Medicare Advantage plans, also known as Medicare HMOs, or officially as Medicare Part C, are an alternative to traditional Medicare. By enrolling in such a plan, at additional out-of-pocket cost, the Medicare recipient gets additional benefits that are characteristic of HMOs. This may include smaller (or no) copayments or deductibles, coverage for things not covered by traditional Medicare like dental care, eyeglasses, and hearing aids, and other “advantages”. There are disadvantages, also, of course, just as in other HMOs. Beyond cost, the main one is that there is a limited panel of providers – doctors and hospitals – that the person can use. This is particularly an issue for retired people who travel a lot, or may spend the winter in a warmer climate, since these HMOs’ panels are usually in a limited geographic area.
Older “closed panel” HMOs usually had only doctors and other providers employed by the HMO itself. There are fewer of these than there once were; some of them, like Kaiser, are well-known. Other HMOs are “open panel”, where any doctor can be “approved” to be part of their provider group, but many doctors may choose not to be for reasons such as lower reimbursement or onerous regulation. Thus, it is at least theoretically possible that a Medicare Advantage enrollee could receive lower quality care from the doctors and hospitals that were part of the HMO’s network than from another doctor or hospital that might not be, but would be available to traditional Medicare patients. In addition, some Medicare Advantage plans are open to “dual-eligibles”, people with both Medicare and Medicaid, with Medicaid paying the additional premium. That such programs might provide worse care than others isnot an unreasonable concern based upon other services targeted Medicaid patients (e.g., nursing homes) and other programs targeted specifically to low income people.
Thus, Medicare has developed a rating system for Medicare Advantage plans, which assigns from 1 to 5 stars based, presumably, on carefully considered and assessed quality measures. If you want a good plan, it would behoove you to choose one with a “5 star” rating. Provided, of course, one is available in your area, and provided you can afford the out-of-pocket costs, or, if you have Medicaid, it is one that Medicaid will pay for. Unsurprisingly, many plans that have enrolled Medicaid or other lower-income patients have had lower ratings, based on the outcomes of those patients. The plans argue that this is because these low-income patients are higher-risk, have more co-existing medical, mental health, and social conditions outside of the plan’s control. Others, including the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), which administers Medicare, have argued that considering these characteristics might “give a pass” to plans that provide lower-quality care to poor people. A similar rating system exists for hospitals, and similar arguments have been made. As I discussed in a blog from November 10, 2013, “Does quality of care vary by insurance status? Even Medicare? Is that OK?”, there are legitimate arguments to be made on both sides.
Now, however, according to a report in “Modern Healthcare” on October 21, 2015, CMS interim administrator Andy Slavitt and his deputy administrator who runs the Center for Medicare, Sean Cavanaugh, are considering adjusting its quality ratings for Medicare Advantage plans based upon the pre-existing risk of the patients enrolled. This is important to the plans, since Medicare can drop them if they have several years of lower-than-3-star ratings. And they don’t want to be dropped, because these plans are moneymakers, in no small part because CMS treats them, financially, better than traditional Medicare plans (a result of purposeful federal policy to try experiments to “privatize” Medicare). While new criteria have not been officially announced, and would not take effect until 2017, “The comments from Slavitt and Cavanaugh were somewhat surprising because the CMS has previously downplayed the effects of socio-economic status on the ratings. The agency described the effect as ‘small in most cases and not consistently negative’ in a summary of findings from an analysis the CMS commissioned by the RAND Corp.”
It is not only surprising, but when one considers why the (possible) change of heart is happening, it is difficult to not consider the financial and political clout of the insurance industry that sponsors these programs, and the political support that such “private” Medicare-replacement programs have. It is worth noting that CMS has not indicated that it will consider revising the ratings for hospitals, despite the fact that hospitals that care a higher proportion of poor and socially disadvantaged people face the same issues. The financial penalty for hospitals is very direct, as Medicare is not paying for readmissions which occur within 30 days. If this seems, on its face, reasonable, consider that sometimes even when the care provided in the hospital is of high quality, people go back to their homes (or long-term care facilities) where it may not be. This is sometimes a result of lack of money, lack of social support, and other stressors, but the result is that they are more likely to be readmitted. Again, CMS has argued that it would not want to encourage hospitals providing lower-quality care for poor people (which certainly would be a bad thing). But if CMS penalizes hospitals for readmissions that are outside their control, it simply encourages hospitals to not care for low-income people, or, if they are sole providers in their community, possibly even close their doors, and that would be a very bad thing. Studies that have been done indeed show that readmissions are higher when hospitals care for lower income and Medicaid patients, and that this is not the result of poorer quality care provided when those people are inpatients. (See “Aiming for Fewer Hospital U-turns: The Medicare Hospital Readmission Reduction Program” from the Kaiser Family Foundation and “Socioeconomic status and readmissions: evidence from an urban teaching hospital” in Health Affairs.)
It is important for CMS to ensure that the care provided to all Medicare recipients (indeed all people) by a hospital is not discriminatory or inequitable and that all patients have access to the care they need at the highest possible quality level. But unadjusted readmission rates are a very crude measure of quality, and it is unreasonable for CMS to expect that hospitals will be able to compensate for the impacts of poverty and lack of access to preventive care and early diagnosis and treatment. It is not unreasonable, however, for us, the American people, to expect that our government develop and help pay for programs that ensure that people’s basic needs for shelter, food, clothing, warmth and other social determinants of health, as well as post-hospital care (access to primary care, home health, and high-quality long-term care).
A single-payer health system is insufficient to address all of these needs. But it is a good start for some of them.
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