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.

No rapid crossover yet of ‘narrow provider networks’ from health exchanges to employer plans

So-called “narrow provider networks,” which limit covered health providers in health plans, do not appear to be crossing over rapidly from the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act’s (ACA) (P.L. 111-148) health exchanges into employment-based health plans, according to a new analysis by the nonpartisan Employee Benefit Research Institute (EBRI) and Mark A. Hall, J.D., Wake Forest University, with support from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s (RWJF) Changes in Health Care Financing & Organization (HCFO) Initiative.

“Narrow networks,” which have grown in the individual market exchanges under the ACA, are characterized by offering considerably fewer health providers than is typical in the group market and in which providers are included primarily based on price discounting.

“Narrow networks are receiving renewed attention, because of their increasing prominence in the ACA’s individual marketplace health exchanges,” said Paul Fronstin, director of EBRI’s Health Education and Research Program, and co-author of the report.

“So far, this has not translated strongly to private-sector employers. But there are signs that employers’ interest in narrow networks may grow in the near future.”

To measure what is happening with narrow networks in employer health plans, the researchers conducted a literature review, interviews with HR directors at 11 large employers, and field research by health policy experts in 11 states. Among the major findings:

  • Despite the increasing prominence of narrow networks in the ACA individual (nongroup) marketplace exchanges, this renewed interest so far has not translated strongly to employers. For example, in 2016, only 7 percent of employers with health plans offered a narrow network. Also, in 2014, employers ranked narrow networks the least effective among several strategies to manage health insurance costs.
  • Reasons employers give for their subdued interest include absence of track record showing sustained (year-over-year) savings; concern about antagonizing workers; spotty availability of narrow networks, especially in rural areas; greater interest currently in other cost-savings strategies; and reluctance to adopt substantial changes in benefit structures until the future of the ACA’s so-called “Cadillac tax” is resolved.
  • There are signs that employers’ interest in narrow networks may grow in the near future.
  • More than a third of employers with 5,000 or more workers now offer some type of alternative network, including tiered or “high-performance” networks. Field reports indicate increasing adoption of narrow networks by both large and small employers particularly in urban markets around the country.
  • Where narrow networks are offered, their adoption could be increased by giving workers stronger financial incentives to consider them. Offering workers a fixed (“defined”) contribution that does not vary by choice of plan is one way to confer such incentives, and private exchanges are a way to offer workers a broader range of choice. Currently, however, neither defined contributions nor private exchanges are widely used by employers.