By Don McCanne for PNHP –
U.S. to boost rather than cut payments to health insurers
By Sandhya Somashekhar
The Washington Post, April 1, 2013
The Obama administration reversed itself Monday, scrapping plans to cut by 2.2 percent the rates paid to health insurers that take part in the Medicare Advantage program.
The insurance industry and more than 100 members of Congress had objected to the cut in the per capita growth rate, which was proposed in February. The insurers mounted a vigorous campaign, using television ads and phone banks, to persuade lawmakers to oppose the reduction.
On Monday, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) announced that it was changing its method of calculating reimbursement rates. Instead of cutting payments for Medicare Advantage plans, it will increase them by 3.3 percent.
“The policies announced today further the agency’s goal of improving payment accuracy in all our programs, while at the same time ensuring program stability and preserving beneficiary choice,” Jonathan Blum, the CMS’s acting principal deputy administrator, said in a statement.
By Don McCanne, M.D.
The private Medicare Advantage plans, offered as options to the traditional government-run Medicare program, were to have their egregious overpayments reduced by provisions of the Affordable Care Act. This year they were to have a 2.2 percent reduction in their rates, but instead received a 3.3 percent increase. That is a rate 5.5 percent higher than scheduled, which increases the payments to the Medicare Advantage plans by over $5 billion! What happened?
It is easier to understand why when you realize that the program was established as an effort to privatize Medicare. The previous effort – private Medicare + Choice plans – didn’t work since the insurers were unable to provide profitable plans at a cost comparable to the traditional Medicare program.
Recognizing that, Congress established the Medicare Advantage program, authorizing payments averaging 14 percent over the costs of traditional Medicare. This would allow the private plans to offer a more attractive option with greater benefits and lower our-of-pocket costs. Once enough people were enrolled in the private plans then they could start to make the traditional Medicare program even less attractive through greater cost sharing, through means testing that chases away the more affluent beneficiaries, and through reducing payment rates causing a further decline in the number of willing providers.
Originally, the private Medicare + Choice plans were successful in enrolling healthier, lower cost patients. With time, many of those patients required more care, and the insurers started dropping out of markets in which they experienced losses. So the next phase – Medicare Advantage.
With Medicare Advantage, risk adjustment was used to transfer funds from insurers that cornered healthier patients to insurers that enrolled more patients with greater needs. Soon it was evident that the insurers became masters at enrolling patients who were not very ill but who could be coded as having expensive problems. Although efforts have been made to further refine the risk adjustments, our government’s payment accuracy website reveals that the insurers are still able to game the system, such that 14 percent of payments remain improper – over $13 billion.
Another one of the methods used to improve payments – but not reduce payments since the proposal was to be revenue neutral – was to retain some of the funds for the Medicare Advantage plans and then use them to reward plans with higher quality ratings, 4 or 5 star. Well, when they were ready to start reducing the overpayments, as required by the Affordable Care Act, the insurers protested that they couldn’t afford the reductions. So the administration revised the quality awards to include 3 star plans, thus assuring that 80 percent of Medicare Advantage plans would have their required reductions largely offset with the quality awards. But this was not revenue neutral. No problem. The administration declared these expanded awards to be a “demonstration,” and thus drew funds from their demonstration project kitty (our tax funds). That diversion of funds will continue through 2014.
So now we’re down to this year, and, of course, the insurance industry said that they would not be able to tolerate the scheduled reductions of 2.2 percent. They called out the forces. They even had more than 160 Representatives and Senators of both parties lobbying the administration to reverse these cuts. Yesterday, it became evident that they were successful – increasing payments 5.5 percent over the scheduled 2.2 percent cut – a $5 billion bonanza. How did they do it?
The sustainable growth rate (SGR) was a formula designed to slow the growth of spending on physician care down to sustainable levels. In response, physicians adjusted the frequency and intensity of their services to make up for what they perceived to be a reduction in their reimbursement rates. The formula would require a reduction in rates that would especially impact primary care physicians. Congress has deferred the reductions for fear of losing too many physicians from the program, but that has resulted in a 25 percent deficit for which Congress needs to enact a “doc fix.” Here’s where the shell game comes in.
In violation of the standards of the Office of the Actuary, CMS decided that Congress inevitably would enact a doc fix, which then they could say represents an increase in the cost of providing care to all Medicare beneficiaries. Thus the phantom increase has been applied to the new Medicare Advantage rates. Little does it matter that there was no increase since Congress has continued to authorize the suspension of the SGR reductions. It is specious for CMS to claim that payments went up this year because of the not-yet-enacted doc fix when they have been up the whole time. Also it seems not to matter that the doc fix which they used in their calculations has not been fixed, and the money will have to come from somewhere… but certainly not from the $5 billion bonus they just gave the Medicare Advantage plans – money that never existed but will have to be drawn from Medicare payroll taxes, from general funds for Part B, and from increases in Part B Medicare premiums that will be paid by Medicare beneficiaries in the traditional plan who are not receiving any of the extra benefits that enrollees in the Medicare Advantage plans are receiving. Unfair.
But it’s worse than this. Not only is the administration bending over backwards to take good care of the private Medicare Advantage insurers, they are now engaged behind the scenes to further impair the traditional Medicare program – a strategy to further push privatization.
The Ryan/Wyden and Frist/Breaux/Thomas premium support voucherization of Medicare has proven to be too hot for the privatizers, considering the backlash that they have experienced. So premium support is off the table during the Obama administration’s negotiations with Congress over the next manufactured fiscal crisis. So what has replaced the vouchers?
It has been leaked, presumably deliberately, that Obama is proposing to combine the Part A (hospital) and Part B (physician) deductibles into one deductible for Parts A & B combined. The intent is twofold – to reduce the amount that the federal government is paying for Medicare, and to increase the sensitivity of Medicare beneficiaries to prices paid for Medicare benefits – making them empowered health care shoppers. This increase in out-of-pocket spending will especially impact the majority who do not require hospitalization and thus have lower total costs. This strategy will make those who have fewer health care needs wonder why they are paying so much more than they thought they would once they were on Medicare.
Bu that’s not all. About 90 percent of Medicare beneficiaries are protected from excessive cost sharing through Medigap plans or through employer-sponsored retirement health benefit programs. The consumer-directed camp has long wanted to bash the Medigap plans so patients would be exposed more directly to the costs. Obama’s team is proposing just that. They want to prohibit the Medigap plans from providing protection for the deductible – removing it, or at least reducing it, as a Medigap benefit. Another option that they are considering is to assess a 15 percent tax on Medigap premiums which would have a similar net financial impact as prohibiting coverage of the deductible.
So what is a person to do? You can accept the traditional Medicare program, but you will face higher deductibles, perhaps a Medigap tax, an even higher Part B Medicare premium, and perhaps means-tested premiums and benefits which will gradually shift down to middle-income individuals. This will not be pleasing to the majority who have only modest health care needs. The other option? You can enroll in a Medicare Advantage plan with greatly reduced cost sharing plus expanded benefits, and perhaps not even a plan premium, all thanks to Congress and the administration who are using our tax funds to provide very generous subsidies to the private Medicare Advantage plans.
A crummy traditional Medicare program with high out-of-pocket costs, or a slick private plan with most costs prepaid, by the government no less? It is presumed that the majority will rush over to the private plans, especially when they see what extra bennies they get.
What then? Congress can then continue to ratchet down government spending on the traditional program, causing an exodus of willing providers – stripping the program down to worse-than-Medicaid. After the private plans have become the standard and Medicare is in the tank, then what? Premium support vouchers! The government gradually pares down the support for the premium you select, so you are now really an empowered shopper – empowered to buy whatever meager benefits you can afford with your measly premium subsidy.
Excuse the length of today’s message, but I hope you understand why. It’s not that I’m a soothsayer… but maybe I am.