CHICAGO (Reuters)—Medicare enrollees are moving in greater numbers than ever to the program’s managed care option as a way to save money. But the tradeoff is much less ability to use their preferred doctors and hospitals.
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Seniors can choose between traditional fee-for-service Medicare—which is accepted by most healthcare providers—or a Medicare Advantage plan. The latter encompasses health maintenance organizations (HMOs) or preferred provider organizations (PPOs), which control costs by creating healthcare provider networks that enrollees must use.
In theory, prospective Advantage enrollees can review lists of in-network providers before opting into a plan. But a new study by the Kaiser Family Foundation (KFF) finds that provider data often is very difficult to review, can be out of date and frequently contain inaccurate information.
KFF’s review also found shortcomings in the quality of providers in some Medicare Advantage provider networks. One out of every five plans did not include a regional academic medical center—institutions which usually offer the highest quality care and top specialists. And only 40 percent of Advantage provider networks included top-quality cancer centers, as indicated by membership in the National Cancer Institute’s network.
NCI-designated cancer centers offer cutting-edge treatments and tend to have greater access to clinical trials. They are especially important for patients with rare and advanced cancers, or other complicating conditions, said Gretchen Jacobson, KFF’s associate director of the program on Medicare policy and co-author of the study.
The upshot: Medicare Advantage may be just fine if you are healthy, but problems may crop up if your healthcare needs become more complex and you have very specific healthcare provider preferences.
This year, 31 percent of Medicare enrollees are in Advantage plans, up from 11 percent in 2010. That number is expected to hit 41 percent by 2026, according to a forecast by the Congressional Budget Office.
When you sign up for Advantage, your Part B premium goes to the insurance company providing the plan. The largest providers are UnitedHealthcare, Humana Inc. and Blue Cross Blue Shield.
One often hears critics claim that healthcare providers are bailing out of traditional Medicare in large numbers—but that is not actually the case. Last year, 14 percent of Medicare enrollees who were seeking a new primary care doctor reported major problems in finding a physician who would treat them, according to survey data from the Medicare Payment Advisory Commission, an independent congressional agency. Among those seeking a new specialist, 6 percent reported major problems. In both cases, that represents 1 percent of the total Medicare population.