondering what ever happened to prior vocal support for universal coverage and Medicare-for-All. Expect those issues to regain prominence in the coming months. A bit of recent history helps explain why.

The January 6th insurrection, followed by the past weeks two mass shootings, have served to remind our citizens that we must address a range of issues while continuing to confront the pandemic threat.

Modern civilized societies rely on a double-armed approach to maintain order, peace and security. The first arm is laws. But laws are of little value without even and unbiased enforcement.

The second guardrail of civility is culture. MIT professor Edgar Schein described it this way: “Culture has three layers: the artifacts of a culture — our symbols and signs; its espoused values — the things we say we believe; and, most important, its underlying assumptions — the way things really are.”

In the Senate chamber this week, and in Republican controlled state houses across the nation, Americans witnessed a colossal collision of reality and ideals in the form of new Jim Crow laws to suppress minority voting rights, and refusal to address gun violence.  In the wake of a constant stream of racial animus and mass shootings, this lethal epidemic demands a response as well.

Were these the only flashing alerts signaling danger ahead, that would be enough to cause sleepless nights. But unenforced or unevenly enforced laws, and value dissonance in America, do not occur in isolation, but are supported by an even more erosive underpinning – greed-induced economic inequality.

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We Are in Store for the Greatest Change to Our Health Care System Since the Affordable Care Act. Here’s Why.

By LOGAN CHO

The COVID-19 pandemic has been harsher and lasted longer than many of us would have predicted. While our media has been inundated with updates on death tolls and economic depression, there has been little conversation of healthcare beyond the era of COVID-19. The first question that we ask when we hear of deaths: was it COVID? We have grown to expect the primary cause of death to be of coronavirus. But the impact of COVID-19 will extend beyond the individual, effecting fundamental and long-lasting change to our healthcare system.

By this point, it is clear that the public health ramifications are reaching well beyond the physical impacts of the virus. Social isolation, economic depression, soaring unemployment, and mandated closures all contribute to the adversity that we have had to face – notwithstanding the explosive, ever-present sociopolitical climate of a pandemic that is killing Black Americans at a rate almost three times that of whites. This hardship will likely last for months more.

A recent Kaiser Family Foundation publication found that half of the public have skipped or postponed medical care due to the pandemic, with one-fourth reporting worse health as a result. Many of these people do not plan to receive the care they need within the next three months. The public is simultaneously reporting declines in mental health. Furthermore, over 30% say they have had difficulty paying for household expenses, like food, rent, and medications. The figures are disproportionately damning among Black and Hispanic populations.

Taken together, the inaccessibility of medical care, deteriorating mental health, increasing poverty, worsening access to nutrition, and host of other challenges present a dark, impending storm. Cancer, diabetes, and other chronic diseases will all be rearing their untreated heads post-pandemic. Communities and policymakers must therefore act quickly and decisively to heal not only a sick population, but a fraying social fabric.

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Out of Network? Cigna, RICO and where’s the line?

By MATTHEW HOLT

Sometimes you wonder where the line is in health care. And perhaps more importantly, whether anyone in the system cares.

The last few months have been dominated by the issue of costs in health care, particularly the costs paid by consumers who thought they had coverage. It turns out that “surprise billing” isn’t that much of a surprise. Over the past few years several large medical groups, notably Team Health owned by Blackstone, have been aggressively opting out of insurers networks. They’ve figured out, probably by reading Elizabeth Rosenthal’s great story about the 2013 $117,000 assistant surgery bill that Aetna actually paid, that if they stay out of network and bill away, the chances are they’ll make more money.

On the surface this doesn’t make a lot of sense. Wouldn’t it be in the interests of the insurers to clamp down on this stuff and never pay up? Well not really. Veteran health insurance observer Robert Laszewski recently wrote that profits in health insurance and hospitals have never been better. Instead, the insurer, which is usually just handling the claims on behalf of the actual buyer, makes more money over time as the cost goes up.

The data is clear. Health care costs overall are going up because the speed at which providers, pharma et al. are increasing prices exceeds the reduction in volume that’s being seen in the use of most health services. Lots more on that is available from HCCI or any random tweet you read about the price of insulin. But the overall message is that as 90% of American health care is still a fee-for-service game, as the CEO of BCBS Arizona said at last year’s HLTH conference, the point of the game is generating as much revenue as possible. My old boss Ian Morrison used to joke about every hospital being in the race for the $1m hysterectomy, but in a world of falling volumes, it isn’t such a joke any more.

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To Improve Patient Care, Think Both “Zebras” and Golf

By MICHAEL MILLENSON

Super Bowl Week ended with the San Francisco 49ers and 161 U.S. hospitals having something in common.

Both were publicly penalized, both lost money as a result and both passionately believed the process was unfair. Unfortunately, it’s not easy to decide whether their objections were sensible or sour grapes and, in the case of hospitals, the real-life consequences are not a game.

The penalty that pained the 49ers occurred shortly before halftime of Super Bowl LIV, when offensive pass interference was called on tight end George Kittle. The call negated a big gain that might have enabled the 49ers to take the lead.

Replays showed that the referees – nicknamed “zebras” for their black-and-white striped shirts – were technically correct in their decision. Nonetheless, controversy erupted over whether given other possible penalties called or overlooked, this one deserved a yellow flag.

Hospitals call that kind of context “risk adjustment.” A few days before the Super Bowl, the Medicare program blew the whistle on a group of hospitals having high rates of infection and other patient injuries. The hospitals who are outliers in what are blandly labeled “hospital-acquired conditions” (HACs) suffer a cut of one percent in their Medicare payments over next fiscal year.

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Will Medicare Advantage (MA) Startup Plans Be The Future?

By ANDY MYCHKOVSKY

Would it blow your mind if only five startup health plans interested in Medicare Advantage (MA) have collectively raised over $3.9 billion in private funding to-date? Well, readers, that is the reality. Now I know there are some skeptics out in the healthcare ecosystem, so I’m here to break down some of the investment thesis. Not going to necessarily defend, but explain some reasons why you should love and hate these investments. Let’s start with who raised these mind-boggling sums of money. The five startups are Oscar Health, Bright Health, Clover Health, Devoted Health, and Alignment Healthcare.

  • Oscar Health has raised $1.3 billion
  • Bright Health has raised $1.1 billion
  • Clover Health has raised $925 million
  • Devoted Health has raised $362 million
  • Alignment Healthcare has raised $240 million

I think it’s safe to say that the MA insurance market (also known as Medicare Part C) has captured the imagination of the venture capital and private equity community. The changing demographic trends of an aging baby boomer population, the increased selection of MA plans versus traditional Medicare fee-for-service (FFS), and the opportunity of technology-first MA startup plans to better reduce administrative fees (“Administrative Loss Ratio” or “ALR”) and control medical spend (“Medical Loss Ratio” or “MLR”) seems too good to pass up. If you were going to start a health plan, of all the lines of business you could be focused on, MA has highest profit margins, growing population, and better potential to impact patient spend and manage chronic diseases. It is certainly harder than writing the previous statement, but there are some real benefits versus the traditional commercial or Medicaid managed care.

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Your Wealth is Your Health

By KIM BELLARD

We’ve been spending a lot of time these past few years debating healthcare reform.  First the Affordable Care Act was debated, passed, implemented, and almost continuously litigated since.  Lately the concept of Medicare For All, or variations on it, has been the hot policy debate.  Other smaller but still important issues like high prescription drug prices or surprise billing have also received significant attention.

As worthy as these all are, a new study suggests that focusing on them may be missing the point.  If we’re not addressing wealth disparities, we’re unlikely to address health disparities.  

It has been well documented that there are considerable health disparities in the U.S., attributable to socioeconomic statusrace/ethnicitygender, even geography, among other factors.  Few would deny that they exist.  Many policy experts and politicians seem to believe that if we could simply increase health insurance coverage, we could go a long way to addressing these disparities, since coverage should reduce financial burdens that may be serving as barriers to care that may be contributing to them.

Universal coverage may well be a good goal for many reasons, but we should temper our expectations about what it might achieve in terms of leveling the health playing field.

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Guerilla Billing – Missing the Gorilla in the Midst

By ANISH KOKA, MD

No one likes getting bills. But there is something that stinks particularly spectacularly about bills for healthcare that arrive despite carrying health insurance. Patients pay frequently expensive monthly premiums with the expectation that their insurance company will be there for them when illness befalls them.

But the problem being experienced by an increasing number of patients is going to a covered (in-network) facility for medical care, and being seen by an out-of-network physician. This happens because not all physicians working in hospitals serve the same master, and thus may not all have agreed to the in-network rate offered by an insurance company.

This is a common occurrence in medicine. At any given time, your local tax-exempt non-profit hospital is out of network of some low paying Medicaid plan or the other.

In this complex dance involving patients, insurers and doctors, Patients want their medical bills paid through premiums that they hope to be as low as possible, Insurers seek to pay out as little of the premium dollars collected as possible, and Doctors want to be paid a wage they feel is commensurate to their training and accumulated debt.

Insurers act as proxies for patients when negotiating with the people that actually deliver healthcare – doctors. Largely, the system works to funnel patients to ‘covered’ doctors and hospitals. Patients that walk into an uncovered facility are quickly redirected. But breakdowns happen during emergencies.

There are no choices to make for patients arriving unconscious or in distress to an emergency room. It suddenly becomes very possible to be seen by an out of network physician, and depending on the fine print of the insurance plans selected, some or none of these charges may be covered.

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