I said last week that I was a statistics junkie. A related penchant is for reports, especially government reports. And few reports pull together more interesting facts about health care in the older population today than MedPAC, the Medicare Payment Advisory Commission. The Commission just sent its mandatory report on payment to Congress last month—it sends such a document every March, this most recent one totaling 483 pages. The report begins by telling us that total spending on health care in the US in 2015 was a stunning $3.2 trillion, or 17.8 percent of GDP. Of that, Medicare accounted for $642.2 billion, representing a rate of growth that has actually fallen in recent years. But the chapter I want to focus on today is the one on Medicare Advantage plans, those capitated, private plans that constitute an alternative to traditional Medicare.
My question is simply: how well do Medicare Advantage plans work? Do they save money? And most importantly, are they good for patients? How do clinical outcomes compare between Medicare Advantage (MA) plans and standard, fee-for-service (FFS) Medicare? What other benefits, if any, accrue to patients from enrollment in such plans?
It turns out I’ve been interested in this question for a long time because such plans have the opportunity to coordinate care, to mandate some services that are essential for the geriatric population (eg geriatric assessment for high risk patients), and to cover other important benefits (eg hearing aids and glasses). In fact, exactly 30 years ago I published an article in the Annals of Internal Medicine called, The Impact of Health Maintenance Organizations on Geriatric Care. At that time, there were only 87 plans nation-wide (compared to 3500 today). Some were doing all right—as long as the patients they enrolled were all healthy older people. Others weren’t doing so well and several folded altogether. The challenge and, I suggested, the opportunity, was to decrease the rate of hospitalization among enrollees (the main way to cut costs), which in turn would require geriatric assessment in the ambulatory setting and geriatric consultation in the inpatient setting. It would work, I cautioned, only if HMOs provided case management, podiatry, and home physical therapy. They didn’t do those things and they never took off.
After two overhauls—the early capitated plans authorized by the Tax Equity and Fiscal Responsibility ACT (TEFRA) in 1982 were reborn as “Medicare Plus Choice” thanks to the Balanced Budget Act (BBA) in 1997, and then christened “Medicare Advantage” by the Medicare Modernization Act of 2003—capitated plans are finally on the upswing. In 2016, 17.5 million Medicare beneficiaries (31 percent) enrolled in such a program. The appeal is to some degree simplicity: instead of having to purchase separate coverage for physician care (Part B Medicare) and for prescription drugs (Part D Medicare) on top of free hospital care (Part A Medicare) along with Medigap insurance to pay for most of what Parts A, B, and D do not cover, you could sign up for a Medicare Advantage Plan that does it all. In exchange for restricting which hospital(s) patients can be admitted to and which physicians they go to, MA plans also offer some of those extras I advocated years ago, such as case management, and basic vision and dental care. So how good are they?
MedPAC mainly pays attention to costs. But it does devote a few pages to quality. It relies on HEDIS measures (Healthcare Effectiveness Data and Information Set) that plans are required to report as well as the quality measures that go into the star rating system of health plans used by CMS. And what it finds, over and over, is that FFS Medicare plans and MA plans are indistinguishable, whether in terms of objective measures (percent of enrollees who get flu shots) or subjective measures (percent of enrollees who say they can get an appointment quickly or who rate the quality as high).
I’d like to see the breakdown for individuals who are frail or who have advanced illness. I’d like to learn what services such as case management or palliative care consultation MA plans use (always, often, or sometimes) for this population. And I’d like to know whether seriously ill patients are apt to dis-enroll from MA plans once they become ill, as used to be the case, presumably because they were concerned about the limitations on choice of physicians they encountered. But in the meantime, at least for the average older patient, it seems that MA plans are an attractive alternative to conventional Medicare.