Trump’s Plan To Privatize Medicare

Trump’s Plan To Privatize Medicare

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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

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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.”

 

 

 

Medicare Advantage is booming but not producing savings, report finds

https://www.healthcaredive.com/news/medicare-advantage-is-booming-but-not-producing-savings-report-finds/561187/

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Dive Brief:

  • Medicare Advantage is not producing any savings but spends between 2% and 5.5% more than traditional Medicare, a report in Health Affairs finds.
  • On the other hand, the report found Medicare’s accountable care organizations are reducing costs as compared to traditional Medicare. The Medicare Shared Savings Program, which includes accountable care organizations, saved about 1% to 2% in 2016. 
  • The authors suggest a number of changes for policymakers to consider if they want to improve competition and address flaws among the two programs.

Dive Insight:

As the popularity of programs such as Medicare Advantage grows, it’s important to understand the spending ramifications and whether the program is yielding any savings for taxpayers.

More and more seniors are choosing coverage options outside of traditional Medicare. Together, Medicare Advantage and the Medicare Shared Savings Program cover about half of all Medicare beneficiaries. In a six-year period, Medicare Advantage alone grew by 57% and as of 2018 covered nearly 20 million seniors.

Medicare Advantage allows private insurers to contract with the federal government to care for eligible Medicare beneficiaries. Private plans receive a fixed payment — typically a per member, per month allotment — to coordinate care for beneficiaries who choose MA plans. 

It’s these “predictable” payments that allow MA plans to invest in unconventional coverage options such as meal delivery and transportation to appointments, the authors said.

But despite the program’s popularity, it’s not yielding the savings that was originally expected.

“When a beneficiary joins MA, Medicare spends more, on average, than it would have if the patient had remained in traditional Medicare. We find the opposite in the MSSP: When a patient joins the Medicare ACO program, Medicare costs fall,” according to Health Affairs.

There are also differences between the two programs that should be fixed, the authors said. 

The MSSP is only punitive, which is not true for the star-rating program for MA. One way to achieve a more equitable ratings system is to “radically” reduce the number of quality measures, which have become a burden for physicians, the authors said.

“We propose limiting quality measurement to five measures that are outcome oriented: hospital and ER use, patient satisfaction, and diabetes A1c and blood pressure control.”

It’s also important to find a risk adjustment model that can be used for both MA and MSSP populations, the authors said.

CMS has committed itself to reducing the amount of burden on payers and providers, and paring down quality ratings overhead is a key part of that. The agency’s removed a number of measures across its reporting programs in 2018 as part of its “Meaningful Measures” initiative, and is currently looking at others in MSSP, MA and the Merit-based Incentive Payment System.

 

 

 

What Does Medicare Actually Cover?

What Does Medicare Actually Cover?

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If it followed the path of traditional Medicare, it would end up paying for a lot of coverage that has little medical value.

In the first congressional hearing held on “Medicare for all” in April, Michael Burgess, a Republican congressman from Texas and a physician, called such a proposal “frightening” because it could limit the treatments available to patients.

The debate over Medicare for all has largely focused on access and taxpayer cost, but this raises a question that hasn’t gotten much attention: What treatments would it cover?

A good starting place for answers is to look at how traditional Medicare currently handles things. In one sense, there are some important elements that Medicare does not cover — and  arguably should. But a little digging into the rules governing treatments also reveals that Medicare allows a lot of low-value care — which it arguably should not.

Many countries don’t cover procedures or treatments that have little medical value or that are considered too expensive relative to the benefits. American Medicare has also wrestled with the challenge of how to keep out low-value care, but for political reasons has never squarely faced it.

You might remember the factually misguided “death panel” attack on the Affordable Care Act, which preyed on discomfort with a governmental role in deciding what health care would or would not be paid for. (This discomfort also extends to private plans, exemplified by the backlash against managed care in the 1990s.)

Perhaps as a result, Americans don’t often talk about what treatments and services provide enough value to warrant coverage.

You can divide current Medicare coverage into two layers.

The first is relatively transparent. Traditional Medicare does not cover certain classes of care, including eyeglasses, hearing aids, dental or long-term care. When the classes of things it covers changes, or is under debate, there’s a big, bruising fight with a lot of public comment. The most recent battle added prescription drug coverage through legislation that passed in 2003.

Over the years, there have also been legislative efforts to add coverage for eyeglasses, hearing aids, dental and long-term care — none of them successful. Some of these are available through private plans. So a Medicare for all program that excluded all private insurance coverage and that resembled today’s traditional Medicare would leave Americans with significant coverage gaps. Most likely, debate over what Medicare for all would cover would center on this issue.

But there is a second layer of coverage that receives less attention. Which specific treatments does Medicare pay for within its classes of coverage? For instance, Medicare covers hospital and doctor visits associated with cancer care — but which specific cancer treatments?

This second layer is far more opaque than the first. By law, treatments must be reasonable and necessary” to be approved for Medicare coverage, but what that means is not very clear.

We think of Medicare as a uniform program, but some coverage decisions are local. What people are covered for in, say, Miami can be different from what people are covered for in Seattle.

Many treatments and services are covered automatically because they already have standard billing codes that Medicare recognizes and accepts. For treatments lacking such codes, Medicare makes coverage determinations in one of two ways: nationally or locally.

Although Medicare is a federal (national) program, most coverage determinations are local. Private contractors authorized to process Medicare claims decide what treatments to reimburse in each of 16 regions of the country.

In theory, this could allow for lots of variation across the country in what Medicare pays for. But most local coverage determinations are nearly identical. For example, four regional contractors have independently made local coverage determinations for allergen immunotherapy, but they all approve the same treatments for seasonal allergy sufferers.

There are more than 2,000 local coverage determinations like these. National coverage decisions, which apply to the entire country, are rarer, with only about 300 on the books.

When Medicare makes national coverage decisions, sometimes it does so while requiring people to enter clinical trials.

It has been doing this for over a decade. The program is called coverage with evidence development, and its use is rare. Fewer than two dozen therapies have entered the program since it was introduced in 2006. But it allows Medicare to gather additional clinical data before determining if the treatment should be covered outside of a trial. To be considered, the treatment must already be deemed safe, and it must already be effective in some population. The aim is to test if the treatment “meaningfully improves” the health of Medicare beneficiaries.

Only one therapy (CPAP, for sleep apnea) that entered this process has ever emerged to be covered as a routine part of Medicare. The others are in a perpetual state of limbo, neither fully covered nor definitively not covered. CAR-T cell therapy, a type of cancer immunotherapy, which appears to be very successful but is also very expensive, is one of the most recent to enter this process.

Despite the complexity of all these coverage determination methods — local, national, contingent on clinical trials — the bottom line is that very few treatments are fully excluded from Medicare, so long as they are of any clinical value. And this suggests that it’s not very likely that Medicare for all would deny coverage for needed care.

A 2018 study in Health Affairs found only 3 percent of Medicare claims were denied in 2015. And traditional Medicare doesn’t limit access to doctors or hospitals either, as it is accepted by nearly every one. (This is in contrast with Medicare Advantage.)

Medicare has a troubled history in considering cost-effectiveness in its coverage decisions. Past efforts to incorporate it have failed. For example, regulations proposed in 1989 were withdrawn after a decade of internal review.

As a result, Medicare covers some treatments that are extremely expensive for the program and that offer little benefit to patients. The Medicare Payment Advisory Commission recently studied this in detail. In a 2018 report to Congress, it noted that up to one-third of Medicare beneficiaries received some kind of low-value treatment in 2014, costing the program billions of dollars. If Medicare for all followed in traditional Medicare’s path, it could be wastefully expensive.

The United States has had a historical unwillingness to face cost-effectiveness questions in health care decisions, something many other countries tackle head-on. Some Americans favor Medicare for all because it would make the system more like some overseas. And yet, in choosing not to consider the value of the care it covers, Medicare remains uniquely American.

 

 

As HHS muses more MA flexibility, payers see roadblocks to nonmedical benefits

https://www.healthcaredive.com/news/as-hhs-muses-more-ma-flexibility-payers-see-roadblocks-to-nonmedical-benef/559350/

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New regulatory flexibility letting Medicare Advantage plans sell supplemental benefits has opened up a new world of services, from transportation to nutrition, for tens of millions of beneficiaries. But implementation challenges, uncertain return on investment and a lack of clarity on what benefits are allowed may be giving payers, especially the smaller ones, pause on offering the options, experts say.

CMS expanded supplemental benefits in the popular privately-run Medicare plans in an April final rule. Now, Medicare Advantage plans can offer a host of non-traditional benefits, such as at-home grocery delivery, non-emergency medical transportation to doctor appointments or home modifications like installing air conditioning for beneficiaries with asthma and home renovations for fall-prone elderly.

And the department wants to go further than the MA supplemental benefits introduced in April, HHS Secretary Alex Azar said this week at a Better Medicare Alliance annual conference. Because MA plans have budgetary restrictions and a higher risk appetite, the government is comfortable granting them more leeway if it lowers costs and boosts health outcomes.

“We want to open up more opportunities for MA plans and entities they work with, including creative value-based insurance design arrangements, moving care to the home and community and new ways for MA plans to improve a patients’ health over the long term,” Azar said Tuesday.

A number of payers have increased their MA offerings recently to till the fertile ground set up by CMS, including startups Bright Health and Oscar along with heftier players like Centene and UnitedHealthcare.

Currently, MA plans enroll more than one-third of all Medicare beneficiaries, and enrollment is rising steadily every year. At least 40% of those plans offered non-medical benefits in the current plan year at no additional cost to beneficiaries, according to consultancy Avalere.

But further flexibility could present a problem for payers already struggling to assimilate to the increased flexibility and the administrative burden it entails.

Not enough time, money or guidance

Though it approved of the flexible benefit options, payer lobby America’s Health Insurance Plans was concerned in April about the regulatory changes coming just two months before the submission deadline for plan offerings for the 2020 plan year.

That’s because shaping a new benefit can take two to three years, Robert Saunders, research director at the Duke-Margolis Center for Health Policy, told Healthcare Dive. Plans have to work with their actuaries to price what a potential benefit is worth and then incorporate that into their bid.

“Just because you have policy flexibility doesn’t mean you can just now, tomorrow, offer new services,” Saunders said.

While the April rule also increased MA payment rates by 2.5% in 2019 (and rates are expected to hike another 1.6% for 2020), payers also have only a finite amount of funds they can pay back toward medical care. Medicare reimburses MA plans a fixed amount each month, so to provide auxiliary benefits payers have to trim down in other areas.

“If you’re paying for groceries, what else is getting cut?” Jennifer Callahan, executive director of MA product strategy and implementation for Aetna, said. “Is groceries more important than dental coverage? We don’t know.”

Under the CMS regulatory guidance, MA organizations can only develop and offer non-traditional medical benefits if they have a reasonable expectation the services will boost health. That has injected a lot of confusion into the system for payers that may not know what that means, how to measure it and whether they’ll be penalized for slipping up.

“Health plans, especially the small ones, are still looking for clarification on what’s actually allowed,” Nick Johnson, principal at actuarial and consulting firm Milliman, said. Smaller payers often don’t have a large enough sample size to draw conclusions about the positives and negatives of offering specific supplemental benefits, especially in light of substandard quality measures issued from CMS.

A subset of the expanded nonmedical benefits that address social determinants of health factors are officially called “Special Supplemental Benefits for the Chronically Ill” (SSBCI) and can only be offered to an “eligible chronically ill enrollee”: those who have at least one chronic condition and a high risk of hospitalization or adverse health outcomes and require coordinated care.

MA plans can currently offer nonmedical benefits to enrollees for a limited duration of time — typically four weeks, a CMS spokesperson told Healthcare Dive. But only under SSBCI can plans provide these benefits over the long term.

That pigeonholes MA plans from providing additional benefits for a wider spectrum of patients — for example, a person recuperating with serious injuries following a fall who can’t go out and get groceries themselves might appreciate getting them delivered.

However, “just because you were perfectly healthy before, you by definition don’t qualify,” Aetna’s Callahan said. “For me that’s one of the biggest gaps.”

More flexibility unlikely to help rural enrollees

Another concern is that the supplemental benefits could potentially exacerbate health disparities, including the divide between services offered in rural versus urban areas. Non-metropolitan markets tend to be highly concentrated, meaning just one or two insurers dominate the space.

MA is no different. In 619 U.S. counties that account for 4% of overall Medicare beneficiaries, no more than 10% of beneficiaries are enrolled in the privately-run Medicare plans, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation. Many of these low-penetration counties are in rural areas, and less competition means less reason to offer diversified, comprehensive coverage.

“At a national level, what we’re seeing is other places in the country where there’s at least one new benefit offered tend to be urban,” Saunders said.

Many of the add-on services require a specialty workforce — for example, at-home caregivers for long-term services and supports or drivers for non-emergency medical transportation. That makes it harder for plans to introduce them in rural areas that may already be suffering from workforce shortages, a lack of primary care physicians or health facilities, experts said.

For non-emergency medical transportation, companies like Uber and Lyft are combating lower use in rural areas with scheduled rides. Larger NEMT brokers will also partner with transportation companies in the community.

But offering supplemental benefits such as NEMT must be profitable for the insurer and its local partners, experts said. Initiatives that don’t yield a strong return on investment will likely be phased out for the next plan year.

“It’s a really difficult space to be in terms of scalability right now,” Callahan said. “It’s going to take some time.”

 

 

 

Why have Medicare costs per person slowed down?

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The 65+ population now makes up 16% of the US population, up from 11% in 1980. In response to an aging population, Medicare costs are going up. Benefits totaled $713 billion in 2018, 25% higher than in 2009, and Medicare spending accounts for a fifth of all healthcare spending as of the latest year of data.

However, while program costs are increasing, there is an interesting counter-trend – the per person cost for insuring someone through Medicare has actually decreased.

In 2018, the overall cost of Medicare per enrollee was $13,339 per year, about $30 less than it was in 2009, adjusting for inflation. That’s even as benefits across Medicare totaled $713.4 billion, $144.4 billion more than in 2009.

Why are the costs of insuring someone through Medicare going down? A combination of demographics and policy changes may point to an answer.

THE AVERAGE MEDICARE BENEFICIARY IS GETTING YOUNGER

The average age fell from 76 to 75 between 2007 and 2017Enrollment in all types of Medicare increased 29% during that period from 44.4 million to 58.5 million.

That one year drop in average age is significant for Medicare costs.

An influx of Baby Boomers enrolling in Medicare is playing a role in slowing down an increase in costs for Medicare Part A, which funds hospital stays, skilled nurse facilities, hospice and parts of home health care. In 2008, the share of Original Medicare (Part A or B) beneficiaries who were 65 to 74 years old was 43%. In 2017, 65- to 74-year-olds made up 48% of beneficiaries, the group’s highest share in the 21st century.

A 2015 Congressional Budget Office study showed that we spend 73% more on an enrollee in the 75 to 84 bracket than we do on those in the 65 to 74 bracket.

Our analysis below show how demographics factor into Medicare costs, especially age.

In 2017, there were 38,347,556 Medicare Part A enrollees, making up 100.0% of total enrollees. The federal government spent $188,093,274,340 on program payments for this group, 100.0% of the total Total Part A program payments for this type of enrollee changed from $5,052 in 2013 to $4,905 in 2017, a -2.9% change.

With Medicare Part B there were 33,562,359 enrollees, making up 100.0% of total enrollees. The federal government spent $188,886,121,627 on program payments for this group, 100.0% of the total Total Part B program payments for this type of enrollee changed from $5,287 in 2013 to $5,628 in 2017, a 6.4% change.