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.

Atlanta pain clinic feels financial hurt after allegedly bending Medicare rules

Atlanta Medical Clinic (AMC) and its owner agreed to pay $250,000 to settle False Claims Act (FCA) (31 U.S.C. §3729 et seq.) allegations that the clinic billed Medicare for services performed by a suspended physician and for administering drugs that were not approved by the FDA.

Suspended physician

An AMC physician was suspended from the Medicare program in June 2013 for making false statements regarding his criminal history. Despite the suspension, AMC allegedly continued to claim and receive payment for medical services rendered by the physician. Because of the suspension, none of those services were eligible for Medicare reimbursement and, therefore, reimbursement claims related to those services constituted false claims. AMC allegedly circumvented the suspension by submitting claims for services performed by the physician as though they were performed by another physician.

Unapproved drugs

AMC also, allegedly, violated the FCA by seeking and obtaining reimbursement for a Canadian, non-FDA approved knee treatment drug—Orthovisc®. The alleged claims are false because Medicare does not cover the cost of foreign, non-FDA approved treatments.

CMS moves ahead with new Medicare cards

CMS is moving forward with its fraud prevention initiative to remove Social Security numbers from Medicare cards. New cards issued under the program will omit the Social Security numbers of Medicare beneficiaries and, instead, use a unique, randomly-assigned number called a Medicare Beneficiary Identifier (MBI). The new cards will be shipped by CMS beginning April 2018.

Transition

The MBI will be based upon the Health Insurance Claim Number (HICN) currently used on Medicare cards. The use of an MBI in place of a Social Security number is designed to reduce both identity theft and the illegal use of Medicare benefits. The MBI will allow providers to identify beneficiaries using secure access tools. To ensure a smooth transition, there will be a 21-month overlap period where either the MBI or the HICN will be effective for looking up a beneficiary. As part of the transition, beneficiaries will be instructed how to safely and securely destroy their existing Medicare and keep their MBI confidential. The new cards will have no impact on the benefits beneficiaries receive.

Identify theft

The new Medicare card initiative was brought upon by requirements contained in the Medicare Access and CHIP Reauthorization Act of 2015 (MACRA) (P.L. 114-10). The initiative is important in light of the increase in the occurrence of identity theft. Between 2012 and 2014, identify thefts among individuals 65 and older increased from 2.1 million to 2.6 million. According to CMS, two-thirds of identity theft victims report a direct financial loss.

Adoption of annual wellness visits increasing at a moderate rate

Trends in annual wellness visits (AMV) indicate a modest increase in the percentage of Medicare beneficiaries receiving an AWV from 7.5 percent in 2011 to 15.6 percent in 2014, according to a study of the trends related to annual wellness visits (AWV) published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) on April 19, 2017. The study found that “adoption of AWV was concentrated in ACOs [accountable care organizations] and among certain PCPs [primary care physicians] and regions of the country.”

Addition of the AMV to Medicare benefits

The AMV was added to Medicare benefits by section 4103 of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA) (P.L. 111-148) as part of its preventive care measures for Medicare beneficiaries. Medicare pays for 100 percent of the visit. The AWV became effective in January 1, 2011. According to the study, the AWV “has been promoted as a way for physicians and other clinicians to encourage evidence-based preventive care and mitigate health risks in aging patients.”

Study findings

Among the results of the study are the following findings: (1) white individuals, urban residents, and those from higher income areas and with one or two comorbidities were more likely to obtain an AWV; (2) beneficiaries that received an AWV in previous years were more likely to receive an AWV; (3) 44.4 percent of all AMVs had a concurrent problem-based visit; (4) most AMVs were performed by primary care physicians; and (5) physician practice groups or regions using more AWVs did not deliver more health care overall. The researchers also noted that beneficiaries reported unexpected out-of-pocket costs when AWVs are billed concurrently billed with problem-based visits.

The study conclusions

The study concluded that the decision to perform an AWV was primarily driven by practice factors and noted that this conclusion aligned with reports of physicians and health systems having incorporated templates, workflows, or dedicated nonphysician health care professionals to complete, document, and bill for AWVs. According to the researchers, the study had limitations, including: (1) whether AWVs increase the use of preventive care or mitigate health risks, (2) claims data could not show how often AWVs were performed by nonphysicians under physician supervision, and (3) the extent to which AWVs represent delivery of additional visits versus substitution for other visits..