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.

7 healthcare takeaways from Senate Democrats’ newly passed $739B landmark bill

With a 51-50 vote, Senate Democrats passed a sweeping $739 billion bill Aug. 7 that furthers some of the largest changes to healthcare in years.

Titled the Inflation Reduction Act, the bill touches energy, tax reform and healthcare. The House is expected to take it up Aug. 12, with Democrats aiming to approve it and send it to President Joe Biden’s desk.  

Here are seven healthcare takeaways from the 755-page bill

Drug pricing

1. For the first time, Medicare would be allowed to negotiate the price of prescription medicines with manufacturers. Negotiation powers will apply to the price of a limited number of drugs that incrementally increases over the next seven years. Ten drugs will be eligible for negotiations beginning in 2026; eligibility expands to 15 drugs in 2027 and 20 by 2029

2. The HHS secretary will provide manufacturers of selected drugs with a written initial offer that contains HHS’ proposal for the maximum fair price of the drug and reasoning used to calculate that offer. Manufacturers will have 30 days to either accept HHS’ offer or propose a counteroffer.  

3. Members of Medicare Part D prescription drug plan would see their out-of-pocket costs for prescription drugs capped at $2,000 per year, with the option to break that amount into monthly payments, beginning in 2025.

4. Democrats lost on a provision to place a $35 cap on insulin for Americans covered by private health plans. The provision to cap insulin at $35 dollars for Medicare enrollees passed by a of 57-43. 

5. Drug companies will be required to rebate back price differences to Medicare if they raise prices higher than the rate of inflation, coined an “inflation rebate.”

6. The legislation makes all vaccines covered under Medicare Part D free to beneficiaries with no deductibles, co-insurance or cost-sharing, starting in 2023. 

Tax subsidies 

7. The legislation extends the Affordable Care Act’s federal health insurance subsidies, now set to expire at the end of the year, through 2025. Democrats say the extension will prevent an estimated 3.4 million Americans from losing health coverage.

Democrats reach deal on healthcare and climate bill

https://mailchi.mp/ff342c47fa9e/the-weekly-gist-july-22-13699925?e=d1e747d2d8

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and Senator Joe Manchin (D-WV) surprised everyone Wednesday night by announcing they reached a deal on a legislation package called the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022. The deal is a revival of portions of President Biden’s “Build Back Better” plan, more narrowly scoped to meet the demands of Sen. Manchin.

On the healthcare front, the bill would allow Medicare to negotiate prices for certain prescription drugs starting in 2026, and limit seniors’ annual out-of-pocket spending on Part D prescriptions to $2,000. It also includes $64B to extend the enhanced tax credits for Affordable Care Act exchange plans through 2025, avoiding health plan rate increases for millions of Americans. 

The Gist: While several Senate Democrats have announced support for the legislation, the party can’t afford any holdouts given its razor-thin majority. If all Democrats get on board, this legislation will fulfill the party’s longtime promise to lower prescription drug prices. But it stops well short of other major healthcare measures being discussed last year, including expanding Medicare coverage to include dental, vision, and hearing coverage, and closing the so-called Medicaid coverage gap. 

Congress pitches bill to warn Medicare beneficiaries of late enrollment fees

A bill introduced in Congress would require the government to warn adults 60 and older of penalties associated with late Medicare enrollment, according to a March 2 CNBC report. 

The move targets adults before they reach the Medicare-eligible age of 65, especially those who are not auto-enrolled in coverage through Social Security. The number of beneficiaries who must manually enroll in coverage at age 65 has increased 32 percentage points to 40 percent since 2008, according to CNBC

The bill specifically targets Medicare Part B, which hits enrollees with a penalty equal to 10 percent of the standard premium for each 12 months they should have been enrolled in. The penalties last a lifetime and adjust with premiums. 

Roughly 776,200 enrollees face penalties in 2020. Based on current premiums, monthly penalties would be about $46. 

Medicare Part D also has a penalty, but its rate is 1 percent of premiums paid, or about 33 cents based on current rates.

CMS releases 2023 Medicare Advantage and Part D Advance Notice

https://www.healthcarefinancenews.com/news/cms-releases-2023-medicare-advantage-and-part-d-advance-notice

The agency’s end goal for Medicare Advantage is to match CMS’ vision for its programs as a whole, with an emphasis on health equity.

On Wednesday, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services released proposed payment policy changes for Medicare Advantage and Part D drug programs in 2023 that are meant to create more choices and provide affordable options for consumers. 

The Calendar Year 2023 Advance Notice for Medicare Advantage and Part D plans is open to public comment for 30 days. This year, CMS is soliciting input through a health equity lens on the approach to some future potential changes.

The agency’s end goal for Medicare Advantage is to match CMS’ vision for its programs as a whole, which Administrator Chiquita Brooks-LaSure said is “to advance health equity; drive comprehensive, person-centered care; and promote affordability and the sustainability of the Medicare program.”

CMS is proposing an effective growth rate of 4.75% and an overall expected average change in revenue of 7.98%, following a 4.08% revenue increase planned for 2022.

WHAT’S THE IMPACT?

CMS is requesting input on a potential change to the MA and Part D Star Ratings that would take into account how well each plan advances health equity. 

The agency is also requesting comment on including a quality measure in MA and Part D Star Ratings that would assess how often plans are screening for common health-related social needs, such as food insecurity, housing insecurity and transportation problems.

The Health Equity Index has been tasked with creating more transparency on how MA plans care for disadvantaged beneficiaries. 

Additionally, CMS is requesting input on considerations for assessing the impact of using sub-state geographic levels of rate setting for enrollees with end-stage renal disease, particularly input regarding the impact of MA payment on care provided to rural and urban underserved populations and how such payment changes may impact health equity.

Other areas in which CMS is soliciting input include a variety of payment updates, a new measure concept to assess whether and how MA plans are transforming care by engaging in value-based models with providers’ and updates to risk-adjustment models to continue to pay appropriately for people enrolled in MA and Part D plans.

Public comments on the Advance Notice must be submitted by March 4. The Medicare Advantage and Part D payment policies for 2023 will be finalized in the 2023 Rate Announcement, which will be published no later than April 4.

REACTION

The proposed rule has already elicited reaction from various organizations, including Better Medicare Alliance.

“As we continue to review the Advance Notice in further detail, we appreciate that CMS has offered a thoughtful proposal that will help ensure stability for the millions of diverse seniors and individuals with disabilities who count on Medicare Advantage,” Mary Beth Donahue, president and CEO of the Better Medicare Alliance, said, adding that the proposal furthers the shared goal of improving health equity.

Medicare Advantage has proven its worth for seniors and taxpayers – providing lower costs, meaningful benefits that address social determinants of health, better outcomes and greater efficiencies for the Medicare dollar,” she said. “A stable rate for 2023 ensures this work can continue. On behalf of our 170 Ally organizations and over 600,000 beneficiary advocates, we applaud CMS for putting seniors first by issuing an Advance Notice that protects coverage choices, advances health equity and preserves affordability for beneficiaries.”

AHIP also responded, with President and CEO Matt Eyles pointing out that for 2022 the average Medicare Advantage monthly premium dropped to $19, down more than 10% since 2021.

“We agree that MA plans play an essential role in improving health equity and addressing the social determinants of health that impact millions of seniors and people with disabilities,” he said. “We support CMS soliciting input on ways to advance these important goals.

“Medicare Advantage enjoys strong bipartisan support because it provides America’s seniors and people with disabilities with access to affordable, high-quality healthcare services,” said Eyles. “We will continue to review the 2023 rate notice and look forward to providing constructive feedback to CMS during the comment period.”

THE LARGER TREND

CMS’ Advance Notice follows a recent congressional letter in which 346 bipartisan members of Congress declared support for Medicare Advantage and urged the agency “to provide a stable rate and policy environment” for the program in 2023.

A December 2021 Morning Consult poll showed that 94% of Medicare Advantage beneficiaries are satisfied with their coverage, while 93% believe that protecting MA should be a priority of the Biden administration.

The prescription drug pricing paradox

Net prices of brand-name drugs have increased significantly over the last decade. But savings from generics have driven average prescription prices down in Medicare and Medicaid, Axios’ Caitlin Owens writes about a new analysis by the Congressional Budget Office.

Why it matters: The analysis reiterates that the generic market is largely working as it’s intended to.

By the numbers: The average net price of a prescription fell from $57 in 2009 to $50 in 2018 in Medicare Part D, and from $63 to $48 in Medicaid.

  • The drop is largely attributable to the growing use of generics, which jumped from 75% to 90% of all prescriptions nationally during that time frame. The average price for a generic prescription also fell in both programs.
  • But the average net brand-name prescription price more than doubled in Part D and increased by 50% in Medicaid, per the analysis. These increases were driven by higher launch prices for new drugs and price increases for drugs already on the market.

Medicare, Medicare Advantage enrollees have comparable healthcare experiences

https://www.healthcarefinancenews.com/news/medicare-medicare-advantage-enrollees-have-comparable-healthcare-experiences

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.

GOP targets Dems with “Medicscare” ads

https://www.axios.com/gop-targets-dems-with-medicscare-ads-abc27c8c-f2d2-4e3d-9d4b-40a5552d4444.html

Conservative and industry groups are trying to whip up opposition to President Biden’s massive social spending plan by warning it will imperil Medicare benefits, Axios has learned.

Why it matters: “Medicscare” is a well-worn political tactic precisely because it can be effective. For Democrats, there’s zero room for defections against the $3.5 trillion proposal if they want to pass the bill.

What’s happening: Senior citizens in Arizona, represented by Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.), potential Democratic holdout, have started receiving large boxes labeled “Medical Shipment. Please open immediately.”

  • Inside, they find an empty prescription drug bottle and literature warning of Democratic plans to “ration Medicare Part D.” That’s a reference to a budget reconciliation bill provision that would allow the government to negotiate Medicare reimbursement rates for prescription drugs.
  • The mailers are the work of the Common Sense Leadership Fund, a Republican-aligned advocacy group. The mailers in Arizona specifically target Sen. Mark Kelly (D-Ariz.), who’s up for re-election next year.
  • CSLF spokesman Colin Reed told Axios the group is mailing the packages to seniors and unaffiliated voters in Arizona and New Hampshire, where the group is targeting Sen. Maggie Hassan (D-N.H.), who’s also up for re-election.

Another nonprofit advocacy group, A Healthy Future, is targeting the prescription drug portions of the bill in a digital ad campaign aimed at key Democratic votes.

  • The group has spent nearly $300,000 on GoogleFacebook and Instagram ads aimed at Reps. Frank Pallone, Tom Malinowski and Andy Kim, all Democrats from New Jersey — where the drug industry has a huge economic footprint.
  • “This is a prescription for disaster,” its ads say. They urge calls to Congress to “oppose cutting Medicare to pay for the $3.5 trillion spending plan.”
  • It’s not clear who’s behind A Healthy Future — the group did not respond to inquiries from Axios — but its messaging on reconciliation and past policy fights track with drug industry priorities.

The big picture: Democrats have turned to drug pricing reforms to offset part of the legislation’s massive price tag, potentially paying for as much as $600 billion in new spending.

  • That’s drawn intense opposition from the pharmaceutical industry — and lawmakers who enjoy the industry’s backing.
  • If it’s included in the final version of the legislation, it could be a major sticking point for groups looking to peel off wobbly Democratic votes.
  • Sinema has already said she opposes the effort.

Yes, but: The Mediscare tactic is larger than just the drug pricing fight. Americans for Prosperity, the Koch-backed conservative advocacy group, is running its own ads warning of much larger impending Medicare cuts.

  • It says the spending bill’s efforts to expand Medicare will imperil the program itself.
  • “Medicare is set to go bankrupt in about four years,” the ads claim. “Congress is acting irresponsibly and putting the program in jeopardy.”
  • AFP’s ads have touched on drug pricing as well, which it’s dubbed “a 95% drug tax to fund $3.5 trillion in wasteful spending.”

Medicare spending on advertised drugs

Medicare beneficiaries spent more on advertised drugs, study finds - Axios

Prescription drugs with some of the highest Medicare spending also had the highest level of direct-to-consumer advertising, a recently-released GAO report found.

By the numbers: The GAO found the Medicare program and its beneficiaries spent nearly $324 billion on prescription drugs advertised to beneficiaries and other consumers between 2016 and 2018.

This amount is more than half (58%) of total Medicare Parts B and D spending on drugs during that time, the most recent data available.

  • Seven of the top 25 drugs in Part D and two of the top 25 drugs in Part B with the highest spending were also among the top 25 drugs with the highest consumer advertising spending that year.
  • For example, Trulicity, as well as Lyrica, Eliquis and Humira were among the top 25 drugs in Part D and direct-to-consumer advertising spending.
  • Keytruda and Botox were among the top 24 drugs in Part B and direct-to-consumer advertising spending.

Alzheimer’s drug presents Democrats’ new policy dilemma

New Alzheimer's drug could be 'devastating' for Medicare - POLITICO

With a $56,000-a-year price tag, Biogen’s newly approved Alzheimer’s drug Aduhelm is dovetailing into the debate on Capitol Hill over how to lower prescription drug prices.

Why it matters: Democrats may be positioning themselves to push policy measures that assign value to drugs and then price them accordingly — a huge potential blow to the pharmaceutical industry.

To truly address its launch price, policymakers have to grapple with big questions the U.S. system currently avoids: How should we determine the value of a drug, and who gets to make that decision?

  • President Biden proposed giving an independent review board the power to determine the Medicare rate for new drugs that don’t have any competition.
  • Democrats’ most prominent drug legislation is a House bill that gives Medicare the power to negotiate drug prices.
  • Sen. Ron Wyden, the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, recently called out Aduhelm by name in a document outlining the principles that will guide the Senate’s drug pricing bill, a hint that the Senate’s legislation will take a different direction than the House’s.

The bottom line: “Any kind of process for valuing new drugs like Aduhelm take you immediately into the controversial quagmire of how to quantify improvements in quality of life for people,” said KFF’s Larry Levitt.