Report finds flaws in proposals for premium support programs in Medicare

The Urban Institute issued a report titled “Restructuring Medicare: The False Promise of Premium Support,” in which the authors attempt to point out the potential flaws in the proposed premium support program in Medicare. The report states that the proposals attempt to model the program off of the arguably successful Medicare Advantage (MA) program, but fail to account for the features of MA that actually make it work. According to the Urban Institute, the proposals also ultimately shift the burden of the rising cost of the Medicare program to the beneficiaries, who are not in a position to shoulder the increased costs.

The proposal

Current Medicare beneficiaries can choose between traditional Medicare, where they have defined benefits covered by specified providers, or MA, where the beneficiary picks from a selection of private plans that have been approved by Medicare and charge close to traditional Medicare costs. A premium support program would allow beneficiaries a fixed-dollar contribution that they could take and apply to the insurance plan they choose in a health insurance marketplace. Beneficiaries could choose a plan that costs more than their Medicare contribution amount, but they would be responsible for paying the difference out of their own pocket. Supporters of this proposed program argue that setting a fixed cost for each beneficiary would reduce government spending and the marketplace would create competition, which would in turn drive down prices.

Burden shifting

Proponents of the premium support plan argue that without the plan, the Medicare program will run out of money, noting that the “CBO projects that between 2017 and 2047, Medicare spending will grow from 3.1 percent to 6.7 percent of GDP.” However, the report argues that the proponents of are focusing on the wrong problem. The aging-in of the baby boom generation is expected to increase Medicare enrollment by about 50 percent by 2030. By focusing on the cost of premiums and restructuring the program to force more beneficiaries to pay more out of pocket, they are shifting the burden of the increase in incoming enrollees to the beneficiaries. Medicare beneficiaries reported an annual median income of about $25,000 in 2012. “Medicare households spent nearly three times as much of their household budgets on out-of-pocket spending as non-Medicare households did” in 2012. A premium support plan could potentially increase the financial burden on those low-income beneficiaries, and force them into plans that they wouldn’t choose otherwise just to alleviate some of that financial burden.

Competitive markets

Proponents argue that forcing insurance plans to submit bids to participate similar to the way MA does would create competition and lead to lower premiums. The government contribution would then be set based on a weighted average of all of the bids for each region. However, premiums can drastically vary within a region and if premiums are higher in an area than the benchmark government contribution for the region, beneficiaries would be forced to pay the difference. The difference between earlier versions of the premium support plan and the current proposals show that the proponents have noted that there would not be an even playing field in all areas and they have attempted to come up with different ways to set the government contribution amount and increase it annually based on different factors. The MA program has an administratively set benchmark government contribution that is based on traditional Medicare spending in each area, which varies significantly compared to the bids.

Providers who bid to participate in MA are aware that there is a billing limit and they will be paid Medicare rates. The premium support plan does not take into account the impact this has on who submits bids and at what rate. In 2013, “CBO found that commercial insurance rates for inpatient hospital services were 89 percent higher than traditional Medicare rates, but Medicare Advantage plan rates for inpatient services were roughly equal to traditional Medicare’s rates.” Private insurers competing with one another in the bidding process are not likely to drop their prices down to Medicare level rates unless limits are placed on the billing of Medicare beneficiaries, similar to the limits in the MA programs. This leaves Medicare beneficiaries effectively priced out of these competing private insurance plans.

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.