Narrow MA networks reduce cost at what price?

More than one-third (35 percent) of Medicare Advantage enrollees were in “narrow” network plans, which insurers create to greater control the costs and quality of care provided to enrollees in the plan. According to a Kaiser Family Foundation (KFF) report, the size and composition of Medicare Advantage provider networks is particularly important to enrollees when they have an unforeseen medical event or serious illness. As of 2017, 19 million of the 58 million people on Medicare are enrolled in a Medicare Advantage plan, yet KFF noted that little is known about their provider networks.

Accessing this information may not be easy for enrollees and comparing networks could be especially challenging. The report noted that beneficiaries could face significant costs if they unknowingly went out-of-network. In addition to the differences across plans, the report discussed questions for policymakers about the potential for wide variations in the healthcare experience of Medicare Advantage enrollees across the country.

Findings

KFF examined data from 391 plans, offered by 55 insurers in 20 counties, which accounted for 14 percent of all Medicare Advantage enrollees nationwide in 2015. In addition to the narrow network plans, Medicare Advantage networks included less than half (46 percent) of all physicians in a county, on average. The network size also varied greatly among Medicare Advantage plans offered in a given county.

For example, while enrollees in Erie County, NY had access to 60 percent of physicians in their county, on average, 16 percent of the plans in Erie had less than 10 percent of the physicians in the county while 36 percent of the plans had more than 80 percent of the physicians in the county. Access to psychiatrists was more restricted than for any other specialty. Medicare Advantage plans had 23 percent of the psychiatrists in a county, on average; 36 percent of plans included less than 10 of psychiatrists in the county. Some plans provided relatively little choice for other specialties as well—20 percent of plans included less than 5 cardiothoracic surgeons, 18 percent of plans included less than 5 neurosurgeons, 16 percent of plans included less than 5 plastic surgeons, and 16 percent of plans included less than 5 radiation oncologists.

Conversely, broad network plans tended to have higher average premiums than narrow network plans, and this was true for both HMOs ($54 versus $4 per month) and PPOs ($100 versus $28 per month).

KFF noted that CMS should consider strategies to improve the quality of information available to current and prospective Medicare Advantage enrollees. For instance, accurate, up-to-date provider directories to inform beneficiaries as they choose plans, along with the agency’s proposal to review all Medicare Advantage networks at least every three years.

More choices and lower premiums available for MA and PDPs in CY 2018

As calendar year (CY) 2018 approaches, CMS reports that both the Medicare Advantage (MA) and the Part D prescription drug plan (PDP) programs continue to grow, currently providing care and services to more than one-third of Medicare beneficiaries. CMS also reports that the average monthly premium for an MA plan will decrease, enrollment in MA is projected to reach an all-time high, and premiums for a basic PDP will fall for the first time since 2012.

Earlier this year, CMS announced new policies in the 2018 Rate Announcement and Final Call Letter that support flexibility, efficiency, and innovative approaches that are designed to improve quality accessibility and affordability in MA and PDP programs.

MA program data

CMS data provides the following information regarding the MA program for CY 2018:

  • MA enrollment is projected to be an all-time high of 20.4 million beneficiaries, representing a 9-percent (1.7 million) increase from 18.7 million in CY 2017.
  • MA average monthly premiums will decrease by $1.91 to $30.
  • 99 percent of Medicare beneficiaries will have access to at least one MA health plan in their area.
  • More than 85 percent of Medicare beneficiaries will have access to 10 or more MA plans.
  • The average number of MA plan choices per county will increase by two plans—up to approximately 29 plan choices per county.
  • Access to popular supplemental benefits, such as dental, vision, and hearing, continues to grow in MA plans.
  • Approximately 77 percent of MA enrollees in 2017 will have the same or lower premium in 2018 if they continue in the same plan.

PDP program data

CMS projects that the average monthly premium for a basic Medicare PDP in CY 2018 will decrease by $1.20 to an estimated $33.50 per month. CMS also reports that all Medicare beneficiaries will have access to at least one stand-alone Medicare PDP.

Medicare Open Enrollment improvements

CMS is announcing several consumer-friendly improvements so that people with Medicare can make an informed choice between original fee-for-service Medicare and MA plans during open enrollment. These improvements include: (1) updating the “Medicare & You” handbook to better explain coverage options; (2) establishing a help wizard on Medicare.gov that will point to resources to help make informed health care decisions; and (3) establishing a new email communication opportunity to improve the customer service experience through important messages and reminders.

CHIP and DSHs face difficult financial roads without quick congressional move

Without congressional action, authorization for the Children’s Health Insurance Program will end on September 30, 2017, with the end of fiscal year (FY) 2017. Cuts to disproportionate share hospital (DSH) payments are also scheduled to take effect on October 1, 2017. If the authorization lapses and the cuts take effect, states will face budget shortages in their attempts to keep the CHIP program solvent and DSHs, which already operate on tight budgets, will be exposed to greater financial strain. A number of other health care related provisions are also slated to lapse on September 30, 2017, if Congress does not act, according to a Congressional Research Service (CSR) report.

Action

On September 28, 2017, the Energy and Commerce Committee announced that it would markup a bill to extend funding to the CHIP program. On the same day, members of Congress authored a letter to House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis) and Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif) expressing concerns regarding the impact of the DSH cuts and calling for congressional action.

DSH cuts

Stakeholders have made ongoing attempts to procure action from Congress to delay the DSH cuts. On September 18, nine hospital organizations urged lawmakers to further delay the start of Medicaid DSH cuts authorized by Section 2551 of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA) (P.L. 111-148) (see Hospital organizations again advocate for delay of Medicaid DSH reductions, September 19, 2017). The cuts would have gone into effect in 2014 but legislation delayed the reduction. The reduced payments were designed to account for decreases in uncompensated care, yet, DSHs warn that planned increases in coverage rates under the ACA have not been realized, exposing providers to unfair payment reductions.

CHIP

Although the impact of a delay in CHIP reauthorization will differ from state to state, a Kaiser Family Foundation analysis revealed that “states would face budget pressures, children would lose coverage, and implementation of program changes could result in increased costs and administrative burden for states” if Congress does not reauthorize the CHIP program by the end of FY 2017 (see States face budget shortages if Congress doesn’t extend CHIP funding, September 11, 2017).

Kusserow on Compliance: OIG reports the new Medicaid data system inadequate

The OIG reported that historical inadequacies in Medicaid data have hindered program integrity, research, budgeting, and policy. As a result the OIG has designated the improvement of Medicaid data as a top management HHS challenge. In 2016, the federal Government and states spent $574 billion on Medicaid, serving more than 74 million enrolled individuals. Complete, accurate, and timely Medicaid data are vital for the effective administration and oversight of the Medicaid program by states and the federal Government. The Transformed Medicaid Statistical Information System (T-MSIS) is a new data system that was developed to improve the completeness, accuracy, and timeliness of Medicaid data. The OIG provided a status update on the implementation of T-MSIS, building on its previous review of the 2013 T-MSIS pilot.

In conducting its review, the OIG analyzed the implementation status of T-MSIS using 40 states’ approved plans for data submission; and interviewed staff from CMS and 16 states about their experiences implementing T-MSIS. The OIG reported the following:

  1. States and CMS reported early implementation challenges resulted in delays with T-MSIS
  2. Technological problems and competing priorities for states’ resources caused delays
  3. The goal date for when T-MSIS will contain data from all states has been repeatedly postponed
  4. CMS expects that all states will be reporting to T-MSIS by the end of 2017
  5. 21 of 53 state programs were submitting data to T-MSIS
  6. States and CMS continue to raise concerns about completeness and reliability of the data
  7. States indicate that they are unable to report data for all the T-MSIS data elements
  8. Even with a revised data dictionary for each data element, states and CMS report concerns about states’ varying interpretations of data elements
  9. Without uniform interpretations of data elements, the data submitted will not be consistent across states, making any analysis of national trends or patterns inherently unreliable.

The OIG concluded that successfully getting all states’ data into T-MSIS requires states and CMS to prioritize T-MSIS implementation. However because of CMS’s history of delaying target dates for implementation, the OIG expressed concerned that CMS and states will delay further rather than assign the resources needed to address the outstanding challenges. The OIG further noted that without a fixed deadline, some states and CMS may not make the full implementation of T-MSIS a management priority.

Richard P. Kusserow served as DHHS Inspector General for 11 years. He currently is CEO of Strategic Management Services, LLC (SM), a firm that has assisted more than 3,000 organizations and entities with compliance related matters. The SM sister company, CRC, provides a wide range of compliance tools including sanction-screening.

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Copyright © 2017 Strategic Management Services, LLC. Published with permission.