The takeaways from this post are:
- President Biden has proposed Medicare changes as part of his proposed budget that would keep it funded for 25 years, however, Republicans in Congress are not likely to pass them.
- Partial privatization of Medicare through the Medicare Advantage and ACO REACH programs undermines quality and increases costs.
(Note: If you find my posts too much to read on occasion, please just read the bolded portions. They present the key points I’m making.)
There are three pieces of good news on the Medicare front. First, President Biden’s budget for the next fiscal year (starting 10/1/23) includes increased funding and decreased costs for Medicare that would mean it is fully funded for the next 25 years. The increased funding comes from raising the Medicare tax on people with incomes over $400,000, based on both earned and unearned income (such as capital gains). The decreased costs come from significantly expanding Medicare’s ability to negotiate what it pays pharmaceutical companies for drugs.  The bad news is that Republicans in the House are not likely to pass this. The other bad news is that Biden didn’t propose strengthening Medicare by adding coverage for vision, hearing, and/or dental services.
Second, there’s some good news on reining in the privatization of Medicare. The Biden administration is increasing the auditing of the private Medicare Advantage (MA) plans. (As you may well know, Medicare pays a private insurer for seniors’ care when they enroll in a MA plan. Private insurers were allowed to offer these plans because they promised to deliver better care for less money. The result has been the reverse: worse care for more money.) Because of documented and systematic overbilling of Medicare by many of these private MA insurers, Medicare projects that these audits will save $470 million per year. (See this previous post for more details on overbilling by MA insurers.)  Nearly every large insurer offering a MA plan has been sued by the Justice Department for overbilling Medicare. 
Third, the Biden administration is proposing tougher rules governing Medicare Advantage plans to counter widespread inappropriate denial of coverage for seniors’ health care and deceptive marketing. The new rules would require quick action on authorizations (or denials) of coverage for health care services and require an authorization to cover the full course of treatment, rather than requiring reauthorization for each step or individual treatment.
An inspector general’s investigation found that one out of every seven denials of payment by a Medicare Advantage insurer was inappropriate. It estimated that tens of thousands of MA enrollees have been inappropriately denied medically necessary care. Health care providers report increasingly frequent denials of payment by MA insurers for care routinely covered by traditional, government-run Medicare. In 2022, the number of appeals patients filed contesting Medicare Advantage denials was almost 150,000, up 58% from 2020. On many occasions denials are overturned when appealed; for example, most denials of coverage of skilled nursing care are eventually overturned. However, the denial and appeal process can take over two years. It is not unusual for patients to use their life savings to pay for denied coverage before recovering thousands of dollars months or years later. It is also not unusual for patients to die before their appeals are decided. 
Insurers’ marketing of Medicare Advantage plans often confuses consumers (intentionally?) about the fact that MA plans are private, for-profit plans as opposed to traditional government-run Medicare. The new rules would ban the private insurers from using the Medicare logo and name in ads, while requiring them to identify the insurance company operating the MA plan. The rules would also hold the insurers responsible for the actions of third parties doing marketing for them, such as aggressive, unsolicited phone calls. This third-party marketing is often done on a commission basis, so there is great pressure to sell the MA plan.
Medicare Advantage plans are very profitable for the private insurers. They charge Medicare more per enrollee than traditional, government run Medicare costs, despite the fact that their advertising attracts healthier-than-average seniors. They use prior authorization and in-network provider requirements to limit and deny payments for care. Their in-network provider and geographic area limitations mean that enrollees may find that when they’re traveling or on vacation they have no health insurance coverage.  Furthermore, in numerous cases, MA networks do not include the best quality care options, such as the best cancer centers and specialists. It is estimated that roughly 10,000 lives per year would be saved if Medicare terminated the 5% of MA plans with the worst rankings. 
The bad news on the Medicare privatization front is that a new and more insidious privatization scheme is continuing, albeit with a new name as-of Jan. 1, 2023. The Direct Contracting program initiated by the Trump administration has been renamed ACO REACH by the Biden administration. It allows private companies to manage the care of seniors enrolled in traditional government-run Medicare. Medicare enrollees may be put into these plans without their knowledge or consent based on where they live. The sliver of good news is that new criteria for companies’ participation have eliminated some companies with histories of fraud and abuse with Medicare. However, over a dozen members of Congress have sent a letter to the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS, the agency running Medicare) asking for investigations into nine companies allowed to participate in ACO REACH that have documented cases of defrauding Medicare or other government health programs. 
The Physicians for a National Health Program (PNHP) has sent a series of letters to CMS highlighting problems with ACO REACH and calling for its termination. Its latest letter identifies four insurers in ACO REACH that have a history of involvement in health care fraud or other malfeasance (Centene, Sutter Health, Clover Health, and Bright Health). It took only a small investigation by PNHP to identify them. 
Overall, the seven largest for-profit health insurers in the U.S. are making a fortune in profits from Medicare and other government health programs, notably Medicaid and the Affordable Care Act which both provide subsidized health insurance for low-income people. For three of the seven, Centene, Humana, and Molina, roughly 90% of their health insurance revenues come from government programs. For all seven (the previous three plus Cigna, CVS/Aetna, Elevance, and UnitedHealth), their 2022 government-program revenues were $577 billion, up from $116 billion in 2012. These seven companies have more than 70% of the Medicare Advantage market, with MA plans generally being their most profitable products. Therefore, they aggressively market their MA plans and have grown them substantially so that now 31 million seniors, almost half of the Medicare-eligible population, have signed up for them. Because the private MA plans’ billings for care are more expensive per enrollee than traditional Medicare, Medicare would realize substantial savings if the MA program was eliminated. 
In conclusion, any privatization of Medicare, such as through the Medicare Advantage and ACO REACH programs, (as well as privatization of other government health programs) does NOT save money. It adds costs for private middlemen and their profits, advertising, and administrative costs. Moreover, there are additional costs for government oversight: creating rules and regulations to govern the private entities, monitoring their performance, enforcing the almost certain violations of the rules and regulations, and investigating and stopping efforts to game the system to increase profits. The efficiency and quality of Medicare would be best served by ending privatization, i.e., by eliminating the ACO REACH and MA programs.
I urge you to contact President Biden and your U.S. Representative and Senators and to ask them to stop the privatization of Medicare. Specifically, ask them to eliminate the new ACO REACH program and to rein in Medicare Advantage plans. You can email President Biden at http://www.whitehouse.gov/contact/submit-questions-and-comments or you can call the White House comment line at 202-456-1111 or the switchboard at 202-456-1414. You can find contact information for your US Representative at http://www.house.gov/representatives/find/ and for your US Senators at http://www.senate.gov/general/contact_information/senators_cfm.cfm.
 Biden, President J., 3/7/23, “My plan to extend Medicare for another generation,” New York Times (https://www.nytimes.com/2023/03/07/opinion/joe-biden-medicare.html)
 Kuttner, R., 2/1/23, “Can Medicare Advantage be contained,” The American Prospect (https://prospect.org/blogs-and-newsletters/tap/2023-02-01-medicare-advantage-privatization/)
 Abelson, R., & Sanger-Katz, M., 12/18/22, “US officials seek curbs on private Medicare Advantage plans,” The Boston Globe
 Ross, C., & Herman, B., 3/14/23, “Denial of care often blamed on insurers’ AI,” The Boston Globe
 Cyrus, R., 2/27/23, “Private health care companies are eating the American economy,” The American Prospect (https://prospect.org/health/2023-02-27-private-health-insurance-medicare/)
 Archer, D., 6/2/22, “Inspector General, AMA and AHA agree: Some Medicare Advantage plans are endangering their enrollees’ lives,” Common Dreams (https://www.commondreams.org/views/2022/06/02/inspector-general-ama-and-aha-agree-some-medicare-advantage-plans-are-endangering)
 Jayapal, Representative P., 1/19/23, “Jayapal applauds exit of bad actors from ACO Reach program, calls for greater accountability,” (https://jayapal.house.gov/2023/01/19/jayapal-applauds-exit-of-bad-actors-from-aco-reach-program-calls-for-greater-accountability/)
 Physicians for a National Health Program, 1/17/23, “Letter to US Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Becerra and CMS Administrator Brooks-LaSure,” (https://pnhp.org/system/assets/uploads/2023/01/REACHLetter_20230117.pdf)
 Johnson, J., 2/28/23, “Report shows big insurance profiting massively from Medicare privatization,” Common Dreams (https://www.commondreams.org/news/report-shows-big-insurance-profiting-massively-from-growing-privatization-of-medicare)