Which to Choose: Medicare or Medicare Advantage?

It’s open enrollment season again. From now through Dec. 7, about 65 million Americans are facing the annual question of which Medicare options will give them the best health coverage. An onslaught of television and radio ads, emailed promotions, texts and mailers serve as reminders, though not necessarily clarifying ones.

“It’s a very consequential decision, and the most important thing is to be informed,” said Jeannie Fuglesten Biniek, a senior policy analyst at the Kaiser Family Foundation and a co-author of a recent literature review comparing Medicare Advantage and traditional Medicare.

If you are navigating this decision for yourself or for a loved one, here are some of the important factors to consider.

Why the marketing barrage?

Medicare — the federally funded health care program — has been in place since 1965. Since then, an expanding array of Medicare Advantage plans have become available. For 2023, the typical beneficiary can choose from 43 Advantage plans, the Kaiser Family Foundation has reported.

Medicare Advantage plans, like traditional Medicare, are funded by the federal government, but they are offered though private insurance companies, which receive a set payment for each enrollee. The idea is to help control costs by allowing these insurers, who must cover the same services as traditional Medicare, to keep some of the federal payment as profit if they can provide care less expensively.

The biggest providers of Advantage plans are Humana and United Healthcare, and they and others market aggressively to persuade seniors to sign up or switch plans. A new U.S. Senate report found that some of these Advantage plan practices are deceptive; for example, some marketing firms sent Medicare beneficiaries mailers made to look like government websites or letters. This has confused many seniors, and Medicare officials have promised to increased policing.

But the marketing has paid off for insurers. The proportion of eligible Medicare beneficiaries enrolled in Medicare Advantage plans has hit 48 percent. By next year, most beneficiaries will likely be Advantage enrollees.

Which is better: Medicare or Medicare Advantage?

The two plans operate quite differently, and the health and financial consequences can be dramatic. Each has, well, advantages — and disadvantages.

Jeannie Fuglesten Biniek, a senior policy analyst at the Kaiser Family Foundation, is a co-author of a recent literature review comparing Medicare Advantage and traditional Medicare. One important finding, Dr. Biniek said: “Both Medicare Advantage and traditional Medicare beneficiaries reported that they were satisfied with their care — a large majority in both groups.”

Advantage plans offer simplicity. “It’s one-stop shopping,” she added. “You get your drug plan included, and you don’t need a separate supplemental policy,” the kind that traditional Medicare beneficiaries often buy, frequently called Medigap policies.

Medicare Advantage may appear cheaper, because many plans charge low or no monthly premiums. Unlike traditional Medicare, Advantage plans also cap out-of-pocket expenses. Next year, you’ll pay no more than $8,300 in in-network expenses, excluding drugs — or $12,450 with the kind of plan that permits you to also use out-of-network providers at higher costs.

Only about one-third of Advantage plans (called P.P.O.s, or preferred provider organizations) allow that choice, however. “Most plans operate like an H.M.O. — you can only go to contracted providers,” said David Lipschutz, the associate director of the Center for Medicare Advocacy.

Advantage enrollees may also be drawn to the plan by benefits that traditional Medicare can’t offer. “Vision, dental and hearing are the most popular,” Mr. Lipschutz said, but plans may also include gym memberships or transportation.

“We caution people to look at what the scope of the benefits actually are,” he added. “They can be limited, or not available, to everyone in the plan. Dental care might cover one cleaning and that’s it, or it may be broader.” Most Advantage enrollees who use these benefits still wind up paying most dental, vision or hearing costs out of pocket.

What are the downsides to Medicare Advantage?

One big downside is that these insurers require “prior authorization,” or approval in advance, for many procedures, drugs or facilities.

“Your doctor or the facility says that you need more care” — in a hospital or nursing home, say — “but the plan says, ‘No, five days, or a week, two weeks, is fine,’” said David Lipschutz, the associate director of the Center for Medicare Advocacy. Then you must either forgo care or pay out of pocket.

Advantage participants who are denied care can appeal, and those who do so see the denials reversed 75 percent of the time, according to a 2018 report by the Department of Health and Human Services’s Office of Inspector General. But only about 1 percent of beneficiaries or providers file appeals, “which means there’s a lot of necessary care that enrollees are going without,” Mr. Lipschutz said.

Another report this spring by the inspector general’s office determined that 13 percent of services denied by Advantage plans met Medicare coverage rules and would have been approved under traditional Medicare.

Advantage plans can also be problematic if you are traveling or spending part of each year away from home. If you live in Philadelphia but get sick on vacation in Florida, all local providers may be out of network. Check to see how the plan you’re using or considering treats such situations.

So maybe I should just go with traditional Medicare?

“The big pro is that there are no networks,” Jeannie Fuglesten Biniek, a senior policy analyst at the Kaiser Family Foundation, said of traditional Medicare. “You can see any doctor that accepts Medicare,” as most do, and use any hospital or clinic. Traditional Medicare beneficiaries also largely avoid the delays and frustrations of prior authorization.

But traditional Medicare sets no cap on out-of-pocket expenses, and its 20 percent co-pay can add up quickly for hospitalizations or expensive tests and procedures. So most beneficiaries rely on supplemental insurance to cover those costs; either they buy a Medigap policy or they have supplementary coverage through an employer or Medicaid. Medigap policies are not inexpensive; a Kaiser Family Foundation survey found that they average $150 to $200 a month.

The Kaiser literature review found that traditional Medicare beneficiaries experienced fewer cost problems than Advantage beneficiaries if they had supplementary Medigap policies — but if they didn’t, they were more likely to report problems like delaying care for cost reasons or having trouble paying medical bills.

Traditional Medicare also provides somewhat better access to high-quality hospitals and nursing homes. David Meyers, a health services researcher at Brown University, and his colleagues have been tracking differences between original Medicare and Medicare Advantage for years, using data from millions of people.

The team has found that Advantage beneficiaries are 10 percent less likely to use the highest quality hospitals, four to eight percent less likely to be admitted to the highest quality nursing homes and half as likely to use the highest-rated cancer centers for complex cancer surgeries, compared to similar patients in the same counties or ZIP codes.

In general, patients with high needs — people who were frail, limited in activities of daily living or had chronic conditions — were more apt to switch to traditional Medicare than those who were not high-need.

“When you’re healthier, you may run into fewer of the limitations of networks and prior authorization,” Dr. Meyers said. “When you have more complex needs, you come up against those more frequently.”

Another downside to traditional Medicare, though, is that it does not include drug coverage. For that, you need to buy a separate Part D plan.

What should I know about drug plans?

Unlike most Medicare Advantage plans, traditional Medicare does not include drug coverage. For that, you must buy a separate Part D plan.

For 2023, beneficiaries can typically choose between 24 stand-alone Part D plans, at premiums that range from $6 to $111 a month and average $43 for policies available nationwide, said Juliette Cubanski, the deputy director of the program on Medicare policy at the Kaiser Family Foundation.

“If you’re the person who doesn’t take many medications or only uses generics, the best strategy might be to sign up for the plan with the lowest premium,” Dr. Cubanski said. “But if you take a lot of medications, the most important thing is whether the drugs you take, especially the most expensive ones, are covered by the plan.”

Different plans cover different drugs (which can change from year to year) and place them in different pricing tiers, so how much you pay for them varies. And, to make comparisons more dizzying, certain pharmacy chains are “preferred” by certain plans, so you could pay more at CVS than at Walmart for the same drug, or vice versa.

How does Part D work? First, most stand-alone plans have a deductible: $505 in 2023. You pay that amount out of pocket before coverage kicks in.

Then, a Part D plan, either stand-alone or as part of a Medicare Advantage plan, usually establishes five tiers for drugs. The cheapest two tiers, for generic drugs, could be free or run up to about $20 per prescription. Next comes a tier for preferred brand-name drugs, probably $30 to $45 per prescription in 2023.

Drugs on the next highest tier, for nonpreferred brand-name drugs, usually involve coinsurance — paying a percentage of the drug’s list price — rather than a flat co-pay. For national stand-alone plans, that ranges from 34 to 50 percent, Dr. Cubanski said.

Drugs that cost more than $830 a month are considered specialty drugs, the highest-priced tier. You only pay 25 percent of the price, but because these are so expensive, your costs rise.

Once your total drug costs reach $4,660 (for 2023), including out of pocket costs and what your plan paid, you have entered the so-called coverage gap phase and will pay 25 percent of the cost, regardless of tier.

Finally, when your costs reach $7,400 — including what you’ve paid, plus the value of manufacturer discounts — you have hit the threshold for catastrophic coverage. After that, you pay just 5 percent.

After I pick a plan, can I switch if I don’t like it?

You can, but be careful.

Switching between Medicare Advantage plans is fairly easy. But switching from traditional Medicare to an Advantage plan can cause a major problem: You relinquish your Medigap policy, if you had one. Then, if you later grow dissatisfied and want to switch back from Advantage to traditional Medicare, you may not be able to replace that policy. Medigap insurers can deny your application or charge high prices based on factors like pre-existing conditions.

(There are some exceptions. For instance, people who drop a Medigap policy to enroll in an Advantage plan for the first time can repurchase it, or buy another Medigap policy, if they switch back to traditional Medicare within a year.)

“Many people think they can try out Medicare Advantage for a while, but it’s not a two-way street,” said David Lipschutz, the associate director of the Center for Medicare Advocacy. Except in four states that guarantee Medigap coverage at set prices — New York, Massachusetts, Connecticut and Maine — “it’s one type of insurance that can discriminate against you based on your health,” he said.

The fact is, few consumers do any real comparison shopping, or shift their coverage in either direction. Dozens of lawsuits charging Medicare Advantage insurers with fraudulently inflating their profits apparently haven’t made much difference to consumers, either.

In 2020, only 3 in 10 Medicare beneficiaries compared their current plans with others, a recent Kaiser Family Foundation survey reported. Even fewer beneficiaries changed plans, which might reflect consumer satisfaction — or the daunting task of trying to evaluate the pluses and minuses.

Where can I find help with these decisions?

You will find plenty of information on the Medicare.gov website, including the Part D plan finder, where you can input the drugs you take and see which plan gives you the best and most economical coverage. The toll-free 1-800-MEDICARE number can also assist you.

Perhaps the best resources, however, are the federally funded State Health Insurance Assistance Programs, where trained volunteers can help consumers assess both Medicare and drug plans.

These programs “are unbiased and don’t have a pecuniary interest in your decision making,” said David Lipschutz, the associate director of the Center for Medicare Advocacy. But their appointments tend to fill up quickly at this time of year, and the annual open enrollment period ends on Dec. 7. Don’t delay.

New business models for senior care

Driven in large part by the growth of Medicare Advantage, a number of startups are vying to create the next value-based care model for senior care in patients’ homes, Axios’ Sarah Pringle reports.

Why it matters: As we recently reported in our Elder Care Crisis Deep Dive, there is a shortfall of enough cash and caregivers to handle the massive amount of aging baby boomers reaching their senior years.

State of play: Senior care-related startups commanding fresh rounds of investor funding this year include Upward HealthBiofourmis, ConcertoCare, and Vytalize Health.

  • “The cool thing about value-based care?” General Atlantic managing director Robb Vorhoff said. “There’s hundreds of business models.”

Reality check: Scaling remains a challenge for new models looking to shake up the senior care market.

  • “There are a lot of options out there that you don’t know about,” Town Hall Venture’s Andy Slavitt says. “Some are the best-kept secrets; some are not worth knowing about.”

Be smart: While most elderly adults would prefer to age in place, there is still a need for institutional care settings like nursing homes, which presents its own major challenges, Sarah writes.

Pharmacy chains rapidly expand into primary care

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Retailers and insurers are building out their primary care strategies in a bid to become the new front door for patients seeking healthcare services, especially seniors on highly profitable Medicare Advantage (MA) plans. In the graphic above, we examine the capabilities of three of the largest pharmacy chains—CVS Health, Walgreens, and Walmart—to deliver full-service primary care across in-person and virtual settings.

CVS pioneered the pivot to care provision in 2006 with its acquisition of MinuteClinic, which now has over 1,000 locations. The company has further expanded its concept of pairing retail and pharmacy services with primary care by opening over 100 HealthHUBs, which provide an expanded slate of care services. However, CVS lags competitors in the rollout of full-service primary care practices, with its proposed physician-led Super Clinics still stuck in the planning stages.

Walgreens, with its majority stake in VillageMD (on track for 200 co-branded practices by the end of the year) and the recent acquisition of Summit Health (which operates another 370 primary and urgent care clinics) has assembled the most impressive primary care footprint of the three companies. 

Walmart, the largest by number of stores but also the newest to healthcare, has opened more than 25 Walmart Health Centers, a step up from earlier experimentation with in-store care clinics, offering more services and partnering with Epic Systems to integrate electronic health records. 

CVS’s key advantage over its competitors comes from its payer business, having acquired Aetna in 2018, now the fourth-largest MA payer by membership. Walgreens and Walmart have both aligned themselves with UnitedHealth Group (UHG) to participate in MA, with Walmart having struck a ten-year partnership to steer UHG MA beneficiaries to Walmart Health Centers in Florida and Georgia. 

While aligning with UHG expands the reach of these retail giants into MA risk, UHG, whose OptumHealth division is by far the largest employer of physicians nationwide, remains the healthcare juggernaut most poised to unseat incumbent providers as the home for consumers’ healthcare needs.

Agents and brokers for Medicare Advantage plans using deceptive marketing tactics

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 In their latest article scrutinizing the MA program, New York Times reporters Reed Abelson and Margot Sanger-Katz highlight MA marketing practices brought to light in a recent report from the Senate Finance Committee. Complaints to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) about MA marketing more than doubled from 2020 to 2021, as agents and brokers took advantage of oversight rules relaxed during the Trump administration. Some of the most egregious alleged abuses include agents switching seniors into new plans without their consent and exploiting individuals with cognitive impairments.

The Gist: Media interest is finally catching up to the building legislative and regulatory pressure on Medicare Advantage. While earlier reporting has highlighted how plans can inflate payments from Medicare, this new story shows how the process of selecting a plan can be fraught for the seniors enrolled. 

Plan design is confusing even for industry insiders, so it is no surprise that seniors might find themselves ‘choosing’ plans that omit key providers, or even drug coverage they already rely on, particularly after being badgered or misled by agents and brokers.

Many of the regulatory fixes highlighted in the report can be implemented directly by CMS, but insurers, who remember the managed care backlash of the 90s, shouldn’t wait to tighten the reins on questionable marketing practices, lest they risk losing public support for one of their most lucrative business lines.

Oklahoma hospital terminates Medicare Advantage contracts amid financial challenges


Stillwater Medical Center in Oklahoma has ended all in-network contracts with Medicare Advantage plans amid financial challenges at the 117-bed hospital, the Stillwater News Press reported Oct. 14.

Humana and BCBS of Oklahoma were notified that their members will no longer receive in-network coverage after Jan. 1, 2023.

“BCBSOK is willing to work with Stillwater Medical Center in finding solutions that will allow Payne County residents continued local access to Medicare Advantage providers,” a BCBS spokesperson told the newspaper.

The hospital said it made the decision after facing rising operating costs and a high prior authorization burden for the MA plans.

“This was a very tough financial decision for the Stillwater Medical leadership team. Our cost to operate has increased 26 percent over the past 2 years,” Tamie Young, vice president of revenue cycle at SMC, told the News Press. “Financial challenges are increased by a 22 percent denial of service rate from Medicare Advantage plans. This is in comparison to a less than 1 percent denial rate from traditional Medicare.”

Insurers under fire for Medicare Advantage billing practices

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 In a blistering article published in the New York Times, reporters Reed Abelson and Margot Sanger-Katz detail widespread fraud allegations involving the nation’s largest MA insurers. Nine of the ten largest plans have been accused by the government of fraud or overbilling, generally for upcoding practices that exaggerate the disease burden among their beneficiaries, without providing them more care. Insurers have disputed most allegations, and regulators have been slow to punish known infractions. As a growing steam of seniors continue the enter the program, aggressive risk adjustment has significantly increased the government’s costs. The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services has yet to reduce payments in response to overbilling, despite having the power to do so.

The Gist: While these practices were well known to many in the healthcare industry, MA’s growth—set to overtake traditional Medicare enrollment next year—has added a spotlight worthy of national attention. While many beneficiaries report being satisfied with their MA benefits, the program was also intended to improve the cost efficiency of senior care.

With payers gaming the system to garner record profits, the government has seen higher per-enrollee spending in MA compared to traditional Medicare. There are some signs that the strings are starting to tighten for insurers, as many of the largest are losing Medicare star bonuses in 2023, impacting both plan revenue and ability to market throughout the year. However, reduced quality bonuses change nothing about the underlying MA payment structure, and could even drive insurers to more profit-seeking behavior.

Walmart partners with UnitedHealth Group (UHG) in its continued push into healthcare

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The nation’s largest retailer and its largest insurer announced a 10-year partnership to bring together the collective expertise of both companies to provide affordable healthcare to potentially millions of Americans. Set to start next year with 15 Walmart Health locations in Georgia and Florida, the collaboration will initially focus on seniors and Medicare Advantage (MA) beneficiaries, and will include a co-branded MA plan in Georgia. Walmart Health Virtual Care will also be in-network for some UnitedHealthcare beneficiaries. Plans for future years involve expanding the collaboration across commercial and Medicaid plans, as well as including pharmacy, dental, and vision services. 

The Gist: We have long wondered if this powerhouse pairing was in the works, as this kind of partnership makes a lot of sense for both parties. While Walmart has reportedly been considering an insurance company acquisition for years, and more recently been dabbling in its own insurance efforts, partnering with UHG provides the retailer with a share of the upside potential of getting into the insurance market without having to fully commit to entering that complex business. And given that 90 percent of Americans live within 10 miles of a Walmart store, and more than half of Americans visit a store every week, Walmart provides UHG with low-cost healthcare access points all over the country, especially important in markets where United’s own Optum physician network is not (yet) present.

How Medicare Advantage Enrollment Has Grown, Diversified in 10 Years

Medicare Advantage enrollment has grown in the last decade largely due to an influx of Black, Hispanic, and low-income beneficiaries, a research letter published in the JAMA Health Forum found.

Before 2011, Medicare Advantage health plans absorbed a greater share of Medicare enrollment because traditional Medicare enrollees were transitioning to Medicare Advantage plans. From 2011 to 2019, Medicare Advantage enrollment continued to increase but the source changed.

The researchers used the Master Beneficiary Summary File from 2011 to 2019 to inform their study of the source of Medicare Advantage enrollment during that timeframe. These files provided over 524.4 million person-years.

Medicare Advantage still drew enrollees from traditional Medicare from 2012 to 2019, with the share of those who came from Medicare Advantage growing from 65.9 percent to 71.1 percent.

The number of enrollees that were new to Medicare who chose Medicare Advantage coverage also grew. A little over 18 percent of enrollees who did not have Medicare coverage previously transitioned into Medicare Advantage in 2012. But by 2019, that share had swelled to 24.7 percent.

Beneficiaries who switched to Medicare Advantage from traditional Medicare tended to be older. Fewer of them identified as Hispanic individuals but more of them identified as Black individuals. Additionally, they were more likely to be dually eligible and more likely to have a disability. Finally, they were more likely to die within two years of enrolling in Medicare Advantage.

“Our study is limited in that it was not designed to examine these mechanisms,” the researchers acknowledged. “As MA continues to grow, understanding the reasons for switching from TM to MA will become more important.”

Although the study did not explicitly explore the causes behind these enrollment shifts, the researchers cited three factors that might contribute to the growth and diversity of the Medicare Advantage population.

First, they noted that Medicare Advantage plans offer supplemental benefits and dental and vision coverage, which traditional Medicare does not cover. 

In 2022, more Medicare Advantage plans offered more supplemental benefits, including special supplemental benefits for the chronically ill (SSBCI), expanded supplemental benefits, and traditional supplemental benefits, according to a Better Medicare Alliance brief.

Second, Medicare Advantage plans offer lower out-of-pocket healthcare spending compared to traditional Medicare. 

On average, Medicare Advantage beneficiaries spend nearly $2,000 less than traditional Medicare beneficiaries in out-of-pocket healthcare spending and premium costs, according to Better Medicare Alliance’s 2022 State of Medicare Advantage report. 

Finally, Medicare Advantage might be more attractive due to the lower premiums.

In 2022, costs were particularly low since Medicare Advantage premiums dropped to the lowest level in 15 years, 10 percent lower than in 2021, the Better Medicare Alliance report shared.

The results corroborate separate studies that show that the Medicare Advantage population is growing and becoming more diverse.

In more than 100 congressional districts, Medicare Advantage coverage represents half or more of enrollment, according to Better Medicare Alliance research. Medicare Advantage coverage is particularly strong in Alabama, Michigan, and Florida.

As the Medicare Advantage population grows, it has also diversified, according to data from the Alliance of Community Health Plans (ACHP)

Medicare Advantage plans grew 60 percent from 2013 to 2020. By 2020, Medicare Advantage plans served 25 million seniors, of which six out of ten were women. Also, more than half of all Hispanic American seniors (52 percent), 49 percent of African American seniors, and 35 percent of Asian Americans selected Medicare Advantage plans for their coverage.

A targeted approach to reducing healthcare disparities

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A recent piece in the Harvard Business Review demonstrates how SCAN Health Plan, a not-for-profit, California-based Medicare Advantage plan with over 270,000 members, was able to increase medication adherence among Black and Hispanic beneficiaries. Dr. Sachin Jain, CEO of SCAN, and his colleagues describe how identifying the specific causes of disparities in medication adherence, establishing clear financial incentives for senior leaders, and targeting investments enabled the insurer to reduce disparities by 35 percent within eighteen months. 

The Gist: Addressing complex and longstanding racial health disparities is an incredibly difficult but vital task. While there’s been plenty of discussion about the problem, there’s been a lack of effective solutions for healthcare organizations to deploy.

SCAN’s progress demonstrates how narrowing the focus down to a more specific issue can yield faster results. Jain and his colleagues write that SCAN’s next areas of focus are reducing disparities in diabetes control and flu vaccinations. We’re looking forward to learning about other innovative ways healthcare organizations are tackling long overdue gaps in care.