Enrollment in Medicare Advantage plans is increasing rapidly, and many insurers are expanding their MA offerings in a bid to grab larger portions of the market share. Medicare Advantage touts itself as having certain advantages over traditional Medicare, such as fitness benefits, coverage for hearing aids and eyeglasses, and limits on out-of-pocket spending.
This begs the question: Are enrollees in the two versions of Medicare fundamentally different, and what are their experiences like in terms of satisfaction?
New analysis from the Commonwealth Fund found that Medicare Advantage enrollees do not differ significantly from beneficiaries in traditional Medicare in terms of their age, race, income, chronic conditions, satisfaction with care, or access to care, after excluding Special Needs Plan (SNP) enrollees.
Both groups reported waiting more than a month for physician office visits, while similar shares of Medicare Advantage and traditional Medicare enrollees report that their out-of-pocket costs make it difficult to obtain care.
Ultimately, MA and traditional Medicare are serving similar populations, with beneficiaries having comparable healthcare experiences. The care management services provided by Medicare Advantage plans appear to neither impede access to care nor reduce concerns about costs.
WHAT’S THE IMPACT?
Beneficiaries weigh a number of trade-offs when deciding whether to enroll in Medicare Advantage plans or traditional Medicare. Unlike the latter, MA plans are required to place limits on enrollees’ out-of-pocket spending and to maintain provider networks. The plans also can provide benefits not covered by traditional Medicare, such as eyeglasses, fitness benefits and hearing aids.
Medicare Advantage plans are intended to manage and coordinate beneficiaries’ care. Some MA plans specialize in care for people with diabetes and other common chronic conditions, including Special Needs Plans. SNPs also focus on people who are eligible for both Medicare and Medicaid and on those who require an institutional level of care.
Traditional Medicare and MA enrollees have historically had different characteristics, with MA enrollees somewhat healthier. Black and Hispanic beneficiaries and those with lower incomes have tended to enroll in MA plans at higher rates than others, while traditional Medicare has historically performed better on beneficiary-reported metrics, such as provider access, ease of getting needed care, and overall care experience.
The Commonwealth Fund found that, after excluding beneficiaries in SNPs, beneficiaries enrolled in traditional Medicare do not differ significantly from MA enrollees on age, income, or receipt of a Part D low-income subsidy (LIS), which helps low-income individuals pay for prescription drugs. But beneficiaries in traditional Medicare are significantly more likely than MA enrollees to reside in a metropolitan area and more likely to live in a long-term-care or residential facility.
Beneficiaries in SNPs are different. Given the eligibility criteria for these plans, it’s not surprising that enrollees tend to have significantly lower incomes and a greater likelihood of receiving Medicaid benefits or LIS than other Medicare beneficiaries.
Enrollment in SNPs for people who require an institutional level of care has been growing rapidly, leading to a similar share of SNP enrollees and beneficiaries in traditional Medicare living in a long-term-care facility.
There are some areas in which Medicare Advantage plans appear to perform better than traditional Medicare. In particular, MA enrollees are more likely than those in traditional Medicare to have a treatment plan, to have someone who reviews their prescriptions, to have someone they can contact for help, and to receive a response to a health query relatively quickly.
By providing this additional help, Medicare Advantage plans are making it easier for enrollees to get the help they need to manage their healthcare conditions, the report found. Medicare experts have suggested providing a similar service to beneficiaries in traditional Medicare through care coordinators.
The results also raise questions about whether Medicare Advantage plans are receiving appropriate payments. MedPAC estimates that plans are paid 4% more than it would cost to cover similar people in traditional Medicare.
On the one hand, Medicare Advantage plans seem to be providing services that help their enrollees manage their care, and this added care management could be of significant value to both plan enrollees and the Medicare program. On the other hand, rates of hospitalizations and emergency room visits are similar for beneficiaries in Medicare Advantage plans and traditional Medicare. This calls into question the impact of the added services on healthcare use, spending and outcomes.
THE LARGER TREND
Insurers are expanding their Medicare Advantage offerings at a decent clip, with Humana announcing last week it would debut a new Medicare Advantage PPO plan in 37 rural counties in North Carolina in response to market demand in the eastern part of the state.
Just last week, UnitedHealthcare, which already has significant market control with its MA plans, said it will strengthen its foothold in the space by expanding its MA plans in 2022, adding a potential 3.1 million members and reaching 94% of Medicare-eligible consumers in the U.S.
And for the third straight year, health insurer Cigna is expanding its Medicare Advantage plans, growing into 108 new counties and three new states – Connecticut, Oregon and Washington – which will increase its geographic presence by nearly 30%.
Centene is also getting in on the act, expanding MA into 327 new counties and three new states: Massachusetts, Nebraska and Oklahoma. In all, this represents a 26% expansion of Centene’s MA footprint, with the offering available to a potential 48 million beneficiaries across 36 states.
The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services said in late September that the average premium for Medicare Advantage plans will be lower in 2022 at $19 per month, compared with $21.22 in 2021. However, Part D coverage is rising to $33 per month, compared with $31.47 in 2021.
Enrollment in MA continues to increase, CMS said. In 2022, it’s projected to reach 29.5 million people, compared with 26.9 million enrolled in a Medicare Advantage plan in 2021.