Health economists study the economic determinants of health. They also analyze how health care resources are utilized and allocated, and how health care policies and quality of care can be improved. In this episode, we discuss what exactly a healthcare system would look like if these professionals were calling all the shots.
Last week, President Donald Trump signed an executive order titled “Protecting and Improving Medicare for Our Nation’s Seniors.” The order is the latest example of how Trump says one thing while doing another. Rather than strengthening Medicare, Trump envisions turning large swaths of the 54-year-old program for the elderly over to the private sector while directing the federal government to dismantle safeguards on seniors’ health care access, shift costs onto beneficiaries, and limit seniors’ choice of providers.
Among other things, the executive order lays out a path to:
- Shift the Medicare program toward private plans
- Expand private contracting between beneficiaries and providers, putting seniors at risk for higher costs and surprise medical bills
- Further restrict seniors’ choice of providers in Medicare Advantage
- Expand Medicare Medical Savings Accounts as a tax shelter for the wealthy
President Trump rolled out the executive order in a speech at a retirement community in Florida, during which he echoed his administration’s previous attacks on progressive health reform proposals by referring to them as “Medicare for None.” In fact, several recent congressional proposals would offer new choices for coverage, expand the benefits of insurance, and strengthen Medicare benefits for the elderly. Unlike these Medicare for All-type proposals, Trump’s plan fails to address some more common problems in Medicare, such as high out-of-pocket costs or difficulties navigating Medicare Advantage networks.
A shift toward Medicare privatization
Today, about one-third of seniors are enrolled in private plans through Medicare Advantage; the other two-thirds are in traditional, fee-for-service Medicare. The share of beneficiaries enrolled in Medicare Advantage has grown over the past two decades. Medicare Advantage attracts a relatively healthier, less expensive pool of enrollees than that of traditional Medicare, and its per-beneficiary spending is lower. Some of that difference is attributable to lower health care utilization, although local market conditions and beneficiary health status also contribute. A number of studies have shown how Medicare Advantage plans profit from selection by attracting relatively healthier enrollees while also gaming the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services’ (CMS) risk adjustment program to make their enrollees appear sicker. Medicare Advantage plans also enjoy distinct advantages over the traditional Medicare program, including integrated plan designs and the ability to avoid providers involved in graduate medical education.
Last week’s executive order emphasizes so-called market-based approaches, signaling that President Trump envisions an even bigger role for the private sector in Medicare. In fact, Trump has already taken steps to accelerate enrollment in private plans. Last year, the administration bombarded beneficiaries with email messages promoting Medicare Advantage to such an extent that one former CMS official described the effort as “more like Medicare Advantage plan advertising than objective information from a public agency.”
The executive order directs the secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to ensure that traditional Medicare “is not advantaged or promoted over [Medicare Advantage] with respect to its administration.” For example, one way the administration could nudge more enrollees into Medicare Advantage would be to further relax CMS guidelines governing how plans market to beneficiaries. A more aggressive tactic to shift enrollees into private plans would be to make Medicare Advantage, rather than the traditional Medicare program, the default for more seniors. While auto-enrollment could result in lower costs for some beneficiaries, others could find themselves stuck in plans with limited networks or insufficient coverage for services they need. In addition, studies of the private drug plans offered through Medicare Part D have shown that seniors find it cumbersome to switch plans, even when the one they have is not the best value.
CMS’ existing Medicare Advantage auto-enrollment mechanism, though limited to a small subset of beneficiaries, caused enough problems that the agency suspended expansion of the process in 2016. In some instances, beneficiaries subject to “seamless conversion,” which allows insurance companies to auto-enroll their marketplace or Medicaid customers into Medicare Advantage, were unaware what type of Medicare coverage they had until they were assigned a new primary care doctor or they already had received out-of-network care. Even if a future Trump administration plan allowed people automatically enrolled in Medicare Advantage to opt back into traditional Medicare, the switch could cause seniors to miss enrollment deadlines for private Medigap plans. Unable to obtain supplemental benefits for traditional Medicare coverage, those people would effectively be stuck in Medicare Advantage.
Another part of the order asks the HHS secretary to align Medicare’s reimbursement rates with the prices paid by Medicare Advantage plans and commercial insurers. Broad application of market-based pricing in Medicare could raise expenses for beneficiaries and taxpayers and drain the Medicare trust fund: Bloated provider rates for commercial insurance show that the market does not work in patients’ interests and cannot be trusted to ensure fair prices. Dominant provider systems leverage their market power to demand prices well above the cost of care. A recent RAND Corporation study found that private insurance typically pays hospitals about 241 percent of Medicare rates, with wide variation across geographic regions. While Medicare Advantage plans’ negotiated rates for individual items or services can be lower or greater than those in the traditional Medicare fee schedule, reimbursement rates in the two programs are generally close, on average. The administratively set rates in Medicare keep the prices for hospital and physician services reasonable not only for traditional Medicare beneficiaries but also for those in Medicare Advantage plans. Allowing traditional Medicare prices to float up toward commercial rates while also delinking Medicare Advantage rates from Medicare rates could cause traditional Medicare premiums and the overall cost of the program to skyrocket and deplete the Medicare trust fund.
The executive order could also give new life to a deeply unpopular, longstanding conservative scheme to privatize Medicare. Under so-called premium support plans, seniors would receive vouchers that they would use to purchase either a private Medicare plan or traditional Medicare. Past premium support proposals differ in how they set the amount of the voucher: Some plans set the voucher amount arbitrarily, while others put a thumb on the scale to encourage beneficiaries to choose a private plan.
The executive order calls for using Medicare Advantage negotiated rates to set traditional Medicare rates and instructs the HHS secretary to develop a transition plan to adopting “true market-based pricing” for the traditional Medicare program, including through competitive bidding, which in the past has been a method for setting the voucher amount. Traditional Medicare—saddled with now-higher costs—would have to bid against private Medicare plans in order to compete for beneficiaries. Past premium support plans would then cap the yearly growth of the voucher, and as costs exceeded those caps, Medicare beneficiaries would pay a greater share of the costs of the program over time.
Expansion of private contracting would weaken Medicare’s financial safeguards
The executive order also directs the HHS secretary to “identify and remove unnecessary barriers to private contracts.” Today, Medicare protects beneficiaries from surprise medical bills by limiting the amount that doctors who see Medicare beneficiaries can charge these patients. Physicians may opt out of the Medicare program and enter into private contracts that set higher prices than Medicare will pay; in these cases, the patient is responsible for the entire billed amount. However, less than 1 percent of doctors have chosen to opt out of the program, in large part because Medicare’s rules protect consumers from these arrangements.
For example, doctors must give Medicare beneficiaries written notice that they have opted out of Medicare, and the patient must sign the document acknowledging that they understand they are responsible for paying the entire charge. Doctors may not enter into private contracts with patients who qualify for both Medicare and Medicaid or with patients experiencing a medical emergency. In addition, if a physician opts out of the Medicare program, they must do so entirely instead of cherry-picking beneficiaries or services. The opt-out period is a minimum of two years. Together, these limits protect beneficiaries by providing greater certainty about their doctors’ status and avoiding confusion about which visits and services Medicare will reimburse.
Loosening these rules could allow doctors to more easily circumvent Medicare consumer protections; opt out of Medicare; and charge higher prices to Medicare patients, who have lower incomes and greater health needs than privately insured individuals, on average. While wealthy beneficiaries might benefit from expanded access to nonparticipating providers, higher private prices could make it difficult for most Medicare patients to keep their doctors or afford to see other providers. Nevertheless, Trump’s first HHS secretary, Tom Price, sponsored legislation to permit private contracting and supported allowing doctors to balance bill Medicare beneficiaries.
Restriction of seniors’ choice of doctors in Medicare Advantage
During his Florida speech, Trump asked the crowd, “You want to keep your doctors, right?” Yet his order calls for changes that could restrict Medicare beneficiaries’ choice of doctors by favoring Medicare Advantage plans and by tinkering with the CMS network adequacy standards for those plans.
From a beneficiary perspective, a distinguishing feature of Medicare Advantage is that plans typically have restrictive provider networks. Under the Trump proposal, the network adequacy standards would take into account state laws affecting provider competition and the availability of telehealth services. If these changes lower the bar for Medicare Advantage plans and allow plans to include even fewer doctors in a particular area, a position the Trump administration has previously supported, they could make it harder for seniors to schedule in-person visits or see the provider of their choice. They could also increase costs for beneficiaries who need to see out-of-network specialists.
Lower-cost, narrower network plans could profit by cream-skimming healthier seniors because healthy individuals benefit most from the trade-off between lower premiums and fewer providers. Enrollees in traditional Medicare, including seniors who need the broad provider access that only traditional Medicare offers, could see their premiums rise as a result of a sicker risk pool and imperfect risk adjustment.
If networks become narrower, it may be increasingly hard for Medicare Advantage beneficiaries to identify and schedule visits with providers included in their plans. Moreover, online provider directories for Medicare Advantage are already filled with inaccuracies. A 2018 CMS report found that 45 percent of directories had inaccurate location information for providers. The CMS audit also found that 221 providers who were listed as in-network were not accepting new Medicare Advantage patients. This lack of accurate information, combined with Medicare Advantage’s relatively weak network adequacy standards, means that the Trump plan’s changes to the program could decrease, rather than increase, choice for seniors.
Savings accounts to benefit the wealthy and healthy
The executive order proposes wider access to Medicare Medical Savings Accounts (MSAs), which are available to those enrolled in high-deductible Medicare Advantage plans. Like health savings accounts (HSAs), the money in MSAs is tax-free and can be used toward health care costs, including dental, hearing, and vision. While high-deductible health plans and MSAs can be a good value for relatively healthy seniors who have high enough incomes to afford to fund these accounts, they may not provide adequate financial protection for those who need first-dollar coverage or have greater health needs.
President Trump has previously proposed turning MSAs into a tax shelter, which would chiefly benefit the wealthy. Trump’s FY 2020 budget proposed allowing seniors to deposit additional funds into MSAs beyond the plan’s contribution, as they can with HSAs. Data on HSA contributions show that higher-income individuals are more likely to contribute toward accounts and to benefit more from the tax exemption.
Trump sidesteps seniors’ most pressing concerns
A glaring omission in the president’s plan is any provision to directly take on one of seniors’ widespread concerns: the high cost of health care. Although Americans have overwhelmingly favorable experiences with the existing Medicare program, it is far from perfect. According to a report from the Commonwealth Fund, about 1 in 4 Medicare beneficiaries is underinsured, meaning their out-of-pocket health care costs are 10 percent or more of their income. A 2011 analysis by the Medicare Payment Advisory Commission (MedPAC) found that Medicare beneficiaries without supplemental plans, also known as “medigap” coverage, paid 12 percent of their medical costs out of pocket, on average.
For example, traditional Medicare has no limit on out-of-pocket costs. By contrast, the CMS limits out-of-pocket costs in Medicare Advantage to $6,700 for in-network services, and many individual plans offer lower out-of-pocket limits. In 2012, the MedPAC commissioners voted unanimously to recommend that Congress rework Medicare’s benefit design to include an out-of-pocket maximum. Doing so would give Medicare beneficiaries better financial protection against high health care costs.
President Trump claims that his executive order protects Medicare from “destruction.” In fact, not only would recent prominent Medicare for All and public option reforms proposed in Congress maintain the benefits of the existing Medicare program for seniors, but many also lay out improvements to the program in recognition of its shortcomings. For example, Sen. Bernie Sanders’ (D-VT) Medicare for All bill would almost immediately add an out-of-pocket limit for seniors in Medicare parts A and B. The Medicare for America Act, sponsored by Reps. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) and Jan Schakowsky (D-IL), would also add out-of-pocket limits and strengthen Medicare Advantage network adequacy standards. And multiple proposals have provisions to lower beneficiaries’ prescription drug costs; eliminate the two-year waiting period for nonelderly disabled people; and add hearing, dental, and vision coverage to standard Medicare benefits.
President Trump has laid out a plan to privatize Medicare and undermine the program, breaking his promise that “no one will lay a hand on your Medicare benefits.” Furthermore, he is trying to scare seniors away from supporting congressional proposals that would genuinely improve Medicare beneficiaries’ access to health care and financial security. Although seniors need better protection against out-of-pocket medical costs and better access to care providers, the changes Trump has proposed will only make things worse.