RADAR on Medicare Advantage

MAOs Anticipate All-In Pay Increase of 8.5%, Await Final Rule

Perhaps the biggest headline from the largely uneventful 2023 final rate notice for Medicare Advantage and Part D plans is that they will, on average, receive a slightly higher-than-anticipated pay bump next year. Also, risk scores will not be reduced by any more than the statutory minimum adjustment of 5.9%. However, MAOs are still waiting on the final version of an MA and Part D rule containing some provisions that could impact 2023 bids, and sources at press time suggested its release was imminent.

With the April 4 release of the 2023 Rate Announcement, CMS finalized most aspects of its rate proposal for next year but increased the effective growth rate from 4.75% to 4.88%, bringing the expected average change in revenue to 8.50% — one of the highest updates in recent history. CMS maintained an estimated risk score coding trend of 3.5% and a fee-for-service normalization factor — which is used to offset the trend in risk scores and keep the FFS risk score at the same average level over time — of -0.81%. CMS also said it would continue to apply an across-the-board adjustment of 5.9% to offset the effects of higher levels of coding intensity in MA relative to FFS Medicare. That coding intensity adjustment generated much discussion in comment letters on the Advance Notice.

Amid Legal Disputes, Anthem’s NYC Contract Faces Second Delay

Anthem, Inc.’s pending contract to serve retired New York City workers and their dependents — which would have nearly doubled the insurer’s Medicare Advantage Employer Group Waiver Plan (EGWP) enrollment — is in peril. Just days before its planned start, the city’s comptroller refused to register the proposed contract and turned it back to Mayor Eric Adams (D) for a revised cost estimate, putting the already delayed transition to a retiree MA plan on hold.

“Due to the legal and budgetary uncertainties that remain while litigation over the City’s contract with Anthem Insurance Companies continues, the Comptroller’s office does not have sufficient information to register the proposed Medicare Advantage Plan contract at this time,” New York City Comptroller Brad Lander explained in a March 30 statement posted to the comptroller’s website. Subsequently, the city’s Office of Labor Relations posted that the transition to the NYC Medicare Advantage Plus Plan would not be implemented as of April 1 as planned and that all retirees “will remain in their current plans until further notice.”

Stakeholders Seek Ways to Accelerate Risk Sharing in MA

Although Medicare Advantage is outpacing other payer types in the move from volume to value, there are still ways the program could hasten the shift to value-based care, experts agreed during a recent panel of the AHIP 2022 National Conference on Health Policy and Government Programs. These range from the increased use of Z-codes to document social determinants of health to the adoption of a Star Ratings measure that would influence more risk sharing between MA organizations and their providers.

According to the Health Care Payment & Learning Action Network survey, which is conducted in partnership with AHIP and the Blue Cross Blue Shield Association, 58% of MA payments to providers in 2020 were through an Alternative Payment Model (APM) such as the Shared Savings Program or an episodic/bundled care payment model, and 29.3% of such payments were for a risk-bearing arrangement. That’s compared with nearly 43% of payments through APMs in Traditional Medicare and roughly 35% in both commercial and Medicaid plans.

Medicare Advantage’s Two-Sided Risk Model Associated With Reduced Acute Care Use

Value-based payment models can significantly lower acute care usage among Medicare beneficiaries, suggested a study of nearly 500,000 Medicare Advantage members published last month in JAMA Network Open. The study, which analyzed data collected between December 2017 and January 2019, was led and reviewed by the Humana Healthcare Research Human Subject Protection Office. (Humana is the second-largest MA insurer in the U.S). MA beneficiaries participating in two-sided risk models had lower rates of hospitalizations, observation stays and emergency department visits compared with fee-for-service (FFS) Medicare enrollees. This effect was particularly striking in avoidable acute care use — the two-sided risk model was associated with a 15.6% reduction in avoidable hospitalizations. Researchers noted a lack of significant differences between FFS and upside-only risk models, which “suggests that downside financial risk may play a key role in effective value-based payment arrangements.”

CMMI Director Shares Vision for More Physician Accountability

Aligning with the Biden administration’s goal of improving health equity, the CMS Center for Medicare and Medicaid Innovation (CMMI) last year unveiled a “strategy refresh” that included health equity as a key objective in testing models of care for Medicare and Medicaid beneficiaries. Another strategic goal was to increase the number of beneficiaries in a care relationship where the provider is accountable for quality and total cost of care, with the objective of having all Medicare beneficiaries aligned with accountable entities by 2030.

Addressing a few recent changes to existing models, CMMI Director Elizabeth Fowler, Ph.D., said the agency’s goal in redesigning the Global and Professional Direct Contracting (GPDC) Model was to reorient it toward provider participants and respond to feedback from stakeholders. The model had been criticized for furthering the privatization of Medicare and allowing for-profit entities to manage fee-for-service (FFS) Medicare beneficiaries without their full knowledge and consent.

News Briefs: CMS Will Now Cover and Pay for Over-the-Counter COVID-19 tests for Medicare Enrollees

Effective April 4 and through the end of the COVID-19 public health emergency, Medicare will cover and pay for over-the-counter COVID-19 tests at no cost to people with Medicare Part B, including those enrolled in Medicare Advantage plans. Through the new initiative, beneficiaries can obtain up to eight tests per month from participating pharmacies and health care providers, CMS said on April 4. The agency noted that this is the first time that Medicare has covered an over-the-counter self-administered test at no cost to beneficiaries.

UnitedHealth Group on March 29 said it will spend approximately $6 billion in cash to acquire LHC Group, Inc., a home health care company. If the deal goes as planned, LHC will be folded into UnitedHealth’s Optum division; the companies expect to complete the transaction in the second half of the year. The move will make UnitedHealth a major player in home care and hospice care, positioning it alongside rival Humana Inc., which purchased Kindred at Home last year.

MA Stakeholders Take Issue With Bevy of Risk-Related Proposals

From payment related to the growing number of Medicare Advantage enrollees with end-stage renal disease (ESRD) to the proposed exclusion of 2020 data from risk score assumptions, several commenters responding to the 2023 preliminary rate notice questioned various factors that will be used to determine MA plan reimbursement next year. And while AHIP and other MA stakeholders voiced strong support for CMS keeping the coding intensity adjustment at the statutory minimum for 2023, the Medicare Payment Advisory Commission (MedPAC) took the opportunity to reiterate its contention that MA organizations are overpaid and that the adjustment does not adequately account for the differences in coding between MAOs and fee-for-service (FFS) Medicare.

In the 2023 Advance Notice for MA and Part D plans, CMS said it intended to continue to apply an across-the-board adjustment of 5.9% — the statutory minimum — to offset the effects on MA risk scores of higher levels of coding intensity in MA relative to FFS. AHIP, in its March 4 letter to CMS, said it strongly supports retaining that overall risk score reduction but asked for more detail around CMS’s proposal to exclude 2020 data in its annual “FFS normalization” adjustment, its assumption that 2023 FFS risk scores would return to pre-pandemic trends, how it will incorporate 2021 utilization data into the normalization factor for 2024, and how CMS arrived at the MA risk score trend of 3.5% for 2023.

With AEP Switching Low, MAOs Must Monitor Member Experience

Medicare beneficiaries have more plan choices than ever before, in addition to a dizzying array of supplemental benefits and increased PPO options, but plan switching has stalled, according to a new study from Deft Research. That leaves Medicare Advantage plans to consider whether low switching is largely due to members feeling satisfied with their current coverage or overwhelmed with the sheer amount of information being presented to them, observed industry experts during a recent webinar hosted by Rebellis Group LLC. As a result, members’ experience during the Annual Election Period may warrant a closer look as plans think about their strategy for the next AEP.

In its 2022 Medicare Shopping and Switching Study, Deft observed an overall switching rate of 11% during the most recent AEP. That’s compared with 12% seen in 2021 and 23% in 2015, reported George Dippel, executive vice president with Deft, during the March 10 webinar, “With more choices than ever, how will your Medicare Advantage plan stand out in 2023?” The annual survey featured responses from 3,389 Medicare enrollees, including 1,846 seniors who were enrolled in a Medicare Advantage plan in 2021 and 1,183 seniors with Medicare Supplemental (MedSupp) coverage. The remaining 360 respondents had Original Medicare only (OMO).

Ongoing DOJ Lawsuits Heighten MA Risk Adjustment Scrutiny

Health care fraud was the largest driver of False Claims Act recoveries last year, the Dept. of Justice (DOJ) recently reported. Of the more than $5.6 billion in settlements and judgments from civil cases involving fraud and false claims against the government for the fiscal year ending Sept. 30, 2021, more than $5 billion related to matters involving the health care industry, including drug and medical device manufacturers, managed care providers and hospitals, the DOJ estimated. Medicare Advantage-related recoveries included a $90 million settlement with Sutter Health to resolve allegations that it submitted unsupported diagnosis codes that led to inflated payments to MA plans and the health system and a $6.3 million settlement with Kaiser Foundation Health Plan of Washington (formerly Group Health Cooperative) over similar allegations.

In Latest Report to Congress, MedPAC Maintains MA Plans Are Overpaid

Serving as a timely companion to its comment letter on the 2023 Advance Notice for Medicare Advantage and Part D plans, the Medicare Payment Advisory Commission (MedPAC) on March 15 released its 2022 March Report to the Congress: Medicare Payment Policy. The first of two annual reports containing policy recommendations, it echoed many of MedPAC’s prior points regarding MA plan reimbursement, namely that plans are overpaid for delivering services at below the cost of fee-for-service (FFS) Medicare.

MedPAC observed that MA plan bids continue to trail FFS, with the average plan bid coming in at 15% below FFS Medicare costs for 2022. When accounting for coding intensity, Medicare payments to MA plans this year will average 104% of FFS spending, like 2021, MedPAC estimated. In other words, “Medicare currently pays 4% more to MA plans for the average enrollee than it would have had that enrollee remained in traditional fee for service,” explained MedPAC Executive Director Jim Mathews, Ph.D., during a March 15 press briefing on the new report.