A big clue for 2021 Medicare Advantage plans

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Spending levels for people in the traditional Medicare program are expected to rise by 4.5% in 2021, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services said in a memo sent this week.

Why it matters: This growth rate is the key number government actuaries use when figuring out how much to pay Medicare Advantage plans, Bob writes.

  • A 4.5% rate “is a very strong starting point for reimbursement and a continued reflection of a MA-friendly Republican administration,” health care analysts at Barclays wrote to Wall Street investors.
  • The early estimate also is almost always revised higher once final rates are released in April, meaning another large pay raise is in store for insurance companies that sell MA plans.

Go deeper: The war over Medicare Advantage audits heats up

 

 

UnitedHealth projects major revenue boost in 2020 on the back of continued Optum growth

https://www.fiercehealthcare.com/payer/unitedhealth-projects-242b-2019-revenue-offers-2020-guidance-262b-revenue?mkt_tok=eyJpIjoiWkdObE5HRTJNMlptT0RkayIsInQiOiJiaFk3K2s2TDl5OGNrMmJ5XC9EWWEyb3VacEVjUGpOUVhrdE5wQmxkaTN6TUNTbkVJaUJlTnl3eldXcmRaVU1nN3k4UUhKRFEzb1B3XC9pYWNJaHVcL0NqS29QSmI4RFR1aWEwWlNNRUE2QmdqaVJINkNIa090XC9lUzMxUUpUbG1yY24ifQ%3D%3D&mrkid=959610

The outside of Optum's headquarters

UnitedHealth Group projected it will generate $242 billion in revenue in 2019 and expects to report another 7% to 8% increase in top-line growth in 2020.

The insurance group presented updated figures during its investor conference that kicked off Tuesday with officials saying they expect to increase the company’s 2020 revenue to between $260 billion and $262 billion.

They project between $21 billion and $22 billion in operating earnings in 2020.

In comparison, UnitedHealth Group generated $17.3 billion in profits on $226 billion in revenue in 2018. The company is projecting to report $19 billion in profits in 2019.

The biggest driver of growth this year has been UnitedHealth’s Optum, the company’s pharmacy benefit management and care services group. Optum revenue is projected to have increased by 11% from 2018 to 2019, earning UnitedHealth $112 billion in revenue compared to $101 billion in 2018.Optum is expected to continue to be a major growth driver for the company in its 2020 earnings projection, with UnitedHealth pegging growth to increase again between 13% and 14%. UnitedHealth executives said that Optum is expected to make up 50.5% of the company’s total after tax operating earnings this year.. 

Optum could also be the key for UnitedHealth to improve its Medicare Advantage business.

“We don’t like being third, that’s fundamentally where we landed for the year,” said UnitedHealth Group CEO David Wichmann, “Over time I think we will continue to grow and outpace the market.”

Executives said that the key to growth is to keep its networks consistent as well as pharmacists and pharmacies consistent for seniors. 

“We believe we maintain in the Medicare market a strategic cost advantage because of the capacities we have as an organization,” Wichmann said.

UnitedHealth pointed to the success of OptumCare, the company’s primary and specialty care provider.  The highest performing Medicare Advantage plans were in markets that had an OptumCare presence. Wichmann said that growing the OptumCare platform is a majority priority for UnitedHealth over the next seven years.

 

 

 

 

People hate shopping for health insurance

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Illustration of a plastic bag with "NO THANK YOU" printed multiple times on it alongside a health plus.

Americans rarely switch to new health plans when the annual insurance-shopping season comes around, even if they could have gotten a better deal, Axios’ Bob Herman reports.

The bottom line: People loathe shopping for health plans, and many are bad at it, for one major reason: “It’s just too hard,” Tricia Neuman, a Medicare expert at the Kaiser Family Foundation, told Bob last year.

Reality check: During any insurance program’s annual enrollment period, most people end up staying with the status quo, if it’s an option, instead of picking a new plan.

  • Fewer than one out of 10 seniors voluntarily switch from one private Medicare Advantage plan to another, according to new research from the Kaiser Family Foundation.
  • The same holds true for Medicare’s private prescription drug plans.
  • Most employers don’t usually change insurance carriers, often out of fear of angering workers, and keep plan options limited.
  • Employees, after several reminders from HR, usually default to what they had.
  • Fewer than half of people in the Affordable Care Act’s marketplaces actively re-enroll in new plans, even though the market was designed for comparison shopping.
  • Medicaid enrollees in some states have no say in the private plans they get.

Between the lines: Buying health insurance — $20,000 decision for the average family — is more complicated than buying furniture.

  • With consumer products, you pretty much know what you’re getting. With health insurance, you’re making an educated guess of how much health care you’ll use, hoping you’ll need none of it.
  • Health insurance terms and policies also are confusing, which turns people off from the shopping process.

The big picture: Shopping for insurance is difficult enough for most people. Shopping for actual doctors, tests and services is even more difficult and less widespread, and likely won’t change if prices are unlocked.

 

 

 

Behind insurer strategies to snag higher MA star ratings

https://www.healthcaredive.com/news/behind-insurer-strategies-to-snag-higher-ma-star-ratings/565715/

Each year billions of federal dollars are up for grabs as insurers compete to score a star rating high enough to earn a lucrative financial bonus in the Medicare Advantage program. Last year, more than $6 billion in bonuses were awarded to various types of privately run MA plans.

Obtaining a bonus is especially important as plans use that funding to sell supplemental benefits, or extra perks that can be enticing to shoppers and can attract more people to their rolls.

However, the bonus program is costly and has been pegged as an area ripe for trimming, according to a 2018 Congressional Budget Office report that suggested changes could help reduce the federal deficit.

Still, insurers take the stars program seriously and devise strategies to snag higher scores. It stokes competition among plans and promotes robust benefit offerings as issuers are forced to use some of those dollars on supplemental benefits such as dental or vision.

“There is not a silver bullet,” for a stars strategy, Dustin Grzeskowiak, an actuary for consulting firm Milliman, told Healthcare Dive.

However, highly rated plans often have a few characteristics in common, he said.

Top-rated plans tend to be part of a company with an overall culture of supporting and championing the stars program. Sophisticated data-driven strategies are also key, along with member outreach.

At Kaiser Permanente, there is a disciplined structure around star ratings, Agnes Strandberg, senior vice president of Kaiser’s Medicare program, told Healthcare Dive.

Her team is focused on reviewing data, key metrics and predictive analytics to understand emerging trends among members. The focus on analytics also helps identify best practices throughout the organization’s regions, which is a hallmark of integrated health systems, Strandberg said.

A core pillar for California-based Kaiser is ensuring a consistent member experience across all those regions, which requires a lot of training, she said.

Being an integrated health system provides an important foundation for these goals, Strandberg said.

For example, when a Kaiser member walks into a clinic for a visit, the receptionist may remind the patient they’re due for a mammogram and attempt to go ahead and schedule one. The pharmacist also is there not just to fill prescriptions but to play a role in advancing a member’s health. Staying current on screenings such as mammograms are an important metric that play into the star ratings.

The health plan and its clinicians are essentially playing for the same team and not at odds with one another, which can be the case for other non-affiliated payers and providers.

All told, Kaiser garnered five-star ratings for seven of its health plans in the most recent ranking, the most of any payer. Together the seven plans cover more than 1.5 million people.

Overall, only 23 plans out of 401 received the top grade, according to CMS.

Another top performer was Bloomfield, Connecticut-based Cigna.

Cigna’s Florida plan was one of 23 plans to earn a perfect score of five stars. The plan, Healthspring, covers more than 48,000 seniors throughout the sunshine state.

 

 

 

Trump’s Plan To Privatize Medicare

Trump’s Plan To Privatize Medicare

Image result for medicare privatizing

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.

Conclusion

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.

 

 

Trump’s Lightweight Alternative to Medicare for All

https://www.realclearpolicy.com/articles/2019/10/11/trumps_lightweight_alternative_to_medicare_for_all_111288.html?utm_source=The+Fiscal+Times&utm_campaign=bc4ead3dce-EMAIL_CAMPAIGN_2019_10_11_09_27&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_714147a9cf-bc4ead3dce-390702969

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President Trump and senior officials in his administration have been signaling for several months that they would release an updated GOP health-care plan, presumably to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act (ACA) — which the president still criticizes as a “disaster.” Last week, the president gave a campaign-style speech denouncing Medicare for All and announcing a new executive order (EO) on improving Medicare. If the EO is the administration’s much-hyped health-care “plan,” it is a surprisingly lightweight offering.

The EO tasks the Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS) and officials in the White House with producing several deliverables focused mainly on expanding options in Medicare Advantage (MA), which is the private insurance alternative to Medicare’s government-managed fee-for-service (FFS) option.

  • HHS is to propose regulations within a year to make it easier for Medicare beneficiaries to use medical savings accounts (Medicare’s version of health savings accounts) in conjunction with MA offerings and to facilitate cash rebates to MA enrollees when selecting options with particularly low premiums.
  • HHS is to suggest regulatory changes to make it easier for MA plans to offer innovative supplemental benefits, including telehealth services.
  • Working with the Council of Economic Advisers and others in the White House, HHS is to recommend how payment rates for medical services paid by the traditional FFS program could be tied more closely to the market rates paid by MA plans.
  • To provide more flexibility for MA plans, HHS is to recommend changes that scale back network adequacy requirements in states that limit provider competition and to account for the benefits of telehealth services.
  • The agency is to look for ways to allow MA plans to speed adoption of innovative medical technology and practices.
  • HHS also is to provide beneficiaries with “better” quality and cost data.

The EO uses general language throughout so it is difficult to know for sure what some of these administrative actions will mean. Overall, however, it is clear that what is called for are steps allowed under current law. As such, the changes are likely to be incremental and gradual.

The most promising proposal might be the push to encourage the payment of cash rebates to beneficiaries selecting low-cost MA options. Today, MA plans compete mainly by offering supplemental benefits beyond what Medicare covers. Cash rebates paid directly to the beneficiaries might usher in more direct price competition among MA plans, and between MA and FFS too.

The benchmarking of FFS rates to those negotiated by MA plans is a particularly obscure recommendation. Most FFS payment rates are grounded in statutory requirements. HHS may not have much authority to unilaterally adjust payments based on what is occurring among MA plans. Further, it is not clear if what the administration has in mind would raise or lower FFS spending.

While some of the concepts in the EO may be helpful, it is hard to see how they will have a dramatic effect on the health system, or on voters’ perception of the health system. The EO does nothing of consequence for Americans who are not enrolled in Medicare, nor does it offer much for 40 million Medicare beneficiaries enrolled in the traditional FFS program.

The EO may signal a play it safe approach by the administration. Instead of offering an actual plan or even just a vision for a reformed system, the administration may have decided that it is better to attack the Democratic party’s ideas rather than offer up a viable alternative course of action. Most of the political attention in 2020 will be focused upon whatever plan is pushed by the winning Democratic candidate anyway (either Medicare for All, or perhaps the introduction of a public option). The Trump administration seems more comfortable attacking either of those ideas than defending a Republican alternative.

That’s not a new development, of course. For years, Republicans have been more willing to state what they are against than what they are for.

But that strategy has its limits. As was demonstrated when the ACA passed in 2010, under the right circumstances, Democrats can pass a health-care bill even when all Republicans vote no. That might happen again, and perhaps soon, if the GOP fails to offer a convincing vision for fixing the problems – most especially rising costs — that concern many voters.

Most Republicans say they want the health system to rely on competition and consumer choice, not government control to discipline costs, but they have only vague ideas of what that would require in practice.

For the market to work, consumers need to be rewarded financially when they migrate to low-cost, high-value health care and away from costly and inefficient alternatives. That does not occur often enough today in large part because, under current law, the federal government provides larger subsidies when consumers in Medicare and job-based health care opt for more expensive coverage. Republicans shy away from fixing these problems because doing so would be politically controversial. Thus, they are left with offering safer, and less consequential, changes that represent modest progress at best.

Attacking Medicare for All or the public option is a short-term political strategy. Over the long run, the best way to beat those ideas is by enacting a viable, market-based reform plan that demonstrates cost discipline is possible without handing over all control to the federal government.

 

How seniors are being steered toward private Medicare plans

https://www.axios.com/medicare-advantage-tilting-scales-7db28dd2-25af-4283-b971-21a61fa59371.html

Illustration of a wheelchair on one side of a seesaw with a hand pressing down the other side.

Today is the final day when seniors and people with disabilities can sign up for Medicare plans for 2019, and consumer groups are concerned the Trump administration is steering people into privately run Medicare Advantage plans while giving short shrift to their limitations.

Between the lines: Medicare Advantage has been growing like gangbusters for years, and has garnered bipartisan support. But the Center for Medicare Advocacy says the Trump administration is tilting the scales by broadcasting information that “is incomplete and continues to promote certain options over others.”

The big picture: The government has talked up the benefits of Medicare Advantage plans in emails to prospective enrollees during the past several weeks, the New York Times recently reported. Enrollment is approaching 22 million people, and there are reasons for its popularity.

  • Many MA plans offer $0 premiums and extra perks that don’t exist in standard Medicare, like vision and hearing coverage and gym memberships. MA plans also cap enrollees’ out-of-pocket expenses.
  • Traditional Medicare, by contrast, has higher out-of-pocket costs that usually require people to buy supplemental medical policies, called Medigap plans, as well as separate drug plans.

Yes, but: Federal marketing materials rarely mention MA’s tradeoffs.

  • MA plans limit which doctors and hospitals people can see, and they require prior approval for certain procedures. Provider directories also are loaded with errors.
  • MA plans spend less on care, yet continue to cost taxpayers more than traditional Medicare. Coding is a major problem.
  • People who enroll in MA often can’t buy a Medigap plan if they later decide to switch to traditional Medicare. And others, especially retirees leaving their jobs, may not even realize their employers are enrolling them in Medicare Advantage.

Where it stands: The Affordable Care Act slashed payments to MA insurers, but other Obama administration policies bolstered the industry. And now the Trump administration is helping it even more.

  • Obama officials built the chassis for today’s bonus system, which has been lucrative for plans (and likely wasteful, according to federal auditors).
  • A bipartisan 2015 law that adjusted Medicare payments to doctors killed the most popular Medigap plans, starting in 2020 — a move experts say could indirectly drive more people to MA.
  • HHS championed MA in a new policy document this week, on the heels of positive marketing.

What we’re hearing: Wall Street is beyond bullish on the major MA insurers like UnitedHealth Group and Humana. Supporters of MA like the idea of treating Medicare more like a marketplace, where people have to shop for a plan every year, but experts are worried about how it will affect the average enrollee.

“We know people don’t” actively engage in health insurance shopping, said Tricia Neuman, a Medicare expert at the Kaiser Family Foundation who recently wrote about MA. “It’s just too hard.”