by Tim Rowan, Editor Emeritus

This week, we look at the state of the healthcare industry, vis a vis payers that do not pay.

While Home Health and Hospice leaders talk at every gathering about refusing to accept Medicare Advantage clients, some large Integrated Healthcare Systems are actually doing it. Other hospitals are responding to difficult payers by laying off staff, or even closing. The HHS Office of Inspector General repeatedly fines insurance companies for upcoding to gain inflated, unjustified monthly payments. Meanwhile, insurance companies report record profits, with their MA divisions leading the way. The fines go into the “cost of doing business” column.

March, 2024, Becker’s Hospital Review: Bristol (Conn.) Health will eliminate 60 positions, 21 of which are currently occupied and will result in layoffs at Bristol Hospital. The hospital’s CEO, Kurt Barwis, told a local newspaper a lack of reimbursement from insurers left the hospital without a choice but to cut staff.

October, 2023, NPR: Since 2010, 150 rural hospitals have closed. Under CMS’s “Critical Access” designation, Medicare pays extra to those hospitals to compensate for low patient volumes. MA plans do not. Instead, they offer negotiated rates that are lower than what traditional Medicare would pay.

December, 2023, Becker’s Financial Management: 13 additional hospital systems cut ties with Medicare Advantage plans since October.

What is going on?

The Medicare Payment Advisory Commission, MedPAC, believes it has learned the answer. In its March 15, 2024 report to Congress, the Commission called for a “major overhaul” of Medicare Advantage policies. It says it found that the program, designed to lower costs and extend the lifespan of the Medicare trust fund, does not save money but costs the fund more than if all beneficiaries were on traditional Medicare, $83 billion more in 2024.

Calling it, too politely, “coding intensity,” MedPAC concurs with the OIG that MA plans routinely exaggerate patient conditions. The report claims it will amount to MA clients appearing to need 20% more healthcare than fee-for-service beneficiaries, when they do not. Padded coding, MedPAC says, will increase Medicare premiums by $13 billion in 2024.

“A major overhaul of MA policies is urgently needed for several reasons,” the commission wrote in its report. MedPAC cited several problems that need to be addressed, including the disparity in costs between beneficiaries in fee-for-service Medicare and MA, a lack of information on the use and value of supplemental benefits, and challenges setting benchmark payment rates.

A proposal currently making its way through Congress would reduce supplemental payments to insurers, who threaten to raise premiums and cut benefits if their inflated benchmark payments are lowered.Celebrity Endorsements of Medicare Advantage

“If payments to MA plans were lowered, plans might reduce the supplemental benefits they offer,” MedPAC wrote in its report. “However, because plans use these benefits to attract enrollees, they might respond instead by modifying other aspects of their bids.” The barrage of TV ads, featuring aging celebrities, have been found to be deceptive and too often backed by shady front companies representing brokers, not insurance companies. The brokerage company behind the Joe Namath ads, for example, has reorganized and changed its name three times.

Pushback from AHIP, the insurance industry lobbying organization, has been as expected. “MedPAC’s estimates are based on ‘speculative assumptions’ and ‘overlook basic facts about who Medicare Advantage serves and the value the program provides.'”

MedPAC asserts that its estimates are based on history, not speculation.

Healthcare Providers Beg to Differ

A lack of payments from Medicare Advantage plans is one reason the Connecticut hospital is laying off staff, the Hartford Courant reported March 14. CEO Kurt Barwis told the newspaper Medicare Advantage plans have been denying claims more frequently while delaying payments for the claims they do approve. “Our primary care is to take care of patients, their single focus is shareholder value and profits,” Mr. Barwis told the Courant. “The Medicare Advantage abuse is outrageous.”

The strategy insurance companies deploy to avoid providing care, Barwis continued, is excessive prior authorizations, coupled with delayed payments. This obstacle to care is directly in opposition to CMS policy. MA divisions of large insurers respond that they are private insurance and allowed to impose their own treatment approval policies. MedPAC says this claim is incorrect.

Richard Kronick, a former federal health policy researcher and a professor at the University of California-San Diego, said his analysis of newly released Medicare Advantage billing data estimates that Medicare overpaid the private health plans by more than $106 billion from 2010 through 2019 because of the way the private plans charge for sicker patients. Kronick added that there is “little evidence” that MA enrollees are sicker than the average senior, though risk scores in 2019 were 19 percent higher in MA plans than in original Medicare. That gap continues to widen.

Where does this excess taxpayer money go?

2023 Medicare Advantage business division profits and 2022 CEO compensation reported by publicly traded companies:

UnitedHealth Group: $22.4 B (Andrew Witty $20,865,106)
Aetna (CVS): $8.3 B (Karen Lynch $21,317,055)
Elevance Health (Anthem): $6 B (Gail Boudreaux $20,931,081)
Cigna: $5.1 B (David Cordani $20,965,504)
Centene: $2.7 B (Sarah London $13,246,447)
Humana: $2.5 B (Bruce Broussard $17,198,844)

We found one curious outlier. Molina Health, with annual revenue 10 percent of UnitedHealth Group’s income and 2.16 percent of the market, paid its CEO $22,131,256 in 2022.

Download the entire MedPAC 2024 report here. Chapter 7 is the Home Health section. A summary of MedPACs recommendations begins the chapter thus, “For calendar year 2025, the Congress should reduce the 2024 Medicare base payment rates for home health agencies by 7 percent.”

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Tim Rowan is a 30-year home care technology consultant who co-founded and served as Editor and principal writer of this publication for 25 years. He continues to occasionally contribute news and analysis articles under The Rowan Report’s new ownership. He also continues to work part-time as a Home Care recruiting and retention consultant. More information:

©2024 by The Rowan Report, Peoria, AZ. All rights reserved. This article originally appeared in Healthcare at Home: The Rowan One copy may be printed for personal use: further reproduction by permission only.