The analysis raises two questions: How do Medicare Advantage plans spend so much less on care? And, given that, how do we account for their higher costs to taxpayers?
One reason for the lower spending is that Medicare Advantage enrollees use less care or use lower-cost care. For example, compared with traditional Medicare patients, Medicare Advantage patients are more likely to go home after a hospital visit, rather than to a skilled nursing facility. Medicare Advantage patients see specialists relatively less often and receive fewer inpatient operations, but more outpatient ones, which are cheaper. All of these are what you’d expect from care management techniques used by Medicare Advantage: referral requirements and narrow networks of doctors, for instance.
“This is exactly what Medicare Advantage plans were designed to do,” said Dr. Bruce Landon, a physician with Harvard Medical School. “They manage the utilization of services while also assuring that enrollees receive recommended care, all at lower cost to patients.” Dr. Landon’s research on the program found that Medicare Advantage enrollees use 20 percent to 30 percent less emergency department and outpatient surgical care, as well as receive fewer hip and knee replacements.
Medicare Advantage plans also attract enrollees who tend to be healthier than traditional Medicare beneficiaries, a feature that yielded intriguing results in light of the lawsuit against UnitedHealth. When the M.I.T.-Stanford team compared the two kinds of Medicare patients, they found that Medicare Advantage patients were 25 percent less costly than traditional Medicare patients. But when the team more rigorously matched the health of both sets of patients, the Medicare Advantage patients were just 10 percent less costly. This drop does not prove the suit’s claims of overbilling, but it allows for the possibility.
Why does the government pay Medicare Advantage plans so much more than it costs them to cover care? It’s partly an intentional, if controversial, design of the program. Congress has established payment formulas and authorized bonus programs intended to help the private market.
The government also pays insurers for administrative and marketing expenses. Yet even when these additional expenses are factored in, the government still pays plans an excess. According to the Medicare Payment Advisory Commission, federal payments to the plans exceeded health care costs and other expenses by 8.5 percent in 2010. Though the Affordable Care Act has reduced payments to plans and limits the amount they can attribute to administration and marketing, they still receive government payments in excess of their costs today.
Not all of the “excess” federal money goes to the insurers’ bottom line. Traditional Medicare entails significant cost sharing for beneficiaries; they are responsible for 20 percent of the costs of doctors visits, for example. Most Medicare Advantage plans don’t require as much cost sharing or out-of-pocket payments. And some of the influence of Medicare Advantage plans’ managed care techniques rub off on the traditional program, too, reducing spending — a spillover effect that partly explains the slowdown in growth of Medicare spending.
But is the cost of Medicare Advantage worth the benefits it delivers? It’s hard to know without knowing more about patients’ diagnoses, services used and other data. The Medicare program had been collecting such data since 2012 and was planning to release it, but, expressing concerns about its quality, recently put off doing so.