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.

House committee gives its approval to Medicare Advantage telehealth bill

A bill—The Increasing Telehealth Access in Medicare (ITAM)—aimed at improving access to Medicare Advantage telehealth services received approval from the House Ways and Means Committee on September 13, 2017. The unanimous approval came alongside the committee’s unanimous passage of a bill (H.R. 3726) to simply physician self-referral prohibitions and a bill (H.R. 3729) to continue Medicare add-on payments for ambulance services.

ITAM

The bipartisan bill, Increasing Telehealth Access in Medicare (ITAM) (H.R. 3727), introduced by Representatives Diane Black (R-Tenn) and Mike Thompson (D-Calif), seeks to encourage the use of telehealth by making it a basic benefit—rather than a supplemental service—for Medicare Advantage beneficiaries. Although critics of telehealth warn that the service presents a risk of overutilization in a fee-for-service reimbursement model, proponents of the new ITAM bill note that by pairing telehealth with Medicare advantage, that concern is “flipped on its head.”

Telehealth

A related bill, in the Senate, known as the Furthering Access to Stroke Telemedicine Act (S. 431), would permit any site exclusively administering acute care stroke treatment to be included in the list of eligible Medicare sites for telemedicine services, without regard for the site’s geographic location. In May of 2017, the Senate Finance Committee unanimously passed the Creating High-Quality Results and Outcomes Necessary to Improve Chronic (CHRONIC) Care Act (S. 870), a bill designed to expand telehealth access for Medicare beneficiaries with chronic conditions while increasing the incentives for accountable care organizations (ACOs) to provide those services.

Kusserow on Compliance: OIG reports on the Senior Medicare Patrol (SMP) program

The OIG issued a report on the 2016 performance data for the Senior Medicare Patrol (SMP) program. It is a little known program for many people designed to empower and assist Medicare beneficiaries, their families, and caregivers to prevent, detect, and report health care fraud, errors, and abuse through outreach, counseling, and education. SMPs are grant-funded projects of HHS, U.S. Administration for Community Living (ACL). They play a unique role in the fight against Medicare errors, fraud, and abuse. SMP volunteers and staff are viewed as “eyes and ears” in their communities, educating beneficiaries to be the first line of defense; a sort of ‘neighborhood watch” team. Their work involves conducting presentations to groups, exhibit at events, and work one-on-one with Medicare beneficiaries; engaging volunteers to protect elderly person’s health, finances, and medical identity while saving precious Medicare dollars is a cause that attracts civic-minded Americans; and receiving beneficiary complaints and determining whether it may involve fraud, errors, or abuse. When fraud or abuse is suspected, they make referrals to the appropriate state and federal agencies for further investigation.

The OIG used five performance measures pertaining to recoveries, savings, and cost avoidance; and another five performance measures relating to volunteer and outreach activities.  In 2016, there were 53 SMP projects that had a total of 6,126 total active team members who conducted a total of 26,220 group outreach and education events that reached an estimated 1.5 million people.   The projects also had 195,386 individual interactions with, or on behalf of, a Medicare beneficiary.  The projects reported $163,904 in cost avoidance on behalf of Medicare, Medicaid, beneficiaries, and others. Savings to beneficiaries and others totaled $53,449. Expected Medicare recoveries totaled $2,672. Further, two projects provided information to federal prosecutors that resulted in settlements totaling an additional $9.2 million in expected Medicare recoveries. There were no expected Medicaid recoveries.

Compared to 2015, the projects reported much higher amounts for cost avoidance ($163,904, up from $21,533) and somewhat higher amounts of savings to beneficiaries and others ($53,449, up from $35,059). However, the projects reported significantly lower expected Medicare recoveries ($2,672, down from $2.5 million). The projects reported no Medicaid recoveries in either year. Some common examples of suspected Medicare fraud or abuse identified by the SMP include:

  • Billing for services or supplies that were not provided
  • Providing unsolicited supplies to beneficiaries
  • Misrepresenting a diagnosis, beneficiary’s identity, service provided, or other facts
  • Prescribing or providing excessive or unnecessary tests and services
  • Violating the participating provider agreement with Medicare by refusing to bill Medicare for covered services or items and billing the beneficiary instead
  • Offering or receiving a kickback (bribe) in exchange for a beneficiary’s Medicare number
  • Requesting Medicare numbers at an educational presentation or in an unsolicited phone call
  • Routinely waiving co-insurance or deductibles

The OIG noted that the projects may not be receiving full credit for recoveries, savings, and cost avoidance attributable to their work. It is not always possible to track referrals to Medicare contractors or law enforcement from beneficiaries who have learned to detect fraud, waste, and abuse from the projects. In addition, the projects are unable to track the potentially substantial savings derived from a sentinel effect, whereby Medicare beneficiaries’ scrutiny of their bills reduces fraud and errors.

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.