The Medicare Advisory Payment Commission recommends a higher-than-current-law fee-for-service payment update in 2024 for acute care hospitals and positive payment updates for clinicians paid under the physician fee schedule. It recommends reductions in base payment rates for skilled nursing facilities, home health agencies and inpatient rehabilitation facilities.
MedPAC gave Congress recommendations on payment rates in both traditional fee-for-service and Medicare Advantage for 2024, satisfying a legislative mandate comparing per enrollee spending in both programs.
MedPAC estimates that Medicare spends 6% more for MA enrollees than it would spend if those enrollees remained in fee-for-service Medicare.
In their March 2023 Report to the Congress: Medicare Payment Policy, commissioners said they were acutely aware of how providers’ financial status and patterns of Medicare spending varied in 2020 and 2021 due to COVID-19 and were also aware of higher and more volatile cost increases.
However, they’re statutorily charged to evaluate available data to assess whether Medicare payments are sufficient to support the efficient delivery of care and ensure access to care for Medicare’s beneficiaries, commissioners said.
FEE-FOR-SERVICE RATE RECOMMENDATIONS
MedPAC’s payment update recommendations are based on an assessment of payment adequacy, beneficiaries’ access to and use of care, the quality of the care, the supply of providers, and their access to capital, the report said. As well as higher payments for acute care hospitals and clinicians, MedPAC recommends positive rates for outpatient dialysis facilities.
It recommends providing additional resources to acute care hospitals and clinicians who furnish care to Medicare beneficiaries with low incomes. It also recommends a positive payment update in 2024 for hospice providers concurrent with wage adjusting and reducing the hospice aggregate Medicare payment cap by 20%.
It recommends negative updates, which are reductions in base payment rates, for skilled nursing facilities, home health agencies and inpatient rehabilitation facilities.
For acute care hospitals paid under the inpatient prospective payment system, commissioners recommend adding $2 billion to current disproportionate share and uncompensated care payments and distributing the entire amount using a commission-developed “Medicare SafetyNet Index” to direct funding to those hospitals that provide care to large shares of low-income Medicare beneficiaries.
This recommendation got pushback from America’s Essential Hospitals.
“We appreciate the Medicare Payment Advisory Commission’s desire to define safety net hospitals for targeted support, but the commission’s Medicare safety net index (MSNI) could have the perverse effect of shifting resources away from hospitals that need support the most,” said SVP of Policy and Advocacy Beth Feldpush. “The MSNI methodology fails to account for all the nation’s safety net hospitals by overlooking uncompensated care and care provided to non-Medicare, low-income patients – especially Medicaid beneficiaries. Any practical definition of a safety net provider must consider the care of Medicaid and uninsured patients, yet the MSNI misses on both counts.”
Feldpush urged policymakers to develop a federal designation of safety net hospitals and to reject the MSNI.
“Further, policymaking for these hospitals should supplement, rather than redistribute, existing Medicare DSH funding, which reflects a congressionally sanctioned, well-established methodology,” she said.
Physicians and clinicians
For clinicians, the commission recommends that Medicare make targeted add-on payments of 15% to primary care clinicians and 5% to all other clinicians for physician fee schedule services provided to low-income Medicare beneficiaries.
The American Medical Association commended MedPAC, but also said that an update tied to just 50% of the Medicare Economic Index would cause physician payment to chronically fall even further behind increases in the cost of providing care. AMA president Dr. Jack Resneck Jr. urged Congress to pass legislation providing for an annual inflation-based payment update.
MedPAC has long championed a physician payment update tied to the Medicare Economic Index, Resneck said. Physicians have faced the cost of inflation, the COVID-19 pandemic and growing expenses to run medical practices, jeopardizing access to care, particularly in rural and underserved areas.
“Not only have Medicare payments failed to respond adequately, but physicians saw a 2% payment reduction for 2023, creating an additional challenge at a perilous moment,” Resneck said. “As one of the only Medicare providers without an inflationary payment update, physicians have waited a long time for this change. When adjusted for inflation, Medicare physician payment has effectively declined 26% from 2001 to 2023. These increasingly thin or negative operating margins disproportionately affect small, independent, and rural physician practices, as well as those treating low-income or other historically minoritized or marginalized patient communities. Our workforce is at risk just when the health of the nation depends on preserving access to care.”
The AMA and 134 other health organizations wrote to congressional leaders urging for a full inflation-based update to the Medicare Physician Fee Schedule.
MGMA’s SVP of Government Affairs Anders Gilberg said, “Today’s MedPAC report recommends Congress provide an inflationary update to the Medicare base payment rate for physician and other health professional services of 50% of the Medicare Economic Index (MEI), an estimated annual increase of 1.45% for 2024. In the best of times such a nominal increase would not cover annual medical practice cost increases. In the current inflationary environment, it is grossly insufficient.”
MGMA urged Congress to pass legislation to provide an annual inflationary update based on the full MEI.
Ambulatory surgical centers and long-term care hospitals
Previously, the commission considered an annual update recommendation for ambulatory surgical centers (ASCs). However, because Medicare does not require ASCs to submit data on the cost of treating beneficiaries, the commissioners said they had no new significant data to inform an ASC update recommendation for 2024.
Commissioners also previously considered an annual update recommendation for long-term care hospitals (LTCHs). But as the number of cases that qualify for payment under Medicare’s prospective payment system for LTCHs has fallen, they said they have become increasingly concerned about small sample sizes in the analyses of this sector.
“As a result, we will no longer provide an annual payment adequacy analysis for LTCHs but will continue to monitor that sector and provide periodic status reports,” they said in the report.
Commissioners said that overall, indicators point to an increasingly robust MA program. In 2022, the MA program included over 5,200 plan options, enrolled about 29 million Medicare beneficiaries (49% of eligible beneficiaries), and paid MA plans $403 billion (not including Part D drug plan payments).
In 2023, the average Medicare beneficiary has a choice of 41 plans offered by an average of eight organizations. Further, the level of rebates that fund extra benefits reached a record high of about $2,350 per enrollee, on average.
Medicare payments for these extra benefits – which are not covered for beneficiaries in FFS – have more than doubled since 2018. For 2023, the average MA plan bid to provide Medicare Part A and Part B benefits was 17% less than FFS Medicare would be projected to spend for those enrollees.
However, the benefits from MA’s lower cost relative to FFS spending are shared exclusively by the companies sponsoring MA plans and MA enrollees (in the form of extra benefits). The taxpayers and FFS Medicare beneficiaries (who help fund the MA program through Part B premiums) do not realize any savings from MA plan efficiencies.
Medicare should not continue to overpay MA plans, MedPAC said. Over the past few years, the commission has made recommendations to address coding intensity, replace the quality bonus program and establish more equitable benchmarks, which are used to set plan payments, the report said. All of these would stem Medicare’s excess payments to MA plans, helping to preserve Medicare’s solvency and sustainability while maintaining beneficiary access to MA plans and the extra benefits they can provide.
Medicare’s cost-based reinsurance continues to be the largest and fastest growing component of Part D spending, totaling $52.4 billion, or about 55% of the total, according to the report.
As a result, the financial risk that plans bear, as well as their incentives to control costs, has declined markedly. The value of the average basic benefit that is paid to plans through the capitated direct subsidy has plummeted in recent years.
In 2023, direct subsidy payments averaged less than $2 per member per month, compared with payments of nearly $94 per member, per month, for reinsurance. To help address these issues, in 2020 the commission recommended substantial changes to Part D’s benefit design to limit enrollee out-of-pocket spending; realign plan and manufacturer incentives to help restore the role of risk-based, capitated payments; and eliminate features of the current program that distort market incentives.
In 2022, Congress passed the Inflation Reduction Act, which included numerous policies related to prescription drugs. One such provision is a redesign of the Part D benefit with many similarities to the commission’s recommended changes.
The changes adopted in the IRA will be implemented over the next several years, and are likely to alter the drug-pricing landscape, commissioners said.