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.

2018 MA and PDP premium, bid amount, related information released

Important 2018 Medicare Part D prescription drug plan (PDP) and Part C Medicare Advantage (MA) information for MA organizations and PDP sponsors has been announced by CMS. The information includes the average basic premium for a PDP, the Part D national average monthly bid amount, the Part D base beneficiary premium, the income-related monthly adjustment amount (IRMAA) for enrollees in PDPs who have incomes above certain threshold amounts, the Part D regional low-income premium subsidy amounts, the MA regional preferred provider organization (PPO) benchmarks, and the MA employer group waiver plan (EGWP) regional payment rates.

Average basic PDP premium

The average premium for 2018 is based on bids submitted by drug plans for basic drug coverage for the 2018 benefit year and calculated by the independent CMS Office of the Actuary. The average basic premium for a PDP in 2018 is projected to decline to an estimated $33.50 per month. This represents a decrease of approximately $1.20 below the actual average premium of $34.70 in 2017. The decline comes despite the fact that spending for the Part D program continues to increase faster than spending for other parts of Medicare, largely driven by spending on high-cost specialty drugs.

Part D national average monthly bid amount

CMS computes the national average monthly bid amount from the applicable Part D plan bid submissions in order to calculate the base beneficiary premium. The national average monthly bid amount is a weighted average of the standardized bid amounts for each stand-alone PDP and MA prescription drug plan (MA-PD). The calculation does not include bids submitted by Medicare medical saving account plans, MA private fee-for-service plans, specialized MA plans for special needs individuals, Program of All-Inclusive Care of the Elderly (PACE) programs, any “fallback” PDPs, and plans established through reasonable cost reimbursement contracts. The reference month for the 2018 calculation was June 2017. The national average monthly bid amount for 2018 is $57.93.

Part D base beneficiary premium

The base beneficiary premium is equal to the product of the beneficiary premium percentage and the national average monthly bid amount. Part D beneficiary premiums are calculated as the base beneficiary premium adjusted by the following factors: (1) the difference between the plan’s standardized bid amount and the national average monthly bid amount; (2) an increase for any supplemental premium; (3) an increase for any late enrollment penalty; (4) a decrease for MA-PDs that apply MA A/B rebates to buy down the Part D premium; and (5) elimination or decrease with the application of the low-income premium subsidy. The Part D base beneficiary premium for 2018 is $35.02. In practice, actual premiums vary significantly from one Part D plan to another and seldom equal the base beneficiary premium.

Income-related monthly adjustment amount (IRMAA)

If a beneficiary’s “modified adjusted gross income” is greater than the specified threshold amounts ($85,000 in 2018 for a beneficiary filing an individual income tax return or married and filing a separate return, and $170,000 for a beneficiary filing a joint tax return), then the beneficiary is responsible for a larger portion of the total cost of Part D benefit coverage. Therefore, in addition to the normal Part D premium paid to a plan, such beneficiaries must pay an IRMAA to the standard base beneficiary premium of $35.02 for 2018. Beneficiaries do not pay the IRMAA to the Part D plan; instead, IRMAAs are collected by the federal government.

Part D regional low-income premium subsidy amounts

Full low-income subsidy (LIS) individuals are entitled to a premium subsidy equal to 100 percent of the premium subsidy amount. A Part D plan’s premium subsidy amount is the lesser of the plan’s premium for basic coverage or the regional low-income premium subsidy amount (LIPSA). The 2018 regional LIPSAs are available through the CMS website.

MA regional PPO benchmarks

The standardized PPO benchmark for each MA region is a blend of: (1) a statutory component consisting of the weighted average of the county capitation rates across the region for each appropriate level of star rating; and (2) a competitive, or plan-bid, component consisting of the weighted average of all of the standardized A/B bids for regional MA PPO plans in the region. For 2018, the national weights applied to the statutory and plan-bid components are 66.5 percent and 33.5 percent, respectively.

Beginning in 2017, these benchmarks reflect the average bid component of the regional benchmark excluding EGWPs. The statutory and plan-bid components of the MA regional standardized benchmarks for 19 of the 26 MA regions are available from CMS. In the remaining seven MA regions, there are no regional MA plans.

MA regional EGWP payment rates

For detailed descriptions of the payment policy finalized for 2018 MA regional EGWP payment rates see the 2018 Advance Notice and Rate Announcement. The payment rates for Regional EGWPs are in the file Regional Rates and Benchmarks 2018 which can be accessed on the CMS website.