Two influential advisory groups sent recommendations to Congress calling for a revamp of how health plans are paid in the lucrative Medicare Advantage program, culling how many models CMS tests and curbing high-cost drug approvals.
By many measures, the MA program has been thriving. Enrollment and participation has continued to grow, and in 2021, MA plans' bids to provide the Medicare benefit declined to a record low: Just 87% of comparable fee-for-service spending in their markets.
But despite that relative efficiency, MA contracting isn't saving Medicare money — actually, in the 35 years Medicare managed care has been active, it's never resulted in net savings for the cash-strapped program, James Mathews, executive director of the Medicare Payment Advisory Commission, told reporters in a Tuesday briefing.
MedPAC estimates Medicare actually spends 4% more per capita for beneficiaries in MA plans than those in FFS under the existing benchmark policy.
To save money, Medicare could change how the benchmark, the maximum payment amount for plans, is adjusted for geographic variation, MedPAC said.
Under current policy, Medicare pays MA plans more if they cover an area with lower FFS spending, despite most plans bidding below FFS in these areas. At the same time, plans in areas where FFS spending is higher bid at a lower level relative to their benchmark, and wind up getting higher rebates — the difference between the bid and the benchmark — as a result.
"Because the rebate dollars must be used to provide extra benefits, large rebates result in plans offering a disproportionate level of extra benefits," MedPAC wrote in its annual report to Congress. "Moreover, as MA rebates increase, a smaller share of those rebates is used for cost-sharing and premium reductions — benefits that have more transparent value and provide an affordable alternative to Medigap coverage."
The group recommended rebalancing the MA benchmark policy to use a relatively equal blend of per-capita FFS spending in a local area and standardized national FFS spending, which would reduce variation in local benchmarks, and use a rebate of at least 75%. Currently, a plan's rebate depends on its star rating, and ranges from 65% to 70%.
MedPAC also suggested a discount rate of at least 2% to reduce local and national blended spending amounts.
The group's simulations suggest the changes would have minimal impact on plan participation or MA enrollees, but could lead to savings in Medicare of about 2 percentage points, relative to current policy.
Finding savings in Medicare, even small ones, is integral for the program's future, policy experts say. The Congressional Budget Office expects the trust fund that finances Medicare's hospital benefit will become insolvent by 2024, as — despite perennial warnings from watchdogs and budget hawks — lawmakers have kicked the can on the insurance program's snowballing deficit for years.
Fewer and more targeted alternative payment models
MedPAC also recommended CMS streamline its portfolio of alternative payment models, implementing a smaller and more targeted suite of the temporary demonstrations designed to work together.
CMS is already undergoing a review of the models, meant to inject more value into healthcare payments, following calls from legislators for more oversight in the program. The agency doesn't have the most stellar track record: Of the 54 models its Center for Medicare and Medicaid Innovation has trialed since it was launched a decade ago, just four have been permanently encoded in Medicare.
New CMMI head Elizabeth Fowler said earlier this month the agency will likely enact more mandatory models to force the shift toward value, as the ongoing review has resulted in more conscious choices about where it should invest.
In its report, MedPAC pointed out many of CMMI's models generated gross savings for Medicare, before performance bonuses to providers were shelled out. That suggests the models have the power to change provider practice patterns, but their effects are tricky to measure. Many providers are in multiple models at once, and the same beneficiaries can be shared across models, too.
Additionally, some models set up conflicting incentives. Mathews gave the example of accountable care organizations participating in one model to reduce spending on behalf of an assigned population relative to a benchmark, but its provider participants could also be in certain bundled models with incentives to keep the cost of care per episode low — but not reduce the overall number of episodes themselves.
"The risk of these kinds of inconsistent incentives would be minimized again if the models were developed in a manner where they would work together at the outset," Mathews said. MedPAC doesn't have guidance on a specific target number of alternative models, but said it should be a smaller and more strategic number.
Curbing high-cost drugs in Medicaid
Another advisory board, on the Medicaid safety-net insurance program, also released its annual report on Tuesday, recommending Congress mitigate the effect of pricey specialty drugs on state Medicaid programs.
High-cost specialty drugs are increasingly driving Medicaid spending and creating financial pressure on states. The Medicaid and CHIP Payment and Access Commission (MACPAC) didn't recommend Congress change the requirement that Medicaid cover the drugs, but recommended legislators look into increasing the minimum rebate percentage on drugs approved by the Food and Drug Administration through the accelerated approval pathway, until the clinical benefit of the drugs is verified.
The accelerated approval pathway, which can be used for a drug for a serious or life-threatening illness that provides a therapeutic advantage over existing treatments, allows drugs to come to market more quickly. States have aired concerns about paying high list prices for such drugs when they don't have a verified clinical benefit.
That pathway has faced growing scrutiny in recent days in the wake of the FDA's high-profile and controversial approval of Biogen's aducanumab for Alzheimer's disease.
Several advisors to the FDA have resigned over the decision, as it's unclear if aducanumab actually has a clinical benefit. What aducanumab does have is an estimated price tag of $56,000 a year, which could place severe stress on taxpayer-funded insurance programs like Medicare and Medicaid if widely prescribed.
MACPAC also recommended an increase in the additional inflationary rebate on drugs that receive approval from the FDA under the accelerated approval pathway if the manufacturer hasn't completed the postmarketing confirmatory trial after a specified number of years. Once a drug receives traditional approval, the inflationary rebate would revert back to the standard amounts.
The recommendations would only apply to the price Medicaid pays for the drug and doesn't change the program's obligation to cover it.