What is the evidence for access and quality in Medicare Advantage versus traditional Medicare?

What Do We Know About Health Care Access and Quality in Medicare Advantage Versus the Traditional Medicare Program?

By Marsha Gold and Giselle Casillas
Kaiser Family Foundation, November 6, 2014

This literature review synthesizes the findings of studies that focus specifically on Medicare and have been published between the year 2000 and early 2014. Forty-five studies met the criteria for selection, including 40 that made direct comparisons between Medicare health plans and traditional Medicare. An additional five studies are included, even though they have no traditional Medicare comparison group.


Despite great interest in comparisons between traditional Medicare and Medicare Advantage, studies comparing overall quality and access to care between Medicare Advantage plans and traditional Medicare tend to be based on relatively old data, and a limited set of measures.

On the one hand, the evidence indicates that Medicare HMOs tend to perform better than traditional Medicare in providing preventive services and using resources more conservatively, at least through 2009. These are metrics where HMOs have historically been strong. On the other hand, beneficiaries continue to rate traditional Medicare more favorably than Medicare Advantage plans in terms of quality and access, such as overall care and plan rating, though one study suggests that the difference may be narrowing between traditional Medicare and Medicare Advantage for the average beneficiary. Among beneficiaries who are sick, the differential between traditional Medicare and Medicare Advantage is particularly large (relative to those who are healthy), favoring traditional Medicare. Very few studies include evidence based on all types of Medicare Advantage plans, including analysis of performance for newer models, such as local and regional PPOs whose enrollment is growing.

As the beneficiary population ages, better evidence is needed on how Medicare Advantage plans perform relative to traditional Medicare for patients with significant medical needs that make them particularly vulnerable to poorer care. The ability to assess quality and access for such subgroups is limited because many data sources do not allow subgroups to be identified or have too small a sample size to support estimates. Also, in many cases, metrics employed may not be specific to the particular needs or the way a patient’s overall health and functional status or other comorbid conditions influence the care they receive.

At a time when enrollment in Medicare Advantage is growing, it is disappointing that better information is not available to inform policymaking. Our findings highlight the gaps in available evidence and reinforce the potential value of strengthening available data and other support for tracking and monitoring performance across Medicare Advantage plans and traditional Medicare as each sector evolves.


An Emerging Consensus: Medicare Advantage Is Working And Can Deliver Meaningful Reform

By Thomas Miller and James Capretta
Health Affairs Blog, November 6, 2014

The success of Medicare Advantage in recent years is changing the conversation on Medicare reform.  It is now possible to envision genuine bipartisan support for fair competition between MA plans and FFS.  The “premium support” concept still engenders highly politicized opposition in some quarters.  But support for the idea has also begun to cross ideological divides. 

Premium support is of course a complex reform.  It requires risk adjustment of payments and regulation of plans to ensure fair competition.  But the risk adjustment system and the regulation need not be perfect for the reform to work; indeed, the system already in place today for MA plans should provide sufficient confidence that a competitive reform model would be beneficial for the program’s participants.

The main obstacle to more intensive competition in Medicare has been distrust.  MA advocates believe the bureaucracy will tilt the playing field toward FFS; and FFS defenders believe private plans will find new ways to risk select and game the system or to influence policymakers to provide them with overly generous terms on their payment rates.



By Don McCanne, MD

Today two new papers were released designed to give us greater insight on the relative value of the traditional Medicare program and the private Medicare Advantage plans. What can we learn from these reports?

It is well established that Medicare Advantage plans are paid more per patient than the costs of providing care for comparable patients in the traditional Medicare program. They continue to market their plans to healthier patients and yet they artificially magnify a touch of illness for purposes of receiving greater payments based on risk adjustment. Although the Affordable Care Act requires a gradual reduction in these overpayments, concessions have been made by the Obama administration to reduce the impact of these adjustments. The taxpayers continue to receive inferior value from their investment in the private Medicare Advantage plans.

The comprehensive literature review from Kaiser Family Foundation concludes that the information available unfortunately is quite limited. They do conclude that Medicare HMOs are able to achieve higher scores in providing preventive services - likely because of their IT systems that flag items that would improve their quality rating scores. Medicare HMOs also use resources more conservatively, which raises the concern that they could be withholding appropriate care.

Perhaps the most important conclusion from the Kaiser review is the finding that the differential in quality and access for beneficiaries who are sick is particularly large, relative to those who are healthy, between traditional Medicare and Medicare Advantage. Medicare Advantage plans may have learned how to score well on teach-to-the-test quality measures, but they fall far short of traditional Medicare in patients’ real world health care experiences.

The Health Affairs Blog article by Miller and Capretta needs to be recognized for what it is - a political tract. They claim that “evidence mounts that MA plans can deliver more efficient and higher quality care than FFS” - a claim based more on their ideological preferences for a privatized Medicare rather than on a comprehensive review of the health policy literature. They then use that conclusion to advocate for a premium support proposal that would further privatize Medicare.

They state that the main obstacle to increasing public and private Medicare plan competition is distrust. They say that Medicare Advantage advocates believe that bureaucrats will tilt the playing field toward traditional Medicare, yet the facts are that the Obama administration has been tilting the field towards the Medicare Advantage plans instead. They also say that the traditional Medicare advocates “believe private plans will find new ways to risk select and game the system or to influence policymakers to provide them with overly generous terms on their payment rates.” Of course, those are not just beliefs but are well documented facts. We are paying more for private insurers to game the system at our expense.

Although neither of these reports provides new evidence that would change our opinions on private Medicare Advantage plans, they do reinforce our view that we should not listen to ideologues who care more about markets than about patients. Instead we should continue to support our traditional Medicare program that puts patients first, although we do need to improve it and then expand it to cover everyone.