The attractive economics of Medicare Advantage



After years of subsidizing Medicare Advantage (MA) plans in an effort to attract more insurers and beneficiaries to the market, the government has succeeded in its goal: the average beneficiary can now choose from 28 plans in 2020, and recent studies have shown MA plans are outperforming fee-for-service (FFS) Medicare on several key quality measures.

As shown above, this subsidy has decreased in recent years—as mandated by the Affordable Care Act—and per-beneficiary MA payments are roughly equal to those of FFS Medicare. (These numbers may be underreported, however, due to aggressive risk adjustment measures on the part of MA plans.) However, risk-adjusted average Medicare cost per MA beneficiary is actually 13 percent lower than per Medicare FFS beneficiary, due mainly to lower utilization of high-cost services and other efficiencies.

Insurers offering MA plans are profiting from this lucrative “spread.” 

Growth in MA plans in recent years ensures that private insurers will continue to play an important role in the future of Medicare—the most recent projections estimate that 47 percent of Medicare beneficiaries will be in MA plans within a decade.

But inefficiencies in traditional Medicare may not make it the best standard on which to base MA payments. And ultimately, relative MA payment rates will have to continue to drop for the program to sustainably manage the healthcare costs of the gigantic Baby Boom generation.



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