Monday, February 6, 2012

Medicare Advantage Premiums Drop an Average of 7% and Enrollment up 10%—That Must Make Republicans Just Want to Cry

Medicare Advantage would appear to be a fantastic success—senior premiums are dropping and enrollment is increasing.

Listening to Health and Human Services Secretary Sebelius last week, you would think private Medicare plans were a Democratic idea and this is their success. Many industry observers, including me, have worried that Medicare Advantage benefits would shrink and premiums would rise because the new health care law reduced federal payments to the plans by $136 billion over the next decade.

“The Medicare Advantage program is stronger than ever,” said Secretary Sebelius. “Premiums are down on average, enrollment is up, and thanks to the Affordable Care Act we have unprecedented new tools to ensure that seniors and people with disabilities are getting the best value out of their coverage.”

Of course, privatizing Medicare has always been a Republican idea and most Democrats would like nothing better than to kill it dead out of fear that Medicare Advantage plans will undermine the financial integrity of Medicare—private plans get paid more than Medicare gets for the same enrollees—and that the private plans risk turning the Medicare entitlement into a two-tiered program—one for the rich and one for the poor.

And, Democrats can’t wait to use the Paul Ryan Premium Support plan, which would rely exclusively on private Medicare plans, as an election issue charging that the Republicans want to kill Medicare as we know it.

But instead the Obama administration used last week’s announcement of lower Medicare Advantage premiums and solid enrollment growth as evidence of just how successful they’ve been at running the program and how overdone Republican charges were that the Medicare cuts in the Affordable Care Act would wreck private Medicare.

There is that old saying, “Sometimes it’s better to be lucky than good.”

First, the entire health insurance industry is experiencing an unexpected drop in health care trend rates—costs are escalating far less than expected. When that happens, health insurers generally see their bottom line improve in the form of windfall profits.

What Medicare pays Medicare Advantage plans is a function of the last year’s experience. With the expectation that care costs would be higher than they turned out to be, private plans were inadvertently paid more, as well as charged seniors more, than they needed. That typically goes on for as long as health care cost trend decelerates.

The good results in Medicare Advantage were also helped by the Obama administration, which declared a “Lake Wobegon” moment. They took $6.7 billion intended to be paid as bonuses to the highest quality plans under the new health law and instead declared just about all of them “above average” or better and infused those billions among almost all Medicare Advantage contractors, further improving their bottom lines.

Why did the Democrats who hate Medicare Advantage so much find an extra $6.7 billion for them? Because it’s an election year. Seniors vote and the Democrats very quickly concluded that having seniors lose their private plans, or have to pay more for them because of payment changes due to the new health law, wasn’t going to help their reelection chances in places like Florida.

So, ironically, the Democrats were so scared Medicare Advantage premiums were going to soar that they dumped billions into the program to offset the expected.

But the expected didn’t happen when cost trend came in lower than everyone predicted. The result was even better profit results for the industry, better than expected prices for seniors, and enrollment growth.

Now, Sebelius could have said, “Whoops, we just flooded the health insurance industry with billions they didn’t need.” But why do that when you can take credit for a popular program you really want to kill?

Does this mean Medicare Advantage is out of the woods? No, more like there is a cliff still coming.

First, no more $6.7 billion gifts to the insurance industry from the Obama administration are in the pipeline.

Second, trend can’t keep falling. At best, it will stabilize and erase the windfall profits. At worst, it will start climbing and we’ll have the opposite impact on profitability and pricing.

Third, the $136 billion in cuts to Medicare Advantage the Affordable Care Act makes to the program really doesn't begin for another two years—the new law just froze payments this year at unintentionally generous levels.

Medicare Advantage plans are now benefiting from a perfect storm of good things. In a couple of years, it could be a perfect storm of bad things— no more “Lake Wobegon” payments, rising trend rates resulting in inadequate payments to insurers, and the $136 billion in real cuts finally kicking in.

Until then, we can expect to see President Obama campaigning in front of seniors taking credit for all the good things his new health law has done for Medicare Advantage.

It must make Republicans just want to cry.
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