Is Austin Frakt right that Medicare Advantage may be worth the extra cost?

Medicare Advantage Is More Expensive, but It May Be Worth It

By Austin Frakt
The New York Times, August 18, 2014

Medicare Advantage plans — private plans that serve as alternatives to the traditional, public program for those that qualify for it — underperform traditional Medicare in one respect: They cost 6 percent more.

But they outperform traditional Medicare in another way: They offer higher quality. That’s according to research summarized recently by the Harvard health economists Joseph Newhouse and Thomas McGuire, and it raises a difficult question: Is the extra quality worth the extra cost?

In contrast to studies in the 1990s, more recent work finds that Medicare Advantage is superior to traditional Medicare on a variety of quality measures. For example, according to a paper in Health Affairs by John Ayanian and colleagues, women enrolled in a Medicare Advantage H.M.O. are more likely to receive mammography screenings; those with diabetes are more likely to receive blood sugar testing and retinal exams; and those with diabetes or cardiovascular disease are more likely to receive cholesterol testing.

Contemplating these more recent findings on quality alongside the higher taxpayer cost of Medicare Advantage plans invites some cognitive dissonance. On the one hand, we shouldn’t pay more than we need to in order to provide the Medicare benefit; we should demand that taxpayer-financed benefits be provided as efficiently as possible. Medicare Advantage doesn’t look so good from this perspective.

On the other hand, we want Medicare beneficiaries — which we all hope to be someday, if we’re not already — to receive the highest quality of care. Here, as far as we know from research to date, Medicare Advantage shines, at least relative to traditional Medicare.

Is Medicare Advantage worth its extra cost? A decade ago when quality appeared poor, the answer was easy: No. Today one must think harder and weigh costs against program benefits, including its higher quality. The research base is still too thin to provide an objective answer. Mr. Newhouse and Mr. McGuire hedge but lean favorably toward Medicare Advantage, saying cuts in its “plan payments may be shortsighted.”


How Successful Is Medicare Advantage?

By Joseph P. Newhouse and Thomas G. McGuire
The Milbank Quarterly, June 3, 2014 (online)

Quality of Care in TM (traditional Medicare) and MA (Medicare Advantage)

The plans’ medical management methods could, in principle, improve the quality of their care relative to that of TM. Unfortunately, it is difficult to compare the quality of care in TM and MA because the data necessary to do so are sparse (John Ayanian et al). A few comparisons can be made, however, from the data reported by beneficiaries in the Consumer Assessment of Healthcare Providers and Systems (CAHPS) surveys, although the beneficiaries’ ability to assess the technical quality of their care clearly is limited.

Joseph P. Newhouse is a member of Aetna’s Board of Directors:

Thomas McGuire coauthored the paper, “Making Medicare advantage a middle-class program”:


Medicare Beneficiaries More Likely To Receive Appropriate Ambulatory Services In HMOs Than In Traditional Medicare

By John Z. Ayanian, Bruce E. Landon, Alan M. Zaslavsky, Robert C. Saunders, L. Gregory Pawlson and Joseph P. Newhouse
Health Affairs, July 2013

Our results suggest that the positive effects of more-integrated delivery systems on the quality of ambulatory care in Medicare HMOs may outweigh the potential incentives to restrict care under capitated payments.

From the Conclusion

The Affordable Care Act authorized CMS to begin contracting with accountable care organizations that will share financial risk with CMS for the costs and quality of care received by the traditional Medicare beneficiaries they serve.23 Through the Medicare Pioneer Accountable Care Organizations and Shared Savings Programs, these organizations are eligible to receive bonus payments, initially related to reporting quality measures and subsequently to achieving higher quality of care.

These recent parallel expansions of financial incentives for achieving better quality of care in Medicare Advantage and traditional Medicare heighten the need for performance measures that can be compared between these two major components of the Medicare program. Such measures will enable policy makers, health care providers, and Medicare beneficiaries to assess whether the quality of care in Medicare Advantage health plans differs from that provided within accountable care organizations and from that provided outside these organizations in the traditional Medicare program.


Pioneer Accountable Care Organizations disappoint

By Don McCanne
PNHP Blog, July 17, 2013

The Pioneer Accountable Care Organizations (ACOs) were already existing health care organizations that were selected as potentially exemplary models that could show the rest of the nation how well ACOs can work to achieve higher quality at lower costs. We now have a report from CMS of the initial “successes” of this model.

Considering the added administrative hassle, the savings were negligible, with only 13 of the 32 organizations saving enough to receive “shared savings” from CMS, and 2 actually lost money.

Even the supposed quality gains were unimpressive since they represented only 15 measurements which the organizations were told in advance would be used to determine whether or not they met quality standards. These teach-to-the-test gains can hardly represent the overall quality status of each organization.



By Don McCanne, M.D.

The private Medicare Advantage plans promised higher quality at lower cost. They clearly have failed on the promise of lower costs, but are they actually providing improved quality that is worth the extra cost?

Austin Frakt cites the Milbank Quarterly article by Joseph Newhouse and Thomas McGuire as providing the evidence for higher quality. In their article they state, “it is difficult to compare the quality of care in TM (traditional Medicare) and MA (Medicare Advantage) because the data necessary to do so are sparse.” They cite as their source a Health Affairs article by John Ayanian et al (Joseph Newhouse being a coauthor) which states, “These recent parallel expansions of financial incentives for achieving better quality of care in Medicare Advantage and traditional Medicare heighten the need for performance measures that can be compared between these two major components of the Medicare program.” Yes, performance measures that we do not have.

The ideological preferences of Newhouse and McGuire can be gleaned from the links above - a bias which shines through in their Milbank Quarterly article.

The point is that, other than for a few primitive teach-to-the-test measurements, measurement of quality is still in the dark ages. The Medicare Advantage plans would be expected to do better on these few measurements since they use them for marketing purposes (Medicare star ratings) and to gain bonuses. Even Austin Frakt writes, “The research base is still too thin to provide an objective answer.”

The case for higher quality in Medicare Advantage plans has not been made.

An excellent article that concurs with this view: “No, We Still Don’t Have Proof That Private Medicare Plans Are Better,” by Thomas Huelskoetter: