One limitation of the analysis is that Medicare Advantage plans determine which groups of enrollees to target for these supplemental benefits, but researchers lacked data on which groups of enrollees were eligible to receive these benefits.
It’s also possible the benefits may not have been classified correctly or labeled clearly in the data set used for the study, leading researchers to underestimate the availability of social needs benefits.
“We knew that growth in the adoption of supplemental benefits by Medicare Advantage plans has been relatively slow,” says Amber Willink, an associate professor at the University of Sydney, Australia, who wasn’t involved in the study.
Many Medicare Advantage plans may be waiting to see the merits of these social supplemental benefits in terms of improving outcomes or containing costs before they make a widespread commitment to offer these benefits, Ms. Willink says by email.
“This is important for Medicare beneficiaries and families as many may assume that because MA plans now can provide supplemental benefits that they will,” Ms. Willink adds. “The plan benefit fine print is more important than ever.”
Plans that do add these benefits should see them pay off, says Melony Sorbero, a senior policy researcher at the RAND Corporation and co-director of the RAND-University of Pittsburgh Health Institute.
“There is evidence that shows the provision of services such as meals and non-medical transportation, help maintain the health of Medicare beneficiaries, reduce hospitalizations, particularly readmissions, and reduce the use of the emergency department,” Ms. Sorbero, who wasn’t involved in the study, says by email.
Reduced use in turn reduces out of pocket medical costs for beneficiaries, many of whom have limited financial resources, Ms. Sorbero adds. “However, the evidence base is a bit of a patchwork and Medicare Advantage plans are still learning which services are most effective for what types of enrollees.”
- Meyers DJ, Gadbois EA, Brazier J, et al. Medicare plans’ adoption of special supplemental benefits for the chronically ill for enrollees with social needs. JAMA Netw Open. 2020 May 1;3(5):e204690.