Where Does Traditional Medicare Go: Profit-Driven Chaos or Patient-Centered Community?

by Matthew Cunnigham – Cook

The problems with Medicare Advantage is coding and pricing for care. And Fee for Service participants pay for the MA costs even though they do not use MA.

When accounting for favorable selection of enrollees in MA and higher MA coding intensity, we estimate Medicare spends approximately 22 percent more for MA enrollees. This spend is more than if those beneficiaries were a part of FFS Medicare. The difference translates into a projected $83 billion in 2024.

The MedPac Commission acknowledges a portion of the higher payments to MA plans are for more generous supplemental benefits and better financial protection for MA enrollees. The Commission is concerned the relatively higher payments to MA plans are subsidized by the taxpayers and beneficiaries who fund the program. Higher MA spending increases Part B premiums for all beneficiaries (including those in FFS who do not have access to the supplemental benefits offered by MA plans); the Commission estimates premiums will be about $13 billion higher in 2024 because of higher MA spending. ‘Mar24 Executive Summary MedPAC_Report_To_Congress_SEC.pdf‘”

Additional information comparing Traditional Medicare with Medicare Advantage. I am finding other writers are picking up on the topic Kip Sullivan and I have been discussing.

Matthew Cunnigham – Cook discusses the issues with Medicare Advantage which is commercial.

The American Prospect

Now 52% of Medicare beneficiaries (MA), up from 37% in 2018, controlled by some of the largest and most powerful corporations in the world. The corporations and MA beneficiaries may drain the trust fund and eliminate Medicare’s most important and controversial component:

Its ability to set prices.

Setting prices is not an effective way to control costs and deliver healthcare. Single Payer would be ideal for the US.

It is not an overstatement to call it a heist of historic proportions. Their actions endanger the health of more than 65 million seniors and people with disabilities who depend on Medicare. They also endanger all Americans who benefit from the powerful role that Medicare historically plays in reining in health care costs. The giant corporations dominating Medicare Advantage are rigging the system to maximize payments from our government. They are now being overpaid between $88 billion and $140 billion a year. The overpayments could soar to new heights if the insurers get their way and eliminate traditional Medicare.

All of America’s seniors and disabled people depending on Medicare could soon be moving to a managed care model of ever-tightening networks, relentless prior authorization requirements, and limited drug formularies. The promise of a humane health care system for all would be sacrificed at the altar of the almighty insurer dollar.

The Medicare Payments Advisory Commission (MedPAC) is the independent congressional agency which oversees Medicare. In a searing report last month in a found Medicare spends 22% more per beneficiary in Medicare Advantage plans than if those beneficiaries were in traditional fee-for-service Medicare. This is up from a 6% estimate in the prior year.

A similar cost trend exists for diagnosis coding. Medicare Advantage plans and their affiliated providers increasingly upcode diagnoses to get higher reimbursements. In 2024, overpayments due to upcoding could total $50 billion, according to MedPAC, up from $23 billion in 2023. These enormous overpayments drive up the cost of premiums. MedPAC’s conservative estimate is the premiums paid to Medicare out of seniors’ Social Security checks will be $13 billion higher in 2024 because of those overpayments.

There is evidence that Americans and lawmakers are starting to wake up. Medicare Advantage enrollment growth slowed considerably in 2023. Support within the Democratic Party for Medicare Advantage is cratering. In 2022, 147 House Democrats signed an industry-backed letter supporting Medicare Advantage. This year, just 24 House Democrats signed the letter. Earlier this month, the Biden administration cut Medicare Advantage base payments for the second year in a row (while still increasing payments overall), over the fierce opposition of the insurance lobby. The investment bank Stephens called Biden’s decision a “highly adverse” outcome for insurers. Wall Street has taken note, punishing the stock price of the largest Medicare Advantage insurers, with Barron’s noting that Wall Street’s “love affair” with Humana is “ending in tears.” The cargo ship is turning. It is up to us to determine if that will be enough.

We can’t attack a problem if we don’t know how to diagnose it. I spoke with some of the most knowledgeable critics of Medicare Advantage about the danger the rapid expansion of Medicare privatization presents to the American public.

Rick Gilfillan is a medical doctor who in 2010 became the first director of the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Innovation (CMMI). He would go on to serve as CEO of Trinity Health from 2013 to 2019. In 2021 he launched an effort to halt the involuntary privatization of Medicare benefits. Rick Gilfillan . . .

“Right now, all investigations are finding tremendous overpayments. The overpayments are based on medical diagnoses that may or may not be meaningful from a patient care standpoint. Insurers are using chart reviews, nurse home visits and AI software to find as many diagnoses as possible and thereby inflate the health risks of the patients and the premium they get from Medicare. The over-payments are just outrageous.”

The problem could get worse if the Supreme Court curtails the powers of regulatory agencies, as it may do this year. Gilfillan . . .

“It would make a huge difference in what CMS would be able to do.” 

The logic behind Medicare privatization is that seniors and people with disabilities use too much care, egged on by their doctors. If true, a solution could have been to enforce the Stark Law, which bans physicians from having financial relationships with providers they refer to, or other anti-kickback statutes.

States could also enforce laws 33 of them have enacted that prohibit the “corporate practice of medicine. ”Instead, health insurers were invited and incentivized by previous administrations to compete with the original Medicare program and “manage” beneficiaries’ care.

Under this model as set in its modern form in 2003, Medicare Advantage insurers are paid a rate based on a complex risk modeling process and cost estimations. Medicare Advantage plans have never been cheaper than traditional Medicare, as MedPAC has repeatedly pointed out.

This is a far more complex approach than the fee-for-service model. In which CMS sets prices in health care in a public and transparent manner, Gilfillan notes. The prices negotiated by Medicare Advantage companies, by contrast, are not disclosed.

“With fee-for-service, a patient is provided a service, treatment or medication. The physician who provides the service charges a specific amount for that service,” Gilfillan said. “And then Medicare pays whatever it decided it was worth for that service. The benefit is you pay for what you get.”

Some Medicare Advantage plans use a “capitated” approach in paying primary care physicians. The amount is based on the premium they receive for the patient. The more codes submitted, the higher the capitation, the greater the profit. The coding approach is having far-reaching economic impacts on health care. Oregon-based lawyer and health care consultant Hayden Rooke-Ley co-authored a recent New England Journal of Medicine article on the corporatization of primary care. It is the capitation model, he says, that drives the rampant upcoding among Medicare Advantage plans.

From Horizontal to Vertical

“An under covered aspect of Medicare Advantage is the way it is fueling vertical consolidation” in the insurance business. Rooke-Ley added, noting that until recent years, insurers bulked up by buying smaller competitors (known as horizontal integration).

“With so much government money, we’re seeing insurance companies restructuring themselves as vertically integrated conglomerates [through the acquisition of physician practices, clinics and pharmacy operations]. They become even more profitable, especially in Medicare Advantage. He said . . .

A key part of this strategy is to own primary care practices. Citing Humana’s partnership with the private-equity firm Welsh Carson to become the largest owner of Medicare-based primary care. CVS/Aetna’s acquisition of Oak Street, and UnitedHealth’s roll up of doctors practices across the country.”

As Rooke-Ley explained, control of primary care allows insurance companies to more easily manipulate “risk scores.” This to increase payments from the government by claiming patients are in worse health than they really are. He adds . . .

“The easiest way to increase risk scores, without fabricating diagnosis codes, is to control the behavior of physicians and other clinicians.”

When an insurance company owns the physician practice, it can configure workflows, technology, and incentives to drive risk coding. UnitedHealth, for example, can preferentially schedule Medicare Advantage patients. It can choose to reach out to health plan enrollees it identifies with its data as having high ‘coding opportunities.’ They can require its doctors to go to risk-code training. It can prohibit doctors from closing their notes before they address all the ‘suggested’ diagnosis codes.

Medicare Advantage insurance companies tout all their provider acquisitions as investments in value-based care. The concern is it’s really just looking like a game of financialization.”

Rooke-Ley said.

“MA was to save Medicare money, but the exact opposite is happening. According to MedPAC, the government will over-subsidize MA to the tune of $88 billion this year, with $54 billion of that due to excess risk coding relative to what we see in traditional Medicare. That’s a staggering amount of money that could go directly to patients and clinicians by strengthening traditional Medicare.”

Two Possible Futures

There are two options for the future of Medicare, said Dr. Ed Weisbart, former chief medical officer of the pharmacy benefit manager Express Scripts, which Cigna bought in 2018, who now leads the Missouri chapter of Physicians for a National Health Program. In one future, he said,

“We will change the trajectory and get rid of the profiteers. And manage to divert the funds that are being profiteered to patient care.”

In another future, the business practices of Medicare Advantage plans “will be unfettered and more damaging and harmful than they are today,” he said. “If we continue on this course we’ll find an increasingly polarized health care system that caters increasingly to the wealthy and privileged. The barriers to care will be worse.”