House hearing ups ante on Medicare Advantage reform

Political will seems to be growing to reshape the increasingly popular Medicare Advantage program.

At a House Energy and Commerce committee hearing on Tuesday, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle called for more oversight of MA following watchdog reports that found impediments to receiving covered care, including improper denials of prior authorization requests, and plans gaming the system in exchange for more funding from Medicare.

Medicare Advantage is an important tool for helping seniors and we want it to succeed. We’re going to continue to conduct the oversight necessary,” said Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee Chair Diana DeGette, D-Colo.

Witnesses at the hearing — officials from the Government Accountability Office, HHS Office of Inspector General and congressional advisory board MedPAC — also pointed to higher rates of beneficiary disenrollment in their last year of life and opaque plan data, which can complicate oversight efforts.

Surveys have shown MA remains extremely popular with beneficiaries, attracted by lower co-pays and supplemental benefits like vision coverage and telehealth. In the program, Medicare pays private plans a capitated monthly rate to provide care for their beneficiaries based on the severity of their beneficiaries’ needs.

The hearing comes amid inflamed industry debate over the future of MA.

For-profit hospital lobby Federation of American Hospitals submitted a letter for the record sharing concerns over some MA plans denying patient care and having inadequate care networks.

Meanwhile, MA trade group Better Medicare Alliance sent a letter to the CMS on Monday urging the agency to safeguard the program as Congress mulls changes to Medicare.

But as Medicare’s hospital benefit — part of which funds MA — limps towards insolvency, lawmakers appear poised to target the growing MA program in a bid to crack down on improper payments and care denials.

“This is something that I think is very much bipartisan,” said Rep. Gary Palmer, R-Ala.

Coverage delays and denials

It’s not the first time lawmakers have zeroed in on MA oversight as a strategy to save Medicare money: In a Senate hearing on Medicare insolvency in February, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., said “the Medicare system is hemorrhaging money on scams and frauds” due to insurers taking advantage of the program’s rules to increase profits.

Even amid rising congressional criticism of MA, lawmakers on Tuesday reiterated their support for the program overall, which covered roughly 27 million Americans in 2021.

That’s more than a third of all Medicare beneficiaries, though MA is expected to swell to cover half of all Medicare members by 2030.

But lawmakers said they are increasingly concerned about disparities in the quality of coverage offered by Medicare Advantage plans compared to traditional Medicare plans, along with unscrupulous practices in the program resulting in higher reimbursement for MA organizations.

GAO report found MA beneficiaries in their last year of life disenroll from MA in favor of traditional Medicare at a rate two times higher than other MA members, suggesting the plans may not support high-cost and specialized care, testified Leslie Gordon, GAO’s acting director for healthcare.

Gordon called it a “red flag” for the program that requires more scrutiny from CMS.

In addition, an HHS OIG report published April found MA organizations wrongly denied members care, with plans turning down 18% of payment requests that should have been approved.

Erin Bliss, OIG assistant inspector general in the Office of Evaluation and Inspection, testified plans sometimes use internal critical criteria that are not required by Medicare. In one example, an MA plan denied a medically necessary CT scan to diagnose a serious disease, citing that the patient hadn’t yet received an x-ray, Bliss said.

When appealed, plan denials were reversed 75% of time, a rate DeGette called “alarmingly high.”

“We are concerned that patients are receiving the timely care they need in those situations,” Bliss said.

OIG also found plans denied 13% of prior authorization requests that would have been approved under traditional Medicare.

Rep. Michael Burgess, R-Texas, suggested policymakers consider requiring insurers to forego prior authorization for doctors with a consistent track record of submitting accurate data. That strategy, called “gold carding,” is already used in some states, including Texas and West Virginia, to pare back on prior authorization delays.

MA payment reform

Along with coverage restrictions, lawmakers at Tuesday’s hearing asked witnesses about the scope and severity of improper MA payments in a bid to zero in on specific solutions Congress and the CMS can enact.

Though MA has potential to save the Medicare program money, “the current incentives for MA plans are not adequately aligned with the Medicare program,” said James Mathews, MedPAC executive director.

“Substantial reforms are urgently needed,” especially in light of Medicare’s “profound” financial problems, Mathews said.

In 2022, the average MA plan bid was 85% of fee-for-service spending, Mathews said. However, Medicare pays plans 104% of fee-for-service costs.

That imbalance is partially due to plans making patients appear sicker than they are to get extra payments from the government, witnesses said. The practice, called “coding intensity,” resulted in an estimated $12 billion in excess Medicare spending in 2020, according to MedPAC data.

Methods include chart reviews, where plans identify and add patient diagnoses that aren’t included in the service record, and health risk assessments, where plans contract with vendors to visit beneficiaries homes and conduct assessments, finding new diagnoses that often aren’t backed up by other records, according to Bliss.

GAO estimates that roughly a tenth of Medicare payments to MA plans in 2021 were improper, Gordon said.

To try to tamp down on coding intensity, the CMS should conduct targeted oversight of MA plans that routinely use these tools, and reassess whether chart reviews and in-home assessments are allowed to be sole sources of diagnoses for payment purposes, witnesses said. In addition, MA should improve care coordination for enrollees who receive health risk assessments. 

The CMS should also consider replacing the quality bonus program and change its approach to calculating MA benchmarks, Mathews said.

In addition, the agency should require and validate data for completeness and accuracy before risk-adjusting payments through methods like medical record reviews, Gordon said.

Gordon also suggested the agency conduct more timely audits, as the CMS is currently missing out on recouping hundreds of millions of dollars in improper payments.

Policymakers appeared open witnesses’ suggestions to ensure MA is running as smoothly as possible, with Rep. Frank Pallone, D-N.J., calling for an additional hearing on the matter.

“This is bipartisan … You can be assured that we’re going to be following up,” DeGette said.

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