Radar on Medicare Advantage

Payers Will Need to Shift Strategies as Medicare Advantage Boom Slows

Medicare Advantage enrollment growth has exploded in recent years, topping 31 million lives as of July 2023, according to AIS’s Directory of Health Plans. But a new analysis from McKinsey and Company warns this free-for-all won’t last forever, and payers will have to adjust their strategies and evolve to meet a changing market.

The consulting firm estimated that annual growth in MA membership will slow to 3% in 2031, a far cry from the 8% rate seen in 2022. That’s largely because MA’s market strongholds — which McKinsey says are primarily urban — will become too saturated over time. While 2023 marked the first time more than 50% of seniors were enrolled in MA, actual MA penetration rates vary widely depending on region. McKinsey found that the 50% figure holds true for urban (or metropolitan) areas, but nonmetropolitan areas lag behind at 41%. McKinsey projects nonmetropolitan areas won’t reach 50% penetration until 2031, presenting opportunities for payers to shore up untapped markets. “Payers will seek to build the networks and capabilities to grow in historically less penetrated markets, such as those with large rural populations,” analysts wrote. Those markets could include entire states — McKinsey noted that CMS’s June data release showed a 59% penetration rate in Michigan, while Wyoming’s was just 13%.


IRA Changes Will Drive Up Part D Bid in 2024, But Premiums Will Stabilize

In its annual release of the Medicare Part D bid information for the coming plan year, CMS on July 31 projected that the average total monthly Part D premium will decrease from $56.49 in 2023 to $55.50 in 2024, thanks in large part to the basic part of the premium being held down by a stabilization provision in the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA). But unlike previous years, where the national average monthly bid amount (i.e., the weighted average of the estimated cost to Part D plan sponsors of providing their benefit package) steadily dropped, CMS reported that the bid amount will rise from $34.71 for 2023 to $64.28 in 2024. That’s largely because of IRA-mandated changes and CMS’s recent rulemaking on pharmacy price concessions.

Starting in 2024, the IRA limits the annual increase in the base beneficiary premium to no more than 6%. The base beneficiary premium, which is the starting point for calculating a plan-specific basic Part D premium, is projected to rise by 5.9% to $34.70 in 2024.


2022 Medicare Advantage Audit Report Reflects Modest Penalties, Familiar Failures

There wasn’t much to be gleaned from CMS’s latest annual report on program audits of Medicare Advantage and Part D sponsors, and CMS wants it that way. According to the 2022 Part C and Part D Program Audit and Enforcement Report, published on July 18, just three MA insurers received a civil monetary penalty as the result of a program audit last year, with the average CMP around $21,000 — compared with an average of $65,247 in 2021 and $200,000 in 2019. CMS in the report said the amount of the CMP “does not automatically reflect the overall performance of a sponsor” and, similar to last year, warned against reaching “broad conclusions about the significance of deficiencies or performance across” the MA, Part D or Medicare-Medicaid Plan (MMP) programs.


Despite Utilization Creep, Medicaid Losses, MCOs Lift Earnings Estimates

Government-focused publicly traded insurers reporting second-quarter 2023 earnings in July devoted a fair amount of discussion to the impact of Medicaid redeterminations on enrollment and rate adjustments, while analysts were interested in the recent trend of increased medical costs, particularly on the Medicare side. Despite these potential headwinds, the insurers appeared confident in their financial outlook for 2023, as all four raised their earnings projections for the full year.

After pausing eligibility verifications in exchange for receiving enhanced federal funding during the COVID-19 public health emergency (PHE), states were allowed to begin disenrolling people who longer qualify for Medicaid as of April 1. According to the latest update to AIS’s Directory of Health Plans, managed Medicaid enrollment as of June was nearly 73.4 million across 41 states, compared with 72.9 million a year ago — a decline that doesn’t yet fully reflect the impact of ongoing redeterminations. Nevertheless, some states have aggressively moved forward, prompting CMS to issue revised guidelines on best practices to avoid terminations driven by procedural reasons. Florida, for example, has already lost some 224,000 managed care enrollees (or close to 5%) from a year ago, according to DHP’s estimates.


News Briefs: CMS in 2022 Issued $200,000 in Fines for One-Third Financial Audit Findings

Only three Medicare Advantage insurers received a civil monetary penalty (CMP) as a result of a program audit last year, according to the 2022 Part C and Part D Program Audit and Enforcement Report published on July 18. CMPs based on 2022 program audit referrals totaled $63,220, and another $200,000 in fines stemmed from one-third financial audit findings. By contrast, the previous audit cycle resulted in approximately $1 million in CMPs issued based on 2021 referrals, and nearly half of that amount related to one-third financial audits. The latest audit cycle included 291 contracts under 25 separate parent organizations covering approximately 33.6 million, or 62%, of beneficiaries enrolled in the Parts C and D programs. CMS in the report said the amount of the CMP “does not automatically reflect the overall performance of a sponsor” and that the summary of findings is “not intended to reflect overall industry performance and should not be interpreted to mean that there are pervasive issues throughout the industry related to the noncompliance we identified.”


It’s Not Just Duals Who Need Social Problems Addressed, New Humana Research Finds

A large swath of Medicare Advantage members report experiencing health-related social needs (HRSNs), such as financial troubles and unreliable access to transportation, according to new research from Humana Inc. published in the July issue of Health Affairs. Researchers surveyed more than 60,000 Humana members (which also included about 12,000 Medicare-Medicaid dual eligibles) in 2019 and found that more than half (56%) reported experiencing at least one HRSN. Financial strain, food insecurity and poor housing quality were the most reported issues.

Some HRSNs — namely unreliable transportation — were more commonly associated with hospitalizations and heavier emergency department (ED) use, researchers found. The overall burden of HRSNs also made an impact, with beneficiaries reporting multiple HRSNs experiencing more hospitalizations.


ACHP’s MA for Tomorrow Framework Aims to Drive Quality, Level Playing Field

From reforming the Star Ratings program intended to steer consumers to the highest-quality plans to reducing gaming of the current risk adjustment system used to set insurer payments, the Alliance of Community Health Plans (ACHP) is envisioning the future of Medicare Advantage with MA for Tomorrow. While the new framework, released last month, comes at a time when the Star Ratings and other aspects of the MA program are under intense scrutiny, ACHP tells AIS Health, a division of MMIT, that it is the result of a multiyear collaboration with subject matter experts at its provider-aligned, not-for-profit health plans.

ACHP provides recommendations around five key pillars: raising the bar on quality, improving consumer navigation, advancing risk adjustment for care not coding, modernizing network composition and transforming benchmarks. And it says many of the provisions contained in these pillars can be implemented right away. AIS Health spoke with ACHP’s president and CEO, Ceci Connolly, and associate vice president for public policy, Michael Bagel, to learn more about the specific recommendations. (Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)


Facing Familiar Legal Challenges, NYC Must Put Aetna Retiree Plan on Hold

The City of New York and its retirees this month are experiencing déjà vu, and CVS Health Corp.’s Aetna is caught in the middle. The health insurer was slated to begin serving retired municipal workers and their eligible dependents on Sept. 1 via a Medicare Advantage PPO plan. But thanks to the latest court order in a years-long series of setbacks, the city’s plan to privatize retiree health coverage again is on hold.

Led by Mayor Eric Adams (D), the city was initially supposed to transition some 250,000 retirees and dependents to a private Medicare plan administered by Elevance Health, Inc., in January 2022. The move was delayed by a petition from retirees, and state Supreme Court Judge Lyle Frank ruled that the proposal violated city law by charging retirees $191 per month to maintain their fee-for-service Medicare coverage. Amid the legal challenges, NYC Comptroller Brad Lander declined to register the contract. After Elevance backed out of the deal, the city struck an agreement with Aetna to make its PPO plan the only premium-free coverage option.


Despite Phaseout, Look-Alike Plans Still Threaten Integrated Care for Duals

Payers’ increasing interest in offering integrated health plans for Medicare-Medicaid dual eligibles, namely Dual-Eligible Special Needs Plans (D-SNPs), also led to a proliferation in “look-alike” plans marketed to duals. The main difference — look-alike plans are not legally required to contract with state Medicaid programs on care coordination, a cause of concern for advocates and policymakers alike. As D-SNPs gained traction over the past decade, enrollment in look-alike plans also grew rapidly, according to a new study published in the July 2023 issue of Health Affairs. While CMS has already cracked down on look-alike plans — new regulations caused dozens of contract non-renewals for 2023 — the study authors suggest that look-alike plans still pose a potential threat to improving integrated care delivery for duals, who are often more medically and socially vulnerable than other Medicare beneficiaries.


Unused Supplemental Benefits May Drive Duals to Switch MA Plans, Finds Deft Study

New data from Deft Research suggests that Medicare Advantage plans continue to struggle with retaining their dual eligible members, mainly because of problems associated with the supplemental benefits offered to address social needs. Published on June 29, Deft’s 2023 Dual Eligible Retention Study found that duals switch plans at about twice the rate of other MA beneficiaries. And while Deft says duals “absolutely depend” on supplemental benefits such as dental care, grocery allowances and utility assistance, duals’ reported issues with their current health coverage often stem from these enhanced offerings, whether they be a source of confusion or just prove difficult to use.

An estimated 30% of dual eligibles make a coverage change over the course of a year, and 8% of duals have already made a switch this year as of mid-May, according to Deft. (Dual eligibles can enroll in or switch dual plans once per quarterly Special Enrollment Period or during the Medicare Annual Election Period). By contrast, Deft in its 2023 Medicare Shopping and Switching Study, which is based on the responses of about 5,000 Medicare beneficiaries, observed that switching by “full pay” (i.e., those receiving no extra help) MA beneficiaries shot up to 15% this past AEP, compared with 12% in the prior two periods.