Medicare Advantage (MA) and the Affordable Care Act (ACA) exchanges are both federal programs, but they couldn’t be more different in payers’ eyes. Insurance companies are entering or expanding their footprints in the MA market, while simultaneously pulling back or out of the ACA exchanges. They’ve found success in MA. Not so much in the ACA exchanges.
Payers see MA as a stable market. That’s evident in the fact that MA premiums are expected to decrease by 6% next year. Insurance companies like stability. Insurers increase premiums by double digits when there isn’t stability, which is the case with the ACA exchanges.
A large part of the ACA exchanges’ problems is linked to actions and inaction in Washington, D.C. President Donald Trump’s administration stopped paying cost-sharing reduction payments to insurers, cut the exchanges’ open enrollment in half, reduced the exchanges’ advertising budget by 90%, offered proposed rules and executive orders that hurt the ACA and threatened not to enforce the individual mandate that requires almost all Americans to have health insurance.
Congress, meanwhile, has tried and failed to repeal the ACA this year. All of this created an unstable exchanges market, which resulted in payers leaving the exchanges or jacking up premiums by 20% or more for 2018.
Meanwhile, the MA market is a picture of stability and payer success.
- There is a steady stream of new people eligible for Medicare daily, and many choose MA.
- People usually don’t switch back from MA plans after leaving traditional Medicare.
- Payers can easily convert members from traditional Medicare to MA via marketing campaigns.
- The MA demographics are usually people who once had an employer-based plan, so they know insurance and how healthcare works. That also means they usually don’t have pent-up healthcare needs.
- The CMS pays MA plans upfront for covering people with high healthcare costs and payers have enjoyed stable MA payments from the CMS.
So, MA members are easier to get and keep, they usually have fewer health needs and payers like the MA payment structure better than the exchanges, which get compensated at the end of the year. All of that equals a stable market for payers.
One-third of Medicare beneficiaries are enrolled in an MA plan this year compared to 25% just six years ago. Enrollment grew by 8% between 2016 and 2017 and the CMS recently announced that MA membership will grow by 9% to 20.4 million members in 2018.
Gretchen Jacobson, associate director with the Kaiser Family Foundation’s (KFF) Program on Medicare Policy, told Healthcare Dive that more than half of those in Medicare will have MA plans in many counties next year.
That growth isn’t expected to slow — especially with Republicans controlling both houses of Congress and the White House, according to Steve Wiggins, founder and chairman of Remedy Partners.
“With Republican control of the federal government, it is conceivable that Medicare Advantage will become a centerpiece of CMS’ strategy to control spending growth,” Wiggins told Healthcare Dive.
What more MA members and payers mean for hospitals and providers
With more MA members expected next year, the continual shift to MA will have mixed benefits for providers. Jacobson said it’s not entirely clear how more MA members will affect hospitals and providers. “One of our studies recently showed that the provider networks for Medicare Advantage plans greatly varies and these networks will become even more important as enrollment in Medicare Advantage plans grows,” she said.
Fred Bentley, vice president at Avalere Health, told Healthcare Dive that MA’s growth will present a whole new set of challenges for hospitals and health systems.
Bentley listed two issues:
- Narrow networks
- Tighter utilization management compared to Medicare’s fee-for-service model
A recent KFF report found that 35% of MA enrollees were in narrow-network plans in 2015. Payers have increasingly turned to narrow networks to control costs and improve quality of care. To take part in the narrower networks, physicians usually have to agree to payer demands concerning cost and quality.
“Differences across plans, including provider networks, pose challenges for Medicare beneficiaries in choosing among plans and in seeking care, and raise questions for policymakers about the potential for wide variations in the healthcare experience of Medicare Advantage enrollees across the country,” KFF said.
Another issue for hospitals and providers is that more payers involved in capitated plans like MA will result in more pressure on providers and hospitals to focus on the cost of care, Michael Abrams, partner at Numerof & Associates, told Healthcare Dive.
“With Republican control of the federal government, it is conceivable that Medicare Advantage will become a centerpiece of CMS’ strategy to control spending growth.”
There’s also the issue of having too few MA payers in some regions. Aneesh Krishna, partner in McKinsey & Company’s Silicon Valley office, told Healthcare Dive the concentration of MA plans in certain markets is a worry for providers. “This concern would be magnified in markets where there is a similarly high concentration in commercial segments from the same payers, and where overall MA penetration is high,” he said.
There’s also a potential payment issue. MA generally reimburses at a slightly higher level than traditional Medicare, but utilization is managed more tightly. Krishna said providers willing and capable of sharing medical cost savings are “likely to see more benefit from the shift to Medicare Advantage plans.” However, MA networks are often narrow, which means providers will need to weigh the relative price/volume trade-offs of accepting MA.
More MA growth in the coming years
MA will have more payers and members than ever next year and the two largest payers, UnitedHealth and Humana, are expected to increase their footprint. Despite new payers showing interest in the market, Jacobson expects the market break down will look similar in 2018. She said small payers entering the market will offset the plans exiting MA next year.
The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) and HHS both project MA enrollment will continue to grow over the next decade. The CBO estimated that about 41% of Medicare beneficiaries will have an MA plan in 2027. UnitedHealth even predicted half of Medicare beneficiaries will eventually have an MA plan.
MA’s popularity with payers is easy to understand — 10,000 people turn 65 every day. The CBO expects 80 million Americans will be eligible for Medicare by 2035.
There’s also an opportunity in the MA market to sign up members quickly. Rachel Sokol, practice manager of research at Advisory Board, told Healthcare Dive that utilizing a strong marketing engine allows payers to grow MA membership. This is quite different from the employer-based market, which relies on payers working with companies.
Potential MA barriers
The MA market is largely positive for payers, but it does face challenges, including:
- A small number of payers dominate the market
- The CMS expects improved efficiency and savings
- There is increased federal oversight, especially concerning possible overpayments to MA insurers
CMS is all in supporting MA plans and its marketspace. The agency last week proposed a rule with an aim toward improving quality and affordability in contract year 2019. According to the agency, the number of plans available to individuals will increase from about 2,700 to more than 3,100.
The agency is proposing to expand the definition of quality improvement activity to include fraud reduction activities, changing the medical loss ratio (MLR) requirements for Medicare Advantage plans. This change should excite payers because they can add the administrative service to the MLR ratio they are required to spend on healthcare, which is at least 85%. CMS states it believes the service will help combat fraud.
For now, the MA market is consolidated around only a handful of payers. UnitedHealth and Humana have more than 40% of the market. UnitedHealth has one-quarter on its own. KFF said UnitedHealth, Humana and Blue Cross Blue Shield affiliates make up 57% of MA enrollment and the top eight MA payers constitute three-quarters of the market.
Also, CMS is imposing improved efficiency in the traditional Medicare program. This could ultimately affect MA. Accountable care organizations (ACO) and bundled payments will “put downward pressure on the benchmarks used to set payment rates for Medicare Advantage plans,” Wiggins said.
This pressure will result in MA payers needing to either cut costs or trim benefits. “The former is difficult, except through narrow networks, and the latter will diminish the attractiveness of Medicare Advantage plans,” he said.
Then there’s the 800-pound gorilla in the market — potential overpayments. The Department of Justice (DOJ) has joined whistleblower lawsuits against UnitedHealth Group concerning MA overpayments. The lawsuits allege that UnitedHealth changed diagnosis codes to make patients seem sicker, which resulted in higher reimbursements to the insurer. A federal judge threw out one of the lawsuits in October.
The DOJ is investigating other MA payers for the same reason, and Congress is also interested. Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa), chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, sent a letter to CMS Administrator Seema Verma in April questioning what CMS is doing to “implement safeguards to reduce score fraud, waste and abuse.” Grassley said there was about $70 billion in improper Medicare Advantage payments between 2008 and 2013 because of “risk score gaming.”
It’s understandable that investigators and Congress have grown interested in MA payers. The federal government paid $160 billion to MA payers in 2014. The CMS estimated about 9.5% of those payments were improper.
The combination of billions being paid to insurers, the potential for fraud and growing membership numbers make MA ripe for oversight. The stability of the market, particularly compared to other options for payers, however, will mean growth continues.