Piper Report
Blog on Medicare, Medicaid, health reform, and more. Insights and resources on hot issues. Kip Piper, editor.
Healthcare consultant, speaker, and writer. Expert on Medicare, Medicaid, health reform, and pharma, biotech, and medical technology industries. President, Health Results Group LLC. Senior advisor to Sellers Dorsey, TogoRun, and Fleishman-Hillard. Visit KipPiper.com. Or email Kip here.
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posted: June 30, 2010

Medicare Data Book 2010.jpgMedPAC released its Medicare Data Book for 2010, with a wide range of useful information on Medicare spending, utilization, beneficiaries, providers, health plans, drug plans, access, and quality. The format is reader-friendly charts and tables with bulleted summaries.


Specifically, the latest MedPAC Data Book includes information on:


  • Medicare spending, including Medicare spending compared to national health care spending.

  • Medicare beneficiary demographics.

  • Dual-eligible beneficiaries.

  • Medicare quality and access.

  • Medicare beneficiary cost sharing and other payer liability.

  • Medicare Part B drugs and biologics.

  • Medicare Advantage program, including Medicare Advantage plans, Special Needs Plans (SNPs), and enrollment figures.

  • Medicare Part D prescription drug program.

  • MedPAC also provides an array of charts and tables on Medicare providers and care settings, with data on Medicare spending, percent of beneficiaries using the service, number of providers, volume, length of stay, and, where available, profit margins, if
    applicable. Provider types covered include inpatient hospitals, outpatient hospitals, physicians, skilled nursing facilities, home health agencies, long-term care hospitals, inpatient rehabilitation facilities, ambulatory surgical centers, dialysis facilities, and hospice.


    MedPAC - the Medicare Payment Advisory Commission - advises Congress on Medicare policy.

    posted: March 21, 2010

    LTC in PPACA.jpgThe federal health reform legislation - Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA) - includes an ambitious list of changes to long-term care (LTC) services for seniors and the disabled. Most include a massive infusion of federal funding to help state Medicaid programs provide more LTC through home and community-based settings. Here's a quick run-down of the new LTC reforms:


    Community Living Assistance Services and Supports (CLASS) Program:

    • Creates a national, voluntary insurance program for purchasing community living assistance services and supports (CLASS program).
    • Following a five-year vesting period, the CLASS program will provide individuals with functional limitations a cash benefit of not less than an average of $50 per day to purchase non-medical services and supports necessary to maintain community residence.
    • Financed through payroll deduction of about $75 a month. All working adults will be automatically enrolled in the program, unless they choose to opt-out. The new tax is effective January 1, 2011.
    • Expected to cover $5 billion to $10 billion worth of non-medical services and supports annually.

    Medicaid Money Follows the Person Rebalancing Demonstration:

    • Extends the multi-billion dollar Medicaid Money Follows the Person Rebalancing Demonstration program through September 2016.
    • Primary objective of moving Medicaid eligible seniors from nursing homes to home, group homes, or assisted living. The three-year old initiative helps states to reduce reliance on nursing homes, while developing community-based long-term care options and enabling frail seniors and people with disabilities to live in the community.
    • Estimated $1.7 billion in additional federal funding.

    New State Options for Home and Community-Based Services:

    • Provides states with new options for offering home and community-based services (HCBS) through a Medicaid State Plan rather than through a waiver.
    • HCBS programs provide an array of non-medical services and supports - such as personal care attendants and in-home technologies - to help frail seniors and persons with disabilities live independently in their own homes.
    • PPACA ends the need for states to show federal budget neutrality to operate or expand a HCBS program.
    • At state option, this applies for individuals with incomes up to 300% of the maximum SSI payment and who have a higher level of need.
    • States may extend full Medicaid benefits to individual receiving home and community-based services under a State Plan.
    • $2.4 billion new federal funding over ten years.
    • Effective retroactively to October 1, 2010.

    Community First Choice Option:

    • Establishes the Community First Choice Option in Medicaid to provide community-based attendant supports and services to individuals with disabilities who require an institutional level of care.
    • Provides states with an enhanced federal matching rate (FMAP) of an additional six percentage points for reimbursable expenses in the program.
    • $6 billion in new federal funding over 10 years.
    • Effective October 1, 2011. Option sunsets after five years unless renewed by Congress.

    State Balancing Incentive Program:

    • Creates the State Balancing Incentive Program to provide enhanced federal matching payments to eligible states to increase the proportion of long-term care services provided through the community (instead of nursing homes and similar institutional settings).
    • Selected states will be eligible for higher federal match for Medicaid expenditures for the non-institutional long-term services and supports. HHS will select states based on an application process.
    • Total federal incentives of $1.8 billion.
    • Effective October 1, 2011 through September 30, 2015.

    For More Information on Long-Term Care Reforms:


    The new LTC initiatives in the PPACA create tremendous opportunities for state Medicaid agencies, state aging agencies, and health care organizations. For help or more information, I recommend that you contact my colleagues at Sellers Dorsey. Pat Brady and her highly skilled LTC reform team are already helping states and private organizations design and implement innovative LTC programs. These are true win-win efforts, supporting independent living and improving care, while saving dollars for taxpayers.

    posted: December 23, 2008

    Drug%20Use%20in%20SNP%20and%20MAPD.jpgMedicare beneficiaries in Special Needs Plans (SNPs) have higher Part D prescription drug utilization and costs than enrollees in other Medicare Advantage Prescription Drug Plans (MA-PDs) do. This is no surprise since, by design, Special Needs Plans serve higher-risk Medicare patients, including many dual eligibles. However, despite higher drug utilization rates in SNPs, SNP enrollees and other MA-PD enrollees have similar rates of inappropriate drug pairs (therapeutic duplications and drug-drug interactions).


    Compared to enrollees in other (non-SNP) Medicare Advantage drug plans, SNP enrollees fill 11% more scripts. The average annual prescription cost per SNP beneficiary is 49% higher compared to that of other MA-PD beneficiaries. The difference in per capita drug costs between SNPs and other MA-PDs appears due to a combination of factors: SNP beneficiaries' higher utilization, use of costlier drugs, lower utilization of 90-day prescriptions, and SNPs paying more for some highly utilized drugs.


    While SNP beneficiaries fill more prescriptions on average than other MA-PD beneficiaries, SNP and other MA-PD beneficiaries are exposed to potentially inappropriate drug pairs at similar frequencies. However, at higher levels of drug utilization, SNP beneficiaries are less likely to be exposed to a potentially inappropriate drug pair than other MA-PD beneficiaries.


    Most inappropriate drug pairs (65%) in SNPs and MA-PDs are drug-drug interactions. Of these, 83% presented a moderate risk and 17% a serious or severe risk of an adverse drug event. The remaining potentially inappropriate drug pairs (35%) are therapeutic duplications. The majority of inappropriate drug pairings - in both SNPs and other MA-PDs - recur and involve drugs prescribed by the same physician and filled by the same pharmacy.


    These findings, from a new analysis of 2006 data by the HHS OIG, provide further evidence for the urgent need of e-prescribing nationwide. There is also a need for genuine medication therapy management programs and more information and decision support tools for physicians and pharmacists - as well as sharpened accountability for those relatively small number of prescribers and dispensers who apparently generate the majority of potentially dangerous drug pairings.

    posted: August 20, 2008

    Medicare%20Policy%20Making.jpgThe next President and Congress will face many fiscal and policy challenges from the $436 billion Medicare program. Following my earlier quick primers on Medicaid policy making and Medicare and Medicaid waivers, here is a similar briefing on the primary vehicles of Medicare policy making.


    As a federal health program operating nationwide, Medicare policies are made through:


    Federal Medicare Statutes:


    Title XVIII of the Social Security Act sets forth the bulk of federal Medicare laws. Given the political importance and visibility of Medicare, Medicare statutes are extremely specific, especially on provider reimbursement, benefits, cost sharing, managed care, and provider conditions of participation. Therefore, CMS' rulemaking discretion is often limited.


    In the House, the Ways and Means Committee has primary jurisdiction over Medicare but often shares jurisdiction on certain issues with the Energy and Commerce Committee. In the Senate, the Finance Committee has primary jurisdiction for Medicare. The Medicare Payment Advisory Commission (MedPAC) advises Congress on Medicare issues and often proposes major policy changes. Like with Medicaid, Medicare legislative changes are typically accomplished through budget reconciliation bills rather than separate stand-alone legislation.


    Federal Medicare Rules:


    Most federal Medicare rules are promulgated by CMS (42 CFR Part 400 through 429). CMS must follow the same rulemaking and clearance processes for federal Medicaid rules. Medicare rules are developed by the relevant operating center or office with CMS, such as the Center for Medicare Management (CMM) for fee-for-service Part A and Part B issues and the Center for Drug and Health Plan Choice (CDHPC) for Part D and Medicare Advantage issues. Legal advice comes from the HHS Office of General Counsel (OGC).


    Before publication in the Federal Register, all proposed and final rules require approval of the HHS Secretary and the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB). OMB's Medicare rule reviews are conducted primarily by the Medicare Branch in OMB's Health Division.


    Federal Medicare Guidance:


    CMS uses numerous vehicles to convey Medicare guidance, including tens of thousands of pages of manuals, instructions, and program transmittals to contractors, providers, suppliers, health plans, and drug plans. Within the framework of the statutes and rules, considerable operational and technical policy is also set through the Medicare Advantage and Part D drug benefit applications, bids, and contracts.


    Unlike in Medicaid - where CMS is often criticized for setting substantive policy through sub-regulatory guidance - Medicare guidance is more a product of a layering effect of highly specific statutes and regulations. Therefore, the Medicare administrative guidance focuses on execution issues, operational details (e.g., coding), and clarifications within and across the four complex, sometime conflicting parts of Medicare.


    Under a new Executive Order, OMB now has the right to prior review and approval of CMS guidance, particularly any sub-regulatory guidance involving issues about $100 million, which is virtually anything in Medicare or Medicaid. To learn more, read my earlier post on expansion of OMB's review authority and implications for policy making by CMS and the FDA.

    posted: August 12, 2008

    Medicare%20Medicaid%20Demos.jpgFederal waivers are powerful tools to demonstrate Medicare or Medicaid reforms, including new payment methods, benefit packages, and delivery systems. The business and policy opportunities are considerable. Here's a quick primer.


    Demonstration Waivers:


    Historically, federal policymakers have understood the need to test new ideas in the complex Medicare and Medicaid programs. Research and demonstrations projects - whether initiated by states, health services researchers, providers, health plans, CMS, or Congress - often lead to models or reforms available or mandated nationwide.


    Therefore, federal law permits the Secretary of Health and Human Services to waive certain provisions of the Social Security Act and associated regulations as needed to conduct demonstration projects in Medicare, Medicaid, or both Medicare and Medicaid. Waivers are purely discretionary unless legislation mandates a specific project.


    Medicaid Waivers under Section 1115:


    Section 1115 of the Social Security Act is the principal waiver authority in Medicaid. The HHS Secretary may waive most federal requirements regarding Medicaid benefit packages, eligibility, cost sharing, managed care, and other care delivery. A Medicaid demonstration may be statewide or for only a portion of the state (select counties). (States may also request similar waivers of federal law to reform SCHIP.)


    Ostensively, Medicaid waiver projects are research-oriented and intended to test the merits of a new reform(s) not permitted under current law. However, in practice, many Medicaid "demonstrations" are or soon evolve into indefinite, alternative models of Medicaid. Although under no obligation to do so, the HHS Secretary may approve similar or even identical waivers for multiple states.


    Medicaid waivers must be requested by the state Medicaid agency, with the approval of the governor. Federal officials may encourage states to propose waivers and Congress occasionally enacts legislation calling for waivers to demonstrate specific reforms. However, the vast majority of Medicaid waiver-based projects are initiated and designed by state governments, often with the assistance of outside experts.


    Once approved, Medicaid demonstration projects are operated by the state Medicaid agency, with oversight by CMS. The state may contract with third parties, such as health plans or other contractors, but s. 1115 demonstrations remain part of Medicaid and therefore the state is also responsible for the demonstration project.


    Roughly speaking, between a quarter and a third of Medicaid spending operates under s. 1115 waivers instead of standard Medicaid statutes and rules.


    Medicare Waivers under Sections 402/222:


    Under Sections 402/222, the HHS Secretary may waive Medicare statutes and rules to demonstrate new approaches to provider reimbursement, including tests of alternative payment methodologies, demos of new delivery systems, and coverage of additional services to improve the overall efficiency of Medicare. (Sections 402/222 refer to section 402[a] of the Social Security Amendments of 1967, as amended by section 222[a] of the Social Security Amendments of 1972.)


    Medicare demonstrations may be national or limited to certain states, regions, populations, provider types, or even providers or plans designated in advance. They may also be limited in other ways, such as capped in number of participating beneficiaries or providers. Unlike Medicaid demonstrations, participation in Medicare demonstrations, whether by beneficiaries or providers, is rarely mandatory and then only if required by a Congressional mandate.


    Any organization or individual may propose a Medicare waiver project. This includes providers, health plans, state Medicaid agencies, and health services researchers. CMS maintains an open invitation for outside parties to propose Medicare demonstration projects and the necessary waivers. However, the bulk of Medicare waiver-based demo projects are congressionally mandated in legislation or initiated administratively by CMS. CMS-initiated Medicare demonstration projects are often developed at the behest of the HHS Secretary, the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB), the Medicare Payment Advisory Commission (MedPAC), or the Office of the Inspector General.


    Unlike many Medicaid waiver-based projects, most Medicare waiver projects tend to be genuine demonstrations projects with a careful research design and evaluation methodology. Given this research emphasis, requests to replicate currently operating Medicare demonstrations are often denied unless a research value can be shown.


    Occasionally, ss. 402/222 authority is used to issue what CMS informally calls "operational waivers." These later waivers are often made to address emergencies or fix short-term operational problems (e.g., provider payments after a natural disaster, reimburse states for drug payments during Medicare Part D transition).


    Once approved, Medicare waiver projects are administered by CMS either directly, through contractors (e.g., Medicare administrative contractors, Medicare Advantage plans), or (rarely) through states. Except for operational waivers, CMS evaluates each demonstration projects. Major Medicare demonstrations, including congressionally mandated projects, are evaluated by independent health services researchers hired by CMS. CMS' budget for evaluations is small, with congressionally mandated demonstrations using most of the available funding. This, coupled with the administrative burden of designing, operating, and monitoring waivers, tends to limit the number of Medicare waivers CMS is able to consider.


    Combined Medicare-Medicaid Projects:


    States may propose demonstration projects involving the waiver of both Medicaid and Medicare statutes and rules. Combining the authority offered by s. 1115 (Medicaid) and ss. 402/222 (Medicare), the HHS Secretary is able to consider an array of Medicare-Medicaid demonstration ideas, most notably state-wide or regional initiatives changing care delivery, benefit packages, and service reimbursement for dual eligibles.


    Examples of combined Medicare-Medicaid waiver projects include:


  • Massachusetts Senior Care Options: Fully integrated managed care program, offered through Senior Care Organizations (SCOs), covering the full range of acute and long-term care benefits for dually eligible and Medicaid-only recipients age 65 and over.

  • Minnesota Senior Health Options (MSHO): Combines all Medicare and Medicaid covered health benefits and support systems into one health care package. Covers beneficiaries aged 65 older who are dual eligibles or who have Medicaid only. MSHO enrollees are assigned a care coordinator who helps them get their heath care and related support services.

  • Historically rarer than Medicaid-only and Medicare-only demonstrations, combined waiver-based projects are increasingly popular as states develop integrated care models for dual eligibles and managed long-term care models. A variety of other activities by policymakers and the marketplace have also dramatically increased interest in and practicality of combined waiver demonstrations. These include the advent and popularity of Medicare Advantage Special Needs Plans (MA-SNPs), advances in risk adjustment methodologies and quality measurement, sharing of best practices, and collaborations among influential states, foundations, thought leaders, think tanks, and CMS.


    Waiver Application Process:


    Applications for Medicare or Medicaid waivers must include project scope and objectives, the specific statutes and rules to be waived, spending and enrollment projections, research design, evaluation plan, and details on safeguards appropriate to the project (e.g., quality, access, appeal rights).


    Applications for s. 1115 Medicaid waivers are submitted to the HHS Secretary or CMS Administrator and reviewed by the CMS Center for Medicaid and State Operations (CMSO). Other CMS offices - such as the Office of Research, Development and Information (ORDI) - may provide technical advice to CMSO.


    Proposals for Medicare waiver projects are submitted to the HHS Secretary or CMS Administrator and reviewed by the Office of Research, Development and Information (ORDI) and the affected operating center: the Center for Medicare Management for projects related to fee-for-service Part A or Part B and the Center for Drug and Health Plan Choice for Medicare Advantage or Part D related projects.


    The Medicare and Medicaid Cost Estimates Group in the CMS Office of the Actuary (OACT) estimates the fiscal impact of proposed Medicaid and Medicare waivers.


    Proposals for combined Medicaid-Medicaid waivers are naturally reviewed by several units of CMS, with a center, a cross-agency team, or the Administrator's office taking responsibility for coordinating the review. The particulars vary and are highly situational.


    Waiver Approval Process:


    Waiver applications - particularly the details of s. 1115 Medicaid waivers and combined Medicare-Medicaid demonstrations - are subject to complex and often lengthy negotiations. Given the technical complexity and policy and fiscal implications of Medicaid or combined Medicare-Medicaid waiver requests, specialized consultants often support senior state staff during CMS negotiations. Senior federal and state officials often weigh in during negotiations. This may include active participation by the HHS Secretary, CMS Administrator, Governor, and State Medicaid Director.


    Every proposed Medicaid or Medicare waiver program must be budget neutral to the federal government. That is, Medicaid or Medicare under the requested waivers must be projected to cost the applicable federal program no more than expected spending without the waivers. By tradition, proposed Medicare-Medicaid demonstrations may not claim federal savings in one program to offset higher federal costs in the other.


    While not required by federal law, the last four Administrations have enforced the policy expectation that all waivers are determined to be budget neutral prior to approval. The budget neutrality requirement applies only during the review process. Unless the waiver includes a cap on the federal share of spending, there is no fiscal penalty if a demonstration is ultimately not budget neutral.


    There is no set methodology - economic or actuarial - for determining federal budget neutrality. Successful Medicaid waiver negotiations are highly dependent on a state's ability to demonstrate budget neutrality to the satisfaction of federal officials, particularly to CMS actuaries and White House budget staff. Modeling budget neutrality often requires a rigorous mix of creative policy work and analytically sound forecasting. Political priorities and imperatives - together with caution regarding setting new precedents - often informally influence waiver negotiations and assessments of budget neutrality.


    Authority to issue waivers under s. 1115 and ss. 402/222 rests with the HHS Secretary. However, all Medicaid and Medicare waivers, regardless of size and scope, require the prior review and approval of the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB). OMB may require changes, additional terms and conditions, or reject the proposed waivers.


    Once approved, waivers include specific terms and conditions negotiated with CMS. These vary considerably, depending on the nature of the demonstration.


    Medicaid demonstrations are typically approved for an initial five-year period. Thereafter, they may be renewed ever three years indefinitely. Renewals must be budget neutral and receive OMB approval.


    Medicare waiver projects initiated by CMS are typically operated for three or five years, depending on how much time is needed to test the policy change. Congressionally mandated waivers vary in length, with most three to five years in length and some indefinite.

    posted: February 29, 2008

    MedPAC%20Policy%202008.jpgThe Medicare Payment Advisory Commission (MedPAC) - the influential independent Congressional agency charged with advising Congress on a wide range of Medicare policy issues - has released its Medicare payment policy recommendations for 2009. The 355-page report includes a weath of information for those tracking Medicare provider or health plan issues, particularly annual provider payment updates, reforms to Medicare Advantage, and quality incentives.


    In summary, here are MedPAC's recommendations to Congress:


    Hospital Inpatient and Outpatient Services:


  • Increase Medicare payment rates for the acute inpatient and outpatient prospective payment systems in 2009 by the projected rate of increase in the hospital market basket index, concurrent with implementation of a quality incentive payment program.

  • Reduce the indirect medical education adjustment in 2009 by 1 percentage point to 4.5 percent per 10 percent increment in the resident-to-bed ratio. The funds obtained by reducing the indirect medical education adjustment should be used to fund a quality incentive payment program.

  • Physician Services:


  • Update Medicare Part B payments for physician services in 2009 by the projected change in input prices less MedPAC's adjustment for productivity growth.

  • Enact legislation requiring the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) to establish a process for measuring and reporting physician resource use on a confidential basis for a period of two years.

  • Outpatient Dialysis Services:


  • Update the Medicare composite rate in CY 2009 by the projected rate of increase in the end-stage renal disease market basket index less MedPAC's adjustment for productivity growth.

  • MedPAC reiterated its recommendation that the Congress implement a quality incentive program for physicians and facilities that treat dialysis patients.

  • Skilled Nursing Facility Services:


  • Eliminate the update to Medicare payment rates for skilled nursing facility services for FY 2009.

  • Establish a quality incentive payment policy for skilled nursing facilities in Medicare.

  • To improve quality measurement for skilled nursing facilities, the Secretary of Health and Human Services should (a) add the risk-adjusted rates of potentially avoidable re-hospitalizations and community discharge to its publicly reported post-acute care quality measures; (b) revise the pain, pressure ulcer, and delirium measures currently reported on CMS's Nursing Home Compare website; and (c) require skilled nursing facilities to conduct patient assessments at admission and discharge.

  • Home Health Services:


  • Eliminate the update to Medicare payment rates for home health care services for CY 2009.

  • Inpatient Rehabilitation Facility Services:


  • The update to payment rates for Medicare inpatient rehabilitation facility services should be eliminated for FY 2009.

  • Long-Term Care Hospital Services:


  • Update Medicare payment rates for long-term care hospitals for rate year 2009 by the projected rate of increase in the rehabilitation, psychiatric, and long-term care hospital market basket index less MedPAC's adjustment for productivity growth.

  • Medicare Advantage Special Needs Plans:


  • Establish additional, tailored performance measures for Medicare special needs plans (SNPs) and evaluate their performance on those measures within three years.

  • Furnish beneficiaries and their counselors with information on special needs plans that compares their benefits, other features, and performance with other Medicare Advantage plans and traditional fee-for-service Medicare.

  • Require chronic condition special needs plans to serve only beneficiaries with complex chronic conditions that influence many other aspects of health, have a high risk of hospitalization or other significant adverse health outcomes, and require specialized delivery systems.

  • Require dual-eligible special needs plans within three years to contract, either directly or indirectly, with states in their service areas to coordinate Medicaid benefits.

  • Require special needs plans to enroll at least 95% of their members from their target population.

  • Eliminate dual-eligible and institutionalized beneficiaries' ability to enroll in Medicare Advantage plans, except special needs plans with state contracts, outside of open enrollment. They should also continue to be able to disenroll and return to fee-for-service at any time during the year.

  • Extend the authority for Medicare special needs plans that meet the above conditions.

  • Part D Enrollment, Benefit Offerings, and Drug Plan Payments:


  • Make Medicare Part D claims data available regularly and in a timely manner to congressional support agencies (e.g., GAO, CBO) and selected executive branch agencies (e.g., OIG) for purposes of program evaluation, public health, and safety.

  • Medicare Savings Programs and Part D Low-Income Drug Subsidy:


  • Increase State Health Insurance Assistance Program funding for outreach to low-income Medicare beneficiaries.

  • Raise Medicare Savings Program income and asset criteria to conform to Part D low-income drug subsidy criteria.

  • Change program requirements so that Social Security Administration screens low-income drug subsidy applicants for federal Medicare Savings Program eligibility and enrolls them if they qualify.

  • To read the full MedPAC report, click here (large PDF file).

    posted: December 27, 2006

    Medicare%20Policy%20Primer.jpgMedicare is a study in contrasts. In its financing, the program is modeled as what health wonks call "social insurance," which in reality is a euphemism for a politically effective but fiscally troubling mix of social welfare, health insurance, and cross-generational income transfers. Limited in coverage, slow to add coverage of new technologies, and often high in cost sharing, Medicare often cost-shifts to state Medicaid programs. While relatively cheap for the government to administer, Medicare is astonishingly complex, placing providers, supplies, health plans, and patients under a mountain of red tape.


    In Medicare: A Policy Primer, Dr. Marilyn Moon - a respected researcher, former Medicare trustee, and one of the nation's leading Medicare policy gurus - "explains what Medicare is, how it works, and where is it headed." In this excellent introduction, Dr. Moon outlines the history of Medicare, taking readers from the program's origins in 1965 and the Great Society to today. The Medicare primer also walks readers through how the massive $370 billion program works in relation to the rest of the U.S. health care system and other federal programs.


    While Dr. Moon is an unrepentant fan of Medicare and takes a decidedly Liberal, pro-entitlement approach to health policy, she takes pains to provide a thoughtful, balanced discussion of Medicare's key strengths and failings. She also debunks some lingering myths and assesses several of the more popular Medicare reform options.


    Marilyn Moon, Ph.D. is currently vice president and director of the health program at the American Institutes for Research.


    Published by Urban Institute Press, Medicare: A Policy Primer is available on Amazon.com here or direct from Urban Institute Press.


    To learn more about Medicare, please check out my list of recommended Medicare books.

    posted: August 6, 2006

    More%20on%20Integrated%20Plans.jpgMedicare Advantage Special Needs Plans (MA-SNPs) are a fast growing innovation in the marketplace. A new Medicare managed care option created under the Medicare Modernization Act (MMA), MA-SNPs are able to tailor plan designs and delivery to serve the needs of dual eligibles, beneficiaries in nursing homes or at risk of institutionalization, and beneficiaries with chronic, severe conditions.


    For CY 2006, there are 276 federally approved MA-SNPs with an enrollment of over 500,000. More insurers are jumping in to offer Special Needs Plans in 2007 and others are moving to market the new plans to millions of high-cost, high-need Medicare beneficiaries. Given this competition and the many advantages of MA-SNPs for dual eligibles and other chronically ill beneficiaries, MA-SNP should exceed one million in 2007 and two million in 2008.


    As I reported earlier, states and CMS are working to dovetail Medicare's requirements for MA-SNPs and state and federal requirements for Medicaid managed care organizations (MMCOs). The objective is to provide states with an exciting new voluntary option to integrate health care for the nation's 6.3 million dual eligibles.


    In close collaboration with the National Association of State Medicaid Directors (NASMD), CMS has released a new guide for states on integrating Medicaid and Medicare services and a series of how-to guides on integrating enrollment, marketing, and quality assurance.


    To learn more about MA-SNPs or integrated Medicare-Medicaid health plans, check out my earlier posts or contact me for more resources.

    posted: June 5, 2006

    Medicaid%20Benchmark%20Plans.jpgUsing new flexibility created by the Deficit Reduction Act (DRA), states may restructure Medicaid benefits. States may now customize Medicaid health care benefits to specific populations, model some benefit package after commercial-like health plans, and offer additional benefits as incentives to reward healthier patient behavior.


    Based on the concept of benchmark benefit packages first used in the State Children's Health Insurance Program (SCHIP), the new restructuring options are expected to save $11 billion over the next ten years (about $6 billion federal savings, $5 billion state savings) and ultimately affect 1.6 million Medicaid beneficiaries.


    Kentucky, West Virginia, and Idaho are the first states to use the new options. With help from leading consultants, other states are exploring ways to use DRA flexibility to reform some benefit packages and section 1115 waivers to modernize Medicaid, contain costs, and expand coverage.


    Here is a quick briefing on Medicaid benchmark coverage permitted under the DRA:


    1. Through the state plan amendment (SPA) process, states may provide Medicaid benefits through benchmark or benchmark equivalent packages for children and some non-disabled adults. The benchmark packages would replace existing Medicaid benefits for the targeted populations.


    2. The newly designed benefit packages may include wrap-around services or additional benefits not now covered by the state's Medicaid program. Every benchmark benefit package must cover Early and Periodic Screening, Diagnostic, and Treatment (EPSDT) services for children under 19, federally qualified health center (FQHC) services, and rural health clinic services.


    3. Benchmark coverage means the same health benefit package offered by (a) the state for state employees, (b) standard Blue Cross Blue Shield Plan offered under the Federal Employee Health Benefits Plan (FEHBP), (c) the state’s largest commercial HMO, or (d) other models approved by the HHS Secretary.


    4. Benchmark-equivalent coverage means a package with the same actuarial value as one of the benchmark plans. If a state uses this route, benchmark-equivalent coverage must include (a) inpatient and outpatient hospital services, (b) physician services, (c) lab and x-ray services, (d) well child care and immunizations, and (e) other preventive services designated by the Secretary. For prescription drugs, mental health services, and hearing and vision services, a benchmark-equivalent package must provide at least 75 percent of the actuarial value of coverage. States must use generally accepted actuarial principles and methodologies.


    5. States may only use benchmark or benchmark-equivalent packages to beneficiary groups already covered under the state Medicaid plan. Therefore, by itself, the DRA benchmark package option cannot be used to expand health coverage to new populations.


    6. In addition, many beneficiary groups are exempt from benchmark coverage, including (a) dual eligibles, (b) persons with disabilities or special health care needs, (c) beneficiaries needing long-term care services, (d) foster care children, (d) pregnant women with federally mandated coverage, and (e) individuals eligible for Medicaid via the TANF welfare reform law.

    posted: June 3, 2006

    OTC%20Drugs%20in%20Medicare%20Part%20D.jpgMedicare drug plans will dramatically increase coverage of over-the-counter (OTC) drugs in 2007 based on new guidance from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS).


    In creating Medicare Part D, the Medicare Modernization Act (MMA) excluded OTCs from coverage. Taxpayer dollars could not be used to pay for OTC products even when clinically appropriate and cost effective. This was in sharp contrast to pharmacy benefit designs common in commercial coverage and Medicaid, where employers, states, health plans, and PBMs try to take advantage of new, inexpensive OTC alternatives to popular prescription drugs.


    For 2006, CMS allowed Medicare prescription drug plans (PDPs) and Medicare Advantage drug plans (MA-PDs) to cover OTCs under narrow circumstances. For example, OTC coverage was limited to federally approved step therapy programs, with no prior authorization for the OTC. To pay for OTC products, drug plans must use administrative dollars and not federal benefit dollars.


    For 2007, CMS is loosening restrictions on PDP and MA-PD coverage of safe, effective over-the-counter drugs that are less expensive than prescription alternatives in the plan's formulary. Medicare drug plans must still use administrative dollars because of the statutory limit. However, OTC products may be covered outside of a step therapy program. To ensure Part D enrollees have continued access to prescription versions, drug plans that decide to cover OTCs outside a federally-approval step therapy protocol may not use prior authorization or other tools to require OTC use before a formulary legend drug is covered. Plans must also educate enrollees on differences between the prescription and non-prescription available for a given need.


    Compared to their prescription alternatives, OTCs often represent savings of 60-70 percent or more. Seniors tend to be heavy users of proton pump inhibitors (PPI), non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), and antihistamines - categories with low-cost OTC alternatives likely appropriate for many patients. Therefore, next year many Medicare drug plans will likely offer free OTCs to drive utilization, reduce costs, ease the doughnut hole, and improve enrollee satisfaction and retention.


    In addition to reducing costs for drug plans and many beneficiaries, wider access to OTCs in Part D may also reduce state Medicaid spending. Under MMA, 6 million dual eligibles were moved from Medicaid to Medicare for purposes of most drug coverage. However, Medicaid drug coverage is broader than Medicare Part D in many states. To save dollars, most states cover some OTCs. If a state Medicaid program covers an OTC for one group of Medicaid recipients, federal law requires the state to cover the OTC for all, including dual eligibles. The continued overlap of Medicare and Medicaid drug coverage for duals creates opportunities for confusion, cost shifting, even gaming. But the new OTC coverage options in Part D should allow states to save some Medicaid pharmacy dollars - provided CMS is proactive in working cooperatively with states, drug plans, and pharmacies on the issue.


    While drug plans and beneficiaries will win - and states may win - from the new OTC coverage guidance, pharmacies will lose because of lower product and dispensing fee revenue. Some pharmaceutical manufacturers will also lose, notably those prescription drug makers facing competing OTCs in hot categories like proton pump inhibitors.

    posted: June 1, 2006

    Medicaid%20Restructuring.jpgUsing new benefit design and cost-sharing options created by the Deficit Reduction Act (DRA), states are busy restructuring Medicaid programs. With recently announced approvals from HHS Secretary Mike Leavitt, Kentucky, West Virginia, and Idaho are the first states to take advantage of DRA flexibility.


    With the help of top advisors, other states are working on their own Medicaid initiatives, using a mix of DRA options and creative Section 1115 waivers.


    Here's a quick summary of the new Medicaid reforms in Kentucky, West Virginia, and Idaho:


    Kentucky Medicaid Reform:


    Kentucky will offer benefit packages aimed at meeting the health care needs of three different groups: (1) children, (2) the elderly and people with disabilities who need institutional care, and (3) the general Medicaid population.


    Through four new benefit packages, Medicaid enrollees will be offered the most appropriate benefit plan based on their needs:


    1. The Family Choices program will serve healthy children.


    2. Comprehensive Choices and Optimum Choices will serve individuals with complex health care needs.


    3. Global Choices, which is most similar to Kentucky's traditional Medicaid program, will serve other vulnerable populations.


    Kentucky's Medicaid restructuring includes a new disease management program with special incentives to encourage healthier behavior by chronically ill beneficiaries. After successfully participating in a disease management program for one year, participants will be eligible for services not otherwise available, such as dental or vision services.


    The Kentucky reform program will also help Medicaid recipients buy employer-sponsored coverage. If a beneficiary chooses their employer's plan instead of Medicaid, the state will help cover the premium.


    West Virginia Medicaid Reform:


    West Virginia will offer enrollees a choice of two benefit packages:


    1. A Basic plan modeled after current Medicaid benefits.


    2. An Enhanced plan that includes a broader range of health services in exchange for complying with all recommended medical treatment and wellness behaviors.


    The new benefits under the Enhanced plan will include tobacco cessation, nutritional education, diabetes care, chemical dependency services, mental health services, cardiac rehabilitation, chiropractic services, and emergent dental services.


    West Virginia's Enhanced plan will also cover skilled nursing care, orthotics, and prosthetics for children. Both the Basic and Enhanced plans will cover Early, Periodic Screening, Diagnosis, and Treatment (EPSDT) services for children.


    To enroll in the Enhanced benefit, beneficiaries must sign a member agreement stating they will comply with all recommended medical treatment and wellness behaviors. The Basic plan - with the standard Medicaid package - is the default benefit for those who chose not to join the Enhanced plan or who decide they want to leave the Enhanced plan.


    Idaho Medicaid Reform:


    Idaho will offer three new benefit packages aimed at meeting the health care needs of different groups: children, people with disabilities, and beneficiaries who are eligible for both Medicaid and Medicare (aka dual eligibles).


    All three new packages - Basic, Enhanced, and Coordinated - are voluntary. Any enrollee who chooses one of the new plans can opt out and return to standard Medicaid at any time they wish.


    Here are some details on Idaho's three plans:


    1. The Basic plan will serve healthy children and adults and will cover most of traditional Medicaid benefits, including EPSDT services for children. However, the Basic plan will not cover long-term care, organ transplants, and intensive mental health treatment.


    2. The Enhanced plan is designed to serve individuals with more complex medical needs, most notably the elderly and disabled. The Enhanced plan will cover all the traditional Medicaid benefits, including long-term care. Beneficiaries enrolled in the Basic plan who need services not available in that plan will be moved to the Enhanced plan.


    3. The Coordinated plan will serve dual eligibles. It will include all services now covered under Idaho's traditional Medicaid program. For coverage under the Coordinated plan, dual eligibles must also be enrolled in Medicare Part B and Part D.


    Each of these benefit plans will include new preventive services, including nutrition services and other benefits to help smokers, the obese, and others adopt healthier habits.


    Idaho's Medicaid restructuring includes several other important reforms:


    1. The working disabled may purchase the basic benefit package.


    2. Eligibility for children in Medicaid and the State Children's Health Insurance Program (SCHIP) will be streamlined. This includes elimination of an asset test for some children.


    3. Using SCHIP dollars, the state will help schools offer preventive health services to low-income children.

    posted: April 5, 2006

    Part%20D%20Risk%20Mitigation.jpgBeing a Medicare prescription drug plan can be a profitable business. For the smart players, it will be highly profitable over time and indispensable to market position. But Medicare Part D can also be financially risky and volatile - particularly given:


  • Complexities of the Medicare population
  • Inherent uncertainties of a radically new and complex government program
  • Vagaries of drug pricing and utilization management
  • Stiff competition among plans
  • Multitude of benefit designs
  • High start-up costs
  • Inexperience of some of the players
  • Unpredictable enrollment (aggregate and mix)


    That's why Medicare Part D includes three separate mechanisms to mitigate the financial risks of Medicare drug plans. The mechanisms created under the Medicare Modernization Act (MMA) - risk corridors, risk adjustment, and federal reinsurance - apply to both the stand-alone Prescription Drug Plans (PDPs) and the Medicare Advantage prescription drug plans (MA-PDs).


    Each of the three methods mitigates different kinds of risk. While they help stabilize the drug plan market and facilitate market entry, they also benefit Part D enrollees in important, sometimes subtle ways.


    Risk Corridors for Profit and Loss:


    Using a system of risk corridors that compares actual incurred drug benefit costs to estimated costs submitted in bids, Medicare limits the profits and losses of Part D drug plans.


    Specifically, if a Medicare drug plan's actual benefit costs exceed expected (bid) levels by a sufficient degree, the plan will receive an additional federal payment to cover a portion of the loss. However, if a drug plan's actual spending falls sufficiently below projections, the plan must share some of the profit with the feds. Risk corridors apply to actual and expected drug benefits costs but exclude plan administrative costs and federal reinsurance payments.


    Risk corridors partially protect prescription drug plans from dramatic changes in drug spending, including the unexpected cost of new medications. Estimating per capita drug costs is also tough, particularly for a brand new benefit of unprecedented size and complexity. Therefore, the corridor mechanism also helps protect drug plans from this uncertainty.


    Here's how it works. After each contract year, CMS will would compare each drug plan's expected and actual benefit costs. The thresholds (when the mechanism kicks in) and the proportions of profit and loss shared vary.


    For 2006 and 2007, Medicare drug plans will bear all gains and losses that fall within 2.5 percent of their expected costs. If costs differ from expectations by more than 2.5 percent but less than 5 percent, the risk corridor payment will cover 75 percent of the amount in that range. If actual and expected costs differ by more than 5 percent, the risk corridor payment will cover 75 percent of the amount between 2.5 percent and 5 percent and 80 percent of the amount in excess of 5 percent. If a sufficient number of plans serving a substantial majority of enrollees receive risk corridor payments for a given year, the feds will cover 90 percent of costs falling within the corridor (instead of 75 percent).


    For 2008 through 2011, the risk corridor thresholds will double. The assumption is that by then the private drug plans will have sufficient experience in bidding and projecting costs. Specifically, the 2.5 percent factor goes to 5 percent and 5 percent is replaced by 10 percent. Within these new, wider corridors, the federal share covered by the risk corridors drops from 75 percent to 50 percent. For cost deviations exceeding 10 percent, the federal share will remain at 80 percent.


    For contract years 2012 and beyond, CMS has the authority to further increase the risk corridor thresholds provided they are structured symmetrically.


    Risk Adjustment:


    Risk adjustment is designed to adjust a drug plan's monthly premium from the government to account for differences in beneficiaries' expected drug spending. The adjustment methodology is based on a few readily available factors - notably age, sex, and health status. While not perfect predictors by any means, these factors are reasonably effective in grouping large numbers of beneficiaries in terms of likely relative differences in expected drug spending.


    Using the risk adjustment factor applied prospectively to the federal share of the plan's monthly premium, CMS pays Medicare drug plans more for sicker beneficiaries who are expected to incur higher drug costs and less for healthier enrollees who are expected to have lower drug spending. (For most Part D enrollees, taxpayers subsidize 75 percent of drug plan premiums, with enrollees paying the other 25 percent. For dual eligibles, federal and state taxpayers pay 100 percent of the premium. For benies who qualify for the low-income subsidy, the federal share of the premium varies from 75-100 percent based on a sliding scale.)


    Like risk adjustment systems used elsewhere in Medicare and Medicaid, the Part D risk adjustment mechanism is intended to vary the federal share of premiums based on factors that are beyond the control of the drug plan. That is, given the widely varying prescription drug needs of the Medicare population, it helps mitigate the risk of adverse selection.


    Risk adjustment will also help protect beneficiaries with high drug needs by increasing federal subsidies. And low cost, healthier enrollees are protected from paying higher premiums if they happen to select a drug plan with a disproportionate number of sicker members.


    Federal Reinsurance:


    Federal reinsurance payments to Medicare drug plans will kick in when an enrollee's actual drug spending reaches Part D's annual catastrophic threshold (commonly called the "doughnut hole"). For Part D beneficiaries who are not dual eligibles or receiving the low-income subsidy, Federal taxpayers will cover 95 percent of any drug costs above the doughnut hole ($5,100 in 2006). (Dual eligibles and benies qualifying for low-income subsidy pay only nominal co-payments [$2-$5]. As a result, federal reinsurance is effectively 100 percent.)


    Paid to the drug plans on a retrospective basis, federal reinsurance payments will serve to limit the risk that plans face in serving the highest-cost beneficiaries. Because a plan's costs of providing drug coverage above the catastrophic threshold will likely correlate with fluctuations of average drug prices and utilization patterns, reinsurance payments should also provide plans with some protection against uncertainty about future drug costs. However, because reinsurance is retrospective by nature, the mechanism will not address the financial risks involved in providing the front-end portion of the benefit.

  • posted: March 20, 2006

    Transparency%20of%20Medical%20Prices.jpgIt is an immutable truth of economics. Transparency is an essential ingredient for a market to function with any semblance of efficiency or effectiveness. Lack of transparency - what economists call asynchronous information - leads to rapid inflation, gross inefficiency, gaming and abuse, ignorant consumers, poor quality, rampant error rates, and misaligned resources. In other words, you get America's $1.9 trillion health care system.


    After years of behind the scenes work by top health care thought leaders, the White House and key Congressional leaders are jumping on board and calling for reforms to ensure transparency (read public reporting) of health care provider prices. While prices are only part of the information needs of patients, purchasers, and payors, nationwide transparency of medical prices is essential. Health Savings Accounts and other consumer-driven health reforms such as Medicaid Health Opportunity Accounts are largely pointless in a health care system otherwise rooted in incomplete, inaccurate, and inaccessible information.


    As leaders contemplate specific measures to promote transparency of prices, they should also consider sending every Medicaid and Medicare beneficiary a quarterly report on the cost of their care. (I am not talking about Explanation of Benefits [EOB] notices. EOBs don't give a picture of their overall costs or utilization and offer no comparative, trend, or historical information.)


    Using simple, colorful charts and tables and an emphasis on decision relevant information, a well-designed report would show them what care they received, what providers charged, what public programs paid, how much they paid in cost sharing, and how their medical costs compare to their peers (age group, sex, health status, and geography).


    For Medicare beneficiaries, the reports could help bust a core myth of Medicare financing by showing what Medicare has paid for their care compared to what as an individual they paid in Medicare taxes and cost-sharing to date. In Medicaid, the reports would be invaluable to state efforts to move toward consumer-directed models where chronically ill or disabled patients and their families take active control of their medical lives. It would also help low-income families better understand the health care system. For dual eligibles - the 6.3 million Americans with annual health costs of a quarter trillion dollars - these personalized reports would be truly eye opening for patients and their families.


    Over time, the reports could help Medicaid and Medicare beneficiaries see how their providers, health plans, and drug plans compare on measures of quality, errors, and cost effectiveness. And they could include simple health reminders.


    Of course, not every benie would read the reports much less change their behavior based on the information. But the vary act of creating the reports would require Medicare and Medicaid to modernize information systems, turn transaction data into genuine decision-relevant information, and begin thinking of program beneficiaries as consumers in need of more than monstrously dull doorstops masquerading as handbooks.


    Americans, including Medicaid and Medicare beneficiaries, are not stupid. But when it comes to health care costs, they are too often ignorant or oblivious. That must stop. Yes, there is a learning curve and some people prefer the bliss of ignorance to the dilemmas of judgment. Nonetheless, as consumers, as Americans, as human beings we are entitled to the information we need to make decisions. Keeping Medicare and Medicaid beneficiaries and their families in the dark is as costly as it is insulting.

    posted: March 3, 2006

    OIG%20and%20Drug%20Benefits.jpgThe HHS Office of the Inspector (OIG) is studying a long list of issues related to Medicare Part B physician-administered drugs, the new Medicare Part D outpatient prescription drug benefit, and state Medicaid pharmacy benefits. In addition to its investigative and audit function, the talented staff at the HHS OIG also conduct analyses and evaluations, typically resulting in public reports. Below are the drug benefit-related topics that the OIG selected for close examination this year. Some were mandated by Congress, others requested by CMS or OMB. Think of it as a useful sentinel of upcoming hot issues and controversies.


    Medicare Part B Physician-Administered Drugs:

  • Drug Manufacturers' Methodologies for Computing Average Sales Price (ASP)
  • CMS' System for Collecting and Maintaining Average Sales Price Data from Drug Manufacturers
  • Effectiveness of Average Sales Price Cost Controls
  • Medicare Payments for Oral Anti-Emetic Medications
  • Monitoring of Market Prices for Part B Drugs
  • CMS' Ability to Prevent Duplicate Payments for Part B Drugs under the Competitive Acquisition Program (CAP)
  • Medicare Reimbursement for End Stage Renal Disease (ESRD) Drugs
  • Adequacy of Reimbursement Rate for Drugs under the Average Sales Price (ASP), with Focus on Hematology and Oncology Practices

  • Medicare Part D Prescription Drug Benefit:

  • CMS Program Integrity Safeguards for Medicare Drug Plan Applicants
  • Beneficiary Awareness of the Medicare Part D Low-Income Subsidy
  • Tracking Beneficiaries True Out-of-Pocket (TrOOP) Costs for Part D Prescription Drug Coverage
  • Prescription Drug Plan Marketing Materials
  • Auto-Enrollment of Dual Eligibles into Medicare Part D Plans
  • Medicare Prescription Drug Benefit Pharmacy Access in Rural Areas
  • Monitoring Fluctuation in Drug Prices under Stand-Alone Prescription Drug Plans (PDPs) and Medicare Advantage Prescription Drug Plans (MA-PDs)
  • Coordination and Oversight of Medicare Part B and Part D to Avoid Duplicate Payments for Drugs
  • Enrollee Access to Negotiated Prices for Covered Part D Prescription Drugs
  • Prescription Drug Plans' Use of Formularies and Compliance with Federal Requirements Regarding P&T Committees, Breath and Depth of Formularies, and Beneficiary Appeal Rights
  • Coordination Between State Pharmaceutical Assistance Programs (SPAPs) and Medicare Part D
  • Implementation of Required Programs to Deter Fraud, Waste, and Abuse
  • CMS Capacity to Administer Employer Drug Subsidies
  • Adequacy of Medicare Part D Drug Benefit Payment System, Fiscal Controls, and CMS Procedures
  • Calculation of State Clawback Payments to Medicare
  • Medicare Part D Risk-Sharing Payments and Recoveries, Particularly the Adequacy of CMS Systems and Controls

  • State Medicaid Prescription Drug Benefits:

  • Average Manufacturer Price and Average Wholesale Price
  • Adequacy of Drug Manufacturers' Methodologies for Computing Average Manufacturer Price and Best Price
  • Potential Savings from Indexing the Generic Drug Rebate
  • Drug Rebate Impact from Drugs Incorrectly Classified as Generic
  • Prescribing Patterns for Oxycontin, Hydrocodone, Xanax, Diazepam, and Soma
  • Effect of Nominal Pricing on Medicaid Drug Rebates
  • Medicaid Reimbursement of Drugs for Long Term Care Pharmacies
  • Effect of Authorized Generic Drugs on Medicaid Drug Rebates
  • Medicaid Payments for HIV Drugs and Possible Inappropriate Pharmacy Practices
  • State Collection of Rebates for Drugs with Zero Dollar Unit Rebate Amounts
  • Dispute Resolution in the Medicaid Prescription Drug Rebate Program
  • Medicaid Generic Drug Utilization Among States
  • States Compliance with Federal Upper Limit Requirements for Certain Generic Drugs
  • Medicaid Drug Pricing in State Maximum Allowable Cost (MAC) Programs

  • Naturally, the list is subject to change and should not be considered as the only topics under review. The OIG changes its work plan to accommodate new problems and changing conditions. Therefore, the topics will fluctuate. For more information, including past studies and reports, visit the OIG site.

    posted: March 2, 2006

    Medicare%20Advantage%20SNP%20Market.jpgMedicare Advantage Special Needs Plans (MA-SNPs) are an important new innovation in the healthcare marketplace. Ultimately, as I reported last fall in the Piper Report, MA-SNPs may evolve to serve an untapped $250 billion market. Here's a quick briefing on Special Needs Plans and how they become integrated Medicaid / Medicare health plans:


    Brief History of Medicare Managed Care:


    Since 1970's, Medicare has included an HMO option as alternative to receiving all Medicare Part A and Part B services from traditional fee-for-service Medicare. The Balanced Budget Act of 1997 (BBA) renamed Medicare managed care to "Medicare+Choice" and added a new range of options for Medicare beneficiaries: preferred provider organizations (PPOs), provider-sponsored organizations (PSOs), private fee-for-service (PFFS) plans, and Medical savings accounts (MSAs) linked with high deductible insurance plans.


    Medicare Modernization Act of 2003:


    In addition to creating the new Medicare Part D prescription drug benefit, the Medicare Modernization Act of 2003 (MMA) renamed Medicare+Choice to "Medicare Advantage" (MA) and created new MA plan options for beneficiaries - regional preferred provider organizations (PPOs) and "Special Needs Plans" for dual eligibles, the institutionalized, or those with severe and disabling conditions. MMA also created new incentives for health plan participation in the over $300 billion Medicare market, most notably risk adjustment to Medicare Advantage plan premiums and increased Medicare Advantage plan premiums.


    Basics of Medicare Advantage:


    The Medicare Advantage program is governed under Medicare Part C, which refers to Part C of Title XVIII of the federal Social Security Act. Medicare Advantage (MA) plans provide all Medicare-covered benefits under Part A and Part B and serve as an alternative to traditional Medicare fee-for-service. Most kinds of MA plans (including all the most popular ones) must also offer a voluntary drug benefit under Part D.


    This way, beneficiaries may get all Medicare-covered benefits (Part A, Part B, and Part D) through one health plan. If a benie wants to sign up for Part D but stay in unmanaged fee-for-service for Part A and B services, they must enroll in a stand-alone prescription drug plan (PDP) to receive Medicare drug coverage. (Part D thankfully does not have a government-run fee-for-service option.)


    Part D is major draw for new Medicare Advantage enrollment. Compared to the alternative (fee-for-service for Part A and Part B benefits and a stand-alone prescription drug plan for Part D benefit), Medicare Advantage plans are able to offer lower cost sharing, more benefits, fewer hassles, and higher performing mix of providers. However, because they have higher expectations regarding provider quality and cost-effectiveness, Medicare Advantage plans (particularly HMO-based plans) tend to offer a narrower choice of providers than Medicare fee-for-service.


    Medicare Advantage Enrollment:


    More private insurers are participating in Medicare than ever - 459 approved Medicare Advantage plans, up from 247 in 2005. Currently, over 14% of beneficiaries (6+ million) are enrolled in Medicare Advantage plans - up from 12% (4.9 million) in 2005. Plan enrollment varies widely state to state, with the highest penetration (20% to 30%+) in AZ, CA, CO, OR, PA, and RI.


    Long-range projections of Medicare Advantage enrollment vary widely. The White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) believes that by 2013 30% of Medicare beneficiaries will be enrolled in Medicare Advantage plans. The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) projects that 16% of beneficiaries will be in a Medicare Advantage plan by 2013. At the current path, MA plan enrollment should exceed 16% in 2006.


    Medicare Advantage Premiums:


    Medicare uses a complex system to calculate plan premiums, blending administrative pricing with competitive bidding, market benchmarking, and risk adjustment. There are separate bidding and rate-setting processes for Parts A/B and Part D.


    For example, for the Part A and Part B portion of Medicare Advantage plan payments, Medicare uses a benchmarking process to compare bids and leverage competition to maximize value for beneficiaries and taxpayers. If a plan's bid is above benchmark, enrollees in that plan pay the difference. If lower, 75% of difference goes to enrollees as extra benefits or lower cost sharing (or a reserve fund) and 25% goes to Medicare.


    Basics of Special Needs Plans:


    Prior to MMA, Medicare health plans were required to market generally to the Medicare population in their geographic service area and could not limit enrollment to specific population. Under the new Special Needs Plan option, insurers may propose a Medicare Advantage plan that is restricted to a special needs population either exclusively or disproportionately.


    The ability to separately market and enroll special needs populations - coupled with Part D and risk adjustment - has created significant interest in this market. It's important to note that authority for Medicare Advantage Special Needs Plans (MA-SNPs) expires in December 2008. Therefore, Congressional action required to continue after 2008.


    Target Populations for Special Needs Plans:


    Under MMA, there are three target populations for Medicare Advantage Special Needs Plans:


    1. Institutionalized Beneficiaries (~3.5 million): Medicare beneficiaries who reside or are expected to reside for 90 days or longer in a long-term care facility. Also includes Medicare beneficiaries who live in the community but who require an equivalent level of care to those residing in a long-term care facility.


    2. Dually Eligible beneficiaries (~7.5 million): Medicare beneficiaries who are also in Medicaid for full Medicaid benefits (~6.2 million) and low-income Medicare beneficiaries who receive subsidies from their state Medicaid program for their Medicare cost sharing (~1.3 million in QMB, SLIM, or QI programs).


    3. Medicare Beneficiaries with Chronic, Severe Conditions (~millions more): The feds are particularly interested in MA-SNPs designed to serve Medicare beneficiaries with cardiovascular disease, diabetes, congestive heart failure, osteoarthritis, mental disorders, end-stage renal disease (ESRD), and/or HIV/AIDS. However, there is no preset definition for this target group. CMS evaluates MA-SNP proposals on case-by-case basis. CMS focuses on appropriateness of the target population, clinical programs and special expertise of the MA-SNP, and how the MA-SNP will cover full target population it specifies without discriminating against "sicker" members.


    Basics of Dual Eligibles:


    Health care spending for dual eligibles now hovers at a massive quarter trillion dollars - about 60% provided by Medicaid and 40% from Medicare. While dual eligibles drive over a quarter of all Medicare costs, dual eligibles drive over 40% of state Medicaid budgets. (For variety of reasons, including different definitions of duals and accounting for Part D costs, estimates vary. For example, when talking about "dual eligibles" some wonks are referring to the 6.2 million full-benefit duals. Other times the term refers to both the full-benefit folks plus the 1.3 million Medicare-only beneficiaries with partial Medicaid subsidy.)


    Dual eligibles are a vulnerable, high cost population in desperate need of coordinated care. About 2/3 live in community and 1/3 reside in long-term care facilities. They commonly have multiple morbidities (5-8) and some 45% have severe mental illness. Compared to the overall Medicare population, they are lower income, older, disproportionately female, disproportionately minority, and less educated. They are often live highly isolated lives, with little or no support system.


    MA-SNP Market for 2006:


    Since passage of MMA, the number of approved Medicare Advantage Special Needs Plans (MA-SNPs) has steadily increased, from 11 in 2004 to 276 in 2006. Of the 276 MA-SNPs approved for CY 2006, 226 are designed for dual eligibles, 37 for beneficiaries with institutional level of care, and 13 for specific chronic conditions (e.g., ESRD). One or more MA-SNPs now operating in most states: AL, AZ, AK, CA, CO, CT, FL, GA, HI, IA, ID, IL, IN, KS, KY,LA, ME, MD, DE, MA, RI, MI, MN, MO, MS, NE, NE, NV, PA,NJ, NM, NY, NC, OH, OK, OR, PR, SD, TN, TX, UT, WA, WI.


    Integrating Medicaid and Medicare via MA-SNPs:


    Historically, integration of health care for dual eligibles has been a major challenge. Medicaid and Medicare vary radically in financing, coverage policies, delivery systems, beneficiary rights, and day-to-day administration. For dual eligibles, this results in misaligned benefit structures, little or no care coordination, lower quality, over and under utilization, huge opportunities for cost-shifting, and seemingly endless conflicts between the feds and states. The human and economics costs are extraordinary.


    While created to serve the Medicare side of the market, Medicare Advantage Special Needs Plans create new opportunities to integrate Medicaid and Medicare coverage for dual eligibles. Last fall, I laid out the rationale here in the Piper Report (click to read that story). The idea is picking up steam, generating considerable interest from states and health plans.


    Basics of Integrated Medicaid-Medicare Health Plan:


    In brief, here's how it could work. A health plan contracts with both Medicare (with CMS as a MA-SNP) and the state Medicaid program. For its dual eligible enrollees, the plan is then responsible for all Medicare and Medicaid benefits. The integrated Medicare-Medicaid plan would also be responsible for coordinating benefits with other payors like VA.


    The combined Medicaid / MA-SNP would receive fully capitated, risk adjusted premiums for (1) Medicare Part A and Part B (MA plan bidding and benchmarking), (2) Medicare Part D drug benefit (MA-PD bidding and benchmarking), (3) Medicaid benefits (actuarially determined, with bid or proposal process determined by the state), and (4) state Medicaid payment for Medicare cost sharing. The state Medicaid program could create incentives to encourage dual eligibles to enroll in integrated plans. For example, the state could limit coverage of popular home- and community-based long-term care services to duals enrolled in integrated plans.


    With some grant support from The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, five states are developing concept: Florida, Minnesota, New Mexico, New York, and Washington. To make integrated Medicaid / Medicare plans practicable, they are working to standardize and simplify: (1) plan rate setting and risk-adjustment; (2) performance standards, measurement, and reporting; (3) grievance and appeal procedures; (4) marketing guidelines; and (5) state contracting processes with MA-SNPs.

    posted: March 1, 2006

    Medicaid%20Nursing%20Home%20Coverage.jpgLong-term care expenditures now exceed $200 billion a year and growing fast. State Medicaid programs pay the lion's share and cover a far broader range of institutional, community, and home-based services than Medicare. To encourage folks to buy long-term care insurance and take pressure off taxpayers, the new Deficit Reduction Act of 2005 (DRA) allows any state to create a Long-Term Care Partnership Program.


    The Long-Term Care Partnership Program - a public-private partnership between states and private insurance companies - helps reduce Medicaid expenditures by delaying or eliminating the need for some people to rely on taxpayers to pay for long-term care services. The idea was developed in the late 1980's and early 1990's with support from The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF).


    Here's how it works:


    1. To qualify for Medicaid, applicants must meet certain eligibility requirements, including income and asset requirements. Traditionally, Medicaid applicants cannot have assets that exceed certain thresholds. They must deplete ("spend-down") their assets until the Medicaid financial eligibility threshold is met. Many folks, particularly wealthier individuals, hire elder law attorneys to find ways to legally hide or divert assets so heirs get the bulk of their assets while taxpayers pay for nursing home care.


    2. Under the Long-Term Care Partnership Program, individuals are encouraged to buy long-term care (LTC) insurance policies that meet state and federal standards on private LTC coverage and consumer protections.


    3. If the privately insured individual eventually needs long-term care services, they first rely on benefits from their private long-term care insurance policy to cover LTC costs before they access Medicaid.


    4. To encourage the purchase of private LTC coverage, long-term care insurance policyholders are allowed to protect some or all of their assets from Medicaid spend-down requirements during the eligibility determination process. They still must meet income requirements for Medicaid.


    5. Four states now have Long-Term Care Partnership Programs: California, Connecticut, Indiana, and New York. Since 1993, federal law had limited the program to these states. The Deficit Reduction Act of 2005 (DRA) now permits any state to participate. (The DRA also made a number of other LTC-related changes to Medicaid.)


    To learn more, check out:


    - Briefing by Government Accountability Office (GAO)


    - The Long-Term Care Partnership Program: Issues and Options from the Brookings Institution.


    - Medicaid's Long-Term Care Insurance Partnership Program, a detailed report from the Congressional Research Service (CRS).


    - Who Will Pay for Long Term Care?: Insights from the Partnership Programs, an excellent book edited by Nelda McCall at Laguna Research Associates.

    posted: February 3, 2006

    Navigating%20Medicare%20Drug%20Coverage.jpgFor outpatient prescription drugs, Medicare has two distinct programs with a maze of complex policies. Physicians, Medicare patients, retail pharmacies, Medicare drug plans, Medicare Advantage health plans, nursing homes, and long-term care pharmacies are all struggling with how to navigate Medicare drug coverage under Part B and Part D. To help you, here's an overview:


    Basics of Medicare Part B Drug Coverage:


    Drug coverage applies under Part B under this basic situations:


    1. Drugs billed by physicians and provided incident to physician service for that patient (e.g., chemotherapy drugs).


    2. Drugs billed by pharmacy suppliers and administered through durable medical equipment (DME) benefit (e.g., respiratory drugs given via nebulizer).


    3. Some drugs billed by pharmacy suppliers and self-administered by the patient (e.g., immunosuppressive drugs, some oral anti-cancer drugs).


    4. Separately billable drugs provided in hospital outpatient departments. Increasingly, Medicare is bundling drug costs within outpatient hospital payment rates.


    5. Separately billable End Stage Renal Disease (ESRD) drugs (e.g., erythropoietin). Increasingly, Medicare is bundling ESRD drug costs within ESRD facility payment rates.


    Medicare Part B Drug Coverage in Physician Offices:


    For Medicare Part B drug coverage in a physician's office, here are the basics:


    1. Must be furnished "incident to" a physician service. Normally, this means the drug is physician prescribed and dispensed or physician prescribed and administered during a patient office visit.


    2. As a result, Medicare Part B drug coverage is usually limited to drugs or biologicals administered by injection or infusion.


    3. If the injection is generally self-administered it is not covered under Part B (e.g., Imitrex). That is, in most cases Part B coverage of a specific drug stops if more than half of Medicare beneficiaries on the drug self-administer it.


    4. Medicare uses mix of local and national coverage decisions. Therefore, in absence of a national coverage decision by CMS, local coverage decisions are made my individual Medicare contractors (Part B claims processors, commonly called "carriers"). Therefore, regional differences can and do occur. That is, a specific drug could be covered in one state and not another.


    Formulary Basics in Medicare Part D Drug Benefit:


    1. While Medicare drug plan formularies are subject to CMS review during the annual bidding process, the Medicare Modernization Act (MMA) gives Medicare prescription drug plans (PDPs and MA-PDs) wide latitude.


    2. There is no national drug formulary or mandated formulary. Most Medicare drug plans use commercial-like drug formularies.


    3. Regarding therapeutic classes or categories used to structure a formulary, Medicare drug plans may use USP model guidelines or use their own structure. The USP model is not a formulary and not mandated.


    4. Medicare drug plans must use P&T committees for formulary decisions.


    5. For most drug classes, PDPs and MA-PDs must cover at least two drugs. CMS reviews each formulary to make sure Part D plans are not cherry picking or otherwise discriminating against certain kinds of patients.


    6. Plans must cover "all or substantially all" of the drugs in six classes: Antidepressant, Antipsychotic, Anticonvulsant, Anticancer, Immunosuppressant, and HIV / AIDS.


    7. Step therapy, prior authorization and cost tiers are allowed. Many Medicare drug plans are using four tiers in their benefit designs.


    Coverage of Non-Formulary Drugs Under Medicare Part D:


    1. The Medicare Modernization Act (MMA) requires Medicare drugs plans to ultimately cover any drug (not otherwise excluded under Part D) if "medically necessary" and "medically accepted", regardless of formularies.


    2. Drug plans are not required to list off-label on formularies, but physicians may still prescribe off-label drugs for medically accepted indications. Physicians must justify off-label use and the indication must be listed one of four compendiums accepted by CMS (e.g., DRUGDEX, USP).


    3. To justify off-label coverage for a medically necessary, medically accepted drug, the physician must determine that all drugs on plan's formulary for the treatment of the same condition (a) would not be as effective and/or (b) have adverse effects for patient. The same applies to justify an exception from a higher tier co-payment.


    4. A multi-step appeal process is available to beneficiary to seek coverage of a non-formulary drug or an exception from a tier. Steps include drug plan review, independent review, administrative law judge, HHS department appeals board, and the federal courts. The exceptions and appeals process may be initiated by the beneficiary, their physician, or another person designated by the patient.


    Prescription Drugs Excluded from Medicare Part D:


    1. The following kinds of drugs are not covered under Part D:


    - Weight-related, fertility, cosmetic, symptomatic relief cough or colds, vitamins (except prenatal), barbiturates, and benzodiazepines.


    - Over-the-counter (OTC) drugs, unless through a CMS-approved step therapy program and then only if free using the drug plan's non-benefit dollars. Few Medicare plans are covering OTCs this year.


    - Drugs covered by Medicare Part A or Part B for that individual in that instance.


    2. For dual eligibles, Medicaid may cover drugs not covered by Part D. State Medicaid programs must cover if drug is covered for non-dual Medicaid population (e.g., OTCs). This means dual eligibles will obtain drugs through multiple programs.


    Naturally, this is a high-level overview and is neither comprehensive or an official statement of federal policy. For more details, click here to read CMS' draft guidance explaining differences between Part B and Part D drug coverage. There are many nuances, twists and turns. So please be careful and closely monitor guidance from CMS and OIG.

    posted: January 15, 2006

    Pharma%20Industry%20Can%20Help%20States.jpgWhile the feds work to fix a series of technical problems plaguing the new Medicare Part D drug benefit, governors are stepping in to help ensure dual eligibles and other vulnerable beneficiaries have access to prescription drugs. As a result, states are incurring millions of dollars of costs. They shouldn't have to - by federal law, drug coverage for these patients is now the sole responsibility of CMS and the prescription drug plans. However, governors of both parties are doing the right and necessary thing. Of course, Congress should be the one doing this. But Congress is too distracted to act quickly and the Bush Administration has been adamant in opposing changes to Part D until well after implementation.


    The crisis creates a great opportunity for the pharmaceutical industry to step in and help make Part D work. As I've pointed out before, drug makers have a lot riding on the success of Part D. No, it's not that they will make more money. In fact, it's more likely that most brand manufacturers will see lower margins under Medicare. It's because failure of Part D - whether real or imagined - will undoubtedly lead to more government regulation of the industry and a new push for price controls. And the much-maligned industry needs all the good will it can get.


    Pharma manufacturers should act immediately to offer to make states whole for the cost of temporary drug coverage for dual eligibles. Specifically, drug makers should work with the National Governors Association (NGA), National Association of State Medicaid Directors (NASMD), and the HHS Office of the Inspector General (HHS) to create a private trust fund that reimburses states for all of their costs associated will filling the gaps while CMS and the drug plans get things fixed. The trust fund can be set up through a non-profit and be totally neutral as to the drug products being reimbursed. The point is to step in, help make it work, create good will, and avoid further pain and frustration.

    posted: January 14, 2006

    Medicare%20Part%20D%20Problems.jpgRube Goldberg believed there were two ways to do things - the simple way and the hard way. And that, for some inexplicable reason, many people preferred doing things the hard way. His famous cartoons illustrated the tendency of human beings to exert maximum effort to achieve minimal results.


    Notwithstanding the best of intentions, an influx of a mountain of taxpayer cash, the savings available to many low-income seniors, and the hard work of unfairly maligned federal staff, the Medicare drug benefit has become a Rube Goldberg cartoon.


    Since passage of the Medicare Modernization Act (MMA) in December 2003, I have been warning about predicable surprises and inevitable consequences. The good news is I am batting 1000 on predictions. The bad news is I am batting 1000 on predictions. If it were not for the fact real people are affected, I'd be happy to sit back and gloat about my prescience. Or perhaps hire a skywriter to paint "I Told You So" high above Security Boulevard.


    But truth is, this was easy to see and I was far from alone. While there are many flaws in the design of MMA and lost opportunities in the implementation, the most troubling problems revolve around the chaos and risks of transferring over six million vulnerable dual eligibles from Medicaid drug coverage to Medicare Part D. Virtually all of the other problems of Part D implementation can be ironed out with some more time, experience, and legislative tinkering.

    posted: December 10, 2005

    Losers in Medicare Drug Benefit.jpgAs promised, here's my list of likely losers under the new Medicare prescription drug benefit:


    ● Dual Eligibles: These 6.5 million highly vulnerable beneficiaries will lose their Medicaid drug benefit and be enrolled in the less generous, slightly more expensive, far more complex Medicare drug benefit. They also face the likelihood of a dangerous transition in drug therapy. If there is a silver lining here, it's the prospect of Medicare Advantage Special Needs Plans (MA-SNPs). That is, the hope that over time dual Medicare-Medicaid beneficiaries will sign up to get all their Medicare benefits from health plans tailored to their needs. Even better states work with MA-SNPs to bundle all Medicaid services with Medicare Part A, Part B, and Part D. See my earlier post on this idea and other stories on dual eligible issues.


    ● Retirees with Employer-Sponsored Drug Coverage: The trend has certainly been toward employers reducing retiree health coverage. With $100 billion in new taxpayer-financed incentives and an array of options to cost shift, Medicare Part D ensures that millions of retirees will move - slowly but inevitably - from relatively generous employer-sponsored drug coverage to more limited, more costly taxpayer-subsidized coverage. Employers are in a bind, to be sure, so don't blame them for taking advantage of this gift horse. It's anyone's guess whether Part D and the $100 billion in subsidies for employers will serve to slow or hasten the death of employer-sponsored drug coverage for retirees.


    ● States: Because of the now notorious "clawback" and variety of other factors, including a likely strong woodwork effect, loss of supplemental rebates, and unfunded mandates, drug benefits for dual eligibles will cost cash-stripped state governments more under federal management. Under Part D and the resulting fragmentation of benefits across multiple, uncoordinated programs, state Medicaid programs also lose critically important data and face greater challenges to managing the health costs of the most expensive, most vulnerable Medicaid beneficiaries. Since it's highly likely that many dual eligibles will have problems getting their prescriptions in the early months of Part D, states may be forced to step in and use their own money to cover drugs as the bugs are worked out.


    ● Community Pharmacies: The shift of dual eligibles to Medicare for their prescription drugs also means a large chunk of retail pharmacy business is moving from Medicaid (which, in most states, is the highest payor of pharmacy services) to private drug plans (which are the lowest payors). Specifically, state Medicaid programs commonly pay much higher dispensing fees and pay a higher rate for a pharmacy's drug acquisition costs. Commercial insurers, including those offering Medicare drug plans, are just the opposite. States do get better deals from drug manufacturers because of rebates and the Medicaid "best price" law, but those dollars are on the backend and pharmacies don't benefit. The large drug store chains have some flexibility to juggle the business impact of Part D. However, many small independent pharmacies face significant financial losses.


    ● Big Pharma: Some, perhaps most, pharmaceutical manufacturers will see a temporary boost in their top lines. Yet, most will experience a significant and likely steady, long-lasting hit to the bottom line. Yes, some drug makers will benefit from the pent-up demand released by the Medicare drug benefit. But the potential for increased sales in the short term is nothing compared to pricing pressures generated by the confluence of market dynamics, including drug plan competition, price transparency, and price sensitivity of at-risk drug plans. Add to this the likelihood of a massive increase in government oversight, substantially higher compliance risks, and challenges of shifting from a sales-based to research-based strategy. Some drug makers will win but it will depend on how quickly and deftly they can adapt to a brave new world of Part D.


    Please check out my previous post on the Medicare drug benefit, including post on the likely winners in the business of Part D.

    posted: November 20, 2005

    Marketing to Diverse Medicare Population.jpgThe new Medicare prescription drug benefit presents major marketing challenges for both the competing drug plans and officials at CMS and SSA. While the feds must conduct a massive outreach campaign to educate 43 million Medicare beneficiaries about the complex program, the drug plan sponsors must market their plan designs, which vary widely in delivery, cost sharing, and formularies.


    With over 2,000 drug plan options across the country and each beneficiary having to select among 40-50+ plan designs in their own regions, the marketing challenges are extraordinary. Add to this the intricate, anti-intuitive program design set up by Congress in the Medicare Modernization Act and how Part D handles the dual eligibles, low-income seniors, retirees with employer sponsored drug coverage, veterans, and others all differently - and, well, you have the makings of quite a mess.


    Yet, the challenges don't end there. The Medicare population is not homogeneous, media stereotypes notwithstanding. Beneficiaries vary widely by income, assets, age, disability status, setting, ethnicity, and existing drug coverage. Almost 70 percent already have prescription drug coverage without Part D. Those without drug coverage are a diverse mix of rich and poor, healthy and sick, active and isolated, urban and rural. As a group, American seniors are one of the wealthiest cohorts in world history but among them, there are many low-income seniors struggling every day.


    In terms of race and ethnicity, African Americans and Latinos make up 15 percent of Medicare's beneficiaries ages 65 and older and 27 percent of Medicare's under-65 disabled beneficiaries. However, while less than a third of white beneficiaries are sufficiently low in income to qualify for federal drug subsidies, over 60 percent of African Americans and Latinos on Medicare may qualify for the low-income subsidy. While a sizable majority of all Medicare beneficiaries have access to drug coverage without Part D, African American and Latino beneficiaries are more likely to have no drug coverage now. In addition, the vulnerable dual eligible population, with its 6.5 million souls, is disproportionately African American or Latino beneficiaries.


    Traditional, television-centric marketing tactics are necessary but not sufficient to reach Medicare's diverse population and offer the benefits of Part D, particularly the substantial savings available through the low-income subsidy. To differentiate themselves in a crowded market and maximize both enrollment and retention, Medicare prescription drug plans need to adopt a more sophisticated, multi-facetted array of marketing tactics and mediums. Among them, viral or word-of-mouth marketing is essential. In addition to being extremely effective in situations like this, the costs and risks are low.

    posted: October 22, 2005

    Medicare Prescription Drug Data Sharing.jpgSophisticated health care purchasers and health plans know the value of prescription drug data. When analyzed with paid claims data from physicians and hospitals, data from pharmacy claims can be used to identify, understand, and track a wide range of issues.


    Starting January 2006, when the 6.5 million dual eligibles move from Medicaid to Medicare for their prescription drug benefits, state Medicaid agencies will no longer have access to data on drug use by these extremely expensive, at-risk beneficiaries - patients who drive over 40 percent of Medicaid costs. As a result, Medicaid managers will lose an invaluable source of information, severely handicapping the ability of states to monitor quality, access, and costs and catch waste, fraud, and abuse.


    The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) lacks the legal authority to require Medicare prescription drug plans (PDPs and MA-PDs) share data with Medicaid. However, nothing precludes voluntary Rx data sharing between Medicare drug plans and states.


    Voluntary data sharing would be an easy, inexpensive way for Medicare drug plans to gain goodwill among states and advocates, generate positive publicity, and differentiate themselves from the mass of competitor plans. In addition, because dual eligibles may switch plans any time and multiple times each year, two-way data exchanges with states would aide drug therapy transitions, utilization review, and medication therapy management. Stand-alone PDPs, which are at risk only for drug costs and therefore will not have access to any non-drug data, could greatly benefit from data from state Medicaid programs (e.g., diagnoses, prescription history, providers seen)


    To help make this happen:


    - A major pharmaceutical manufacturer should offer to fund a national initiative to show the business and clinical case for information exchange, develop data sharing agreements, iron out any technical obstacles (e.g., data safeguards), and cover the modest start-up costs (e.g., systems changes). In addition to generating goodwill, this would help minimize disruption in drug therapy, quality problems, and errors - and reduce lost revenue and bad publicity that will inevitably result if duals have problems accessing vital medications.


    - In their standards for a Medicare drug plan to be designated as a preferred plan for low-income beneficiaries, State Pharmaceutical Assistance Programs (SPAPs) should require that preferred drug plans to exchange duals' Rx data with states.

    posted: September 24, 2005

    Medicare Advantage Special Needs Plans.jpgMedicare Advantage is the new name for voluntary managed care options in Medicare (also know as Medicare Part C and formerly "Medicare+Choice"). Medicare Advantage plans are now available in nearly every area of the country. Beneficiaries who select a MA plan elect to receive all Medicare benefits through the health plan (HMO or PPO). This includes all Part A and Part B services, plus the new Part D drug benefit as an optional add-on.


    The Medicare Modernization Act (MMA) created a Medicare Advantage option called "specialized MA plans for special needs individuals" ("special needs plans" or "SNPs"). These Medicare health plans limit their enrollment to special needs beneficiaries (or disproportionate percentage of special needs beneficiaries). The idea is to encourage greater access to Medicare Advantage plans for special needs individuals and allow plans to tailor programs to meet unique needs. MMA also created risk adjustment, removing a major disincentive to serve high-cost populations. Two groups of special needs individuals are specified in MMA: (1) beneficiaries who are institutionalized and (2) dual eligibles. CMS may also establish other "special needs" groups among beneficiaries with severe or disabling chronic conditions. Like other Medicare Advantage plans, special needs plans have the ability to lower beneficiary cost sharing and cover services not available to beneficiaries in fee-for-service Medicare.


    This creates a new opportunity for state Medicaid programs to extend the benefits of managed care to dual eligibles, who nationwide account for over 40 percent of Medicaid costs. Because of a labyrinth of conflicts between federal Medicare and Medicaid laws, it has been very hard for states to implement large-scale programs to improve care delivery for their highest cost, most vulnerable beneficiaries. The result has been high costs, extraordinary inefficiency, frustration for patients and their families, and higher risk for poor quality.


    Working with CMS and Medicare Advantage special needs plans (MA-SNPs) operating in the state, a state Medicaid agency could offer to capitate all Medicaid services to any MA-SNP with dual eligible enrollees. The MA-SNP would then be responsible for all Medicare and Medicaid benefits, including all long-term care and prescription drug benefits. To ensure appropriate payment and oversight, the state would risk adjust the Medicaid side of the capitation and MA-SNPs would have one set of quality standards and grievance procedures (presumably based on the more stringent Medicaid protections). Enrollment would remain voluntary like it is for other Medicare beneficiaries, but states could create powerful incentives for duals to enroll in MA-SNPs. For example, the state could limit coverage of home- and community-based services (HCBS) to MA-SNP enrollees when two or more MA-SNPs are available.


    Beneficiaries would benefit from higher quality, better access (in real terms), modern care coordination, less paperwork, closer oversight of their rights, and likely more services. States would win from a range of benefit and administrative savings, plus more predictable spending.


    For a fact sheet on Medicare Advantage, click here. To learn about plans, enrollment, and other key issues, click here.

    posted: August 19, 2005

    Medicare Clawback Headed for US Supreme Court.jpgIt looks increasingly likely that several states will challenge the constitutionality of a key element of Congress' financing of the new Medicare prescription drug benefit (also known as Medicare Part D).


    To help fund the massive new Medicare drug benefit, Congress mandated that state governments send monthly checks to the federal treasury. The so-called "clawback" - amounting about $100 billion over the next ten years - is intended to cover a big chunk of the drug costs of dual eligibles.


    In addition to being an unprecedented exercise of federal power that many experts believe is unconstitutional on its face, the clawback raises a mix of troubling policy issues. For example, it means state governments must pay for costs of federal beneficiaries in a federally created and operated entitlement. States are already grumbling that, because of a long history of federal cost shifting to state taxpayers, over 40 percent of state Medicaid spending this year will go to cover the health care costs of federal Medicare beneficiaries.


    The clawback also comes at a time when Congress plans to cut $10 billion from federal Medicaid spending. And states are facing new costs created by the Medicare Modernization Act.


    As a matter of law, states cannot let the clawback go unchallenged. Regardless of the many positive aspects of the new Medicare drug benefit, the clawback simply raises too many fundamental issues to be left unexamined by the Supreme Court.

    posted: August 6, 2005

    Medicare Part D Low Income Subsidy.jpgIt's still early in the nationwide push to get millions of low-income Medicare beneficiaries to sign up for the subsidy that could cover the bulk of their prescription drug expenses. But, as many of us expected, applications are coming in at a trickle.


    The low-income subsidy is one of the most positive aspects of the new Medicare prescription drug benefit (aka, Medicare Part D). Of the 43 million Medicare beneficiaries, up to seven million may be eligible for the generous, taxpayer-financed subsidies of most of their drug costs. However, they must apply for the subsidy, navigate the application form, meet the income and asset tests set by Congress, and later sign up for the drug benefit and pick a drug plan.


    Experience from other subsidy programs tells us that it's tough to get low-income seniors to apply for benefits. They are hard to reach and risk adverse. They don't like the idea of signing up for what is seen as a welfare benefit. In addition, they are often struggling with multiple health issues and low health literacy. Ultimately, you can lead people to a subsidy but you can't make them take it.


    The Medicare savings programs are a good case in point. For low-income Medicare beneficiaries who do not otherwise qualify for full Medicaid benefits, the feds mandate that state Medicaid programs pay some or all of the individual's Medicare cost sharing. But, after years of outreach efforts, perhaps only 30 percent of eligible beneficiaries are enrolled.


    Inside the Beltway, a host of players is worried that signup for the low-income subsidy will be painfully slow. Even putting aside the primary objective of ensuring access to needed medications, response to the low-income subsidy will drive perceptions of whether Part D is a success or failure.


    Like virtually every aspect of Medicare Part D, it will take time, effort, money, creativity, partnerships, luck, and patience to make the low-income subsidy a success. However, whether we like it or not, this is a public program, operating in a media and politically driven fish bowl - and expectation are foolishly unrealistic. We need to show patience, but ultimately perceptions will rule reality. And if, come January 2006, only a small portion of eligible beneficiaries sign up for the subsidy, expect a lively blame game.


    To read other stories on the Medicare drug benefit, click here.

    posted: June 28, 2005

    Medicaid Drug Coverage.jpgAs part of the HHS appropriations bill for FY 2006, Congress is moving fast to drop federal funding for erectile dysfunction (ED) drugs in Medicaid, Medicare, and other federal health programs. This makes sense but there is a catch, albeit an unintentional one. Federal law will still require state Medicaid programs to pay for ED drugs. They'll just will have to do it with 100% state dollars.


    Because this is being done as a rider to the appropriation, it does nothing to change the statutory mandate that states must cover ED drugs like any FDA-approved drug when medically necessary. Under OBRA '90, amended in 1993, if a state decides to cover prescription drugs for the Medicaid population and accept rebates from manufacturers, they must cover virtually all drugs when medically necessary. Every state opts to provide a Medicaid Rx benefit.


    The other big policy done this way is the Hyde Amendment on Medicaid coverage of abortions. This too is done through the appropriation and not the statute. Federal matching dollars are available only for pregnancy terminations that are the result of rape or incest, but many states still must provide other "medically necessary" abortions with 100% state funds - all battled out via messy court challenges.


    Medicaid spending on erectile dysfunction drugs is modest but the problem is symbolic of how byzantine Medicaid has become. And it's further evidence of the need for national reform to modernize the $333 billion program and allow states the flexibility to manage it.

    posted: May 1, 2005

    Elderly Woman in Wheelchair in a Sunny Room.jpgThe new Medicare prescription drug benefit presents many challenges to the nation's seven million dual Medicare-Medicaid eligibles. On January 1, 2006 they must move from broader, more flexible Medicaid drug coverage to the narrower, extraordinarily complex Medicare drug benefit. Among those in jepordy are about a half million frail seniors and severely disabled persons served by state home- and community-based waiver programs.


    State Medicaid programs offer a range of home- and community-based services to help frail seniors and severely disabled individuals avoid costly institutionalization. Of course, adequate drug coverage is essential to this effort. Most individuals enrolled in these programs are dual eligibles and thus face dramatic changes in their drug benefits.


    An excellent new report discusses the impact of Medicare Part D on this subset of dual eligibles. The author, Chuck Milligan, JD, MPH, is a highly respected Medicaid and long-term care guru. Formerly vice president at The Lewin Group and New Mexico Medicaid director, he's executive director of the Center for Health Program Development and Management at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC). Chuck offers several thoughtful recommendations:


    ● Allow states to dispense 90-day prescriptions in December 2005 with full federal matching funds.

    ● Allow Medicaid to share drug information with the Medicare prescription drug plan as soon as auto-enrollment is finalized.

    ● Require Medicare prescription drug plans to honor a beneficiary?s existing pharmacy regimen until an in-network physician develops a new care plan.

    ● Require Medicare prescription drug plans to offer dual eligibles open formularies or Medicaid-equivalent formularies during the first six months to a year.

    ● Allow states to pick up the cost of noncovered drugs with full federal matching funds and be eligible for a credit to the state ?clawback.?

    ● Lengthen the period for auto-enrollment.


    Please also check out the Piper Report's recent story on the risks of Part D to nursing home residents.

    posted: April 22, 2005

    Blue-White Pills on White Background.jpgIn 2005, state Medicaid programs will pay for over 18 percent of the nation's quarter trillion dollar pharmaceutical market. Thanks to an excellent new analysis by Jim Verdier and colleagues at Mathematica Policy Research, we have new insights into cost and use patterns in Medicaid.


    Some highlights:


    ● Average monthly Medicaid fee-for-service (FFS) pharmacy reimbursement for all beneficiaries nationally was $69, ranging from $43 in South Carolina to $165 in Connecticut.


    ● The monthly average was $154 for disabled beneficiaries, $129 for aged beneficiaries, $31 for non-disabled adults, and $12 for children.


    ● Generics accounted for 46 percent of all Medicaid FFS prescriptions nationally, ranging from 37 percent in New York to 52 percent in Utah.


    ● Anti-psychotics accounted for nearly 11 percent of total Medicaid drug spending, with antidepressants accounting for 7 percent. Anti-psychotic drugs were the top-ranked drug group in terms of total in 38 states, and ranked second in 9 other states and the District of Columbia.


    Mathematica's work, which was sponsored by the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS), also provides interesting information on the prescription drug use and costs of dual eligibles:


    ● Disabled Medicaid beneficiaries accounted for 58 percent of total Medicaid FFS reimbursement nationally, aged beneficiaries 28 percent, non-disabled adults 6 percent, and children 8 percent.


    ● Average national monthly FFS reimbursement for dual eligibles was $157, ranging from $109 in New Mexico to $315 in Colorado.


    Dual eligibles accounted for 56 percent of Medicaid FFS pharmacy reimbursement in 1999, ranging from 39 percent in West Virginia to 90 percent in New Mexico.


    ● Average annual FFS pharmacy costs nationally for disabled dual eligibles under age 65 was $2,143. It was $1,431 for duals age 65 to 74, $1,447 for duals age 75 to 84, and $1,247 for duals age 85 and older.


    ● Dual eligibles in nursing homes accounted for 14 percent of Medicaid FFS pharmacy reimbursement, with the percentage ranging from 2 percent in South Carolina to 30 percent in Maryland.


    ● Medicaid residents in nursing homes received an average of 5 prescriptions per month, with the number ranging from 1 percent in the District of Columbia to 13 percent in Colorado.


    To learn more, read Mathematica's thoughtful issue brief (PDF) or check out the data tables.

    posted: April 2, 2005

    Prescription Pick Up Counter.jpgMedicare observers expect heavy competition for drug plan contracts with the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS). It now appears CMS will receive several hundred applications, including applications from major insurers offering drug benefit packages in every state.


    Since adoption of the Medicare Modernization Act (MMA), most observers - most notably CMS itself - feared inadequate competition for 2006 contracts. Only a few wonks, including your humble editor, believed the Medicare business, while complex and unprecedented, is too strategic and lucrative for insurers to ignore.


    Prospective drug plan sponsors skillfully played up CMS? fear and perceived inexperience, consistently warning against policies that might restrict the discretion of drug plans. In addition, CMS has a long tradition of taking a ?light touch? to health plan contracting under Medicare+Choice (now called Medicare Advantage).


    The result is Medicare?s drug plan rules, guidelines, and application procedures are highly deferential to drug plan bidders. Add to this (a) the captive market of nearly seven million dual eligibles, (b) the financial safety valves of risk corridors and risk adjustment, and (c) strategic imperatives of a quickly changing pharmaceutical supply chain ? and you have market opportunities that are hard, if not foolish, to refuse.


    This, of course, merely indicates there will be heavy competition. However, do not confuse this with smooth implementation, profitable operation, or a successful drug benefit. Stay tuned for ongoing commentary on the predictable surprises of the Medicare prescription drug benefit.

    posted: March 7, 2005

    Prescription Pills on Pharmacy Counter.jpgNew evidence on the high incidence of preventable, often deadly drug errors in nursing homes raises serious implications for the new Medicare prescription drug benefit.


    Each month, one in ten nursing home residents suffer a medication-related injury, according to a new study in the American Journal of Medicine. The lead author, Jerry H. Gurwitz, MD from the University of Massachusetts Medical School, is a top expert on the safe use of drugs by seniors.


    Extrapolating to the 1.6 million nursing home residents, the study suggests a staggering 1.9 million medication errors each year - including over 86,000 fatal or life-threatening mistakes. These scary new figures, still considered conservative, indicate the problem is five times worse than previously believed. To read the study, click here (PDF).


    Under the new Medicare prescription drug benefit, most nursing home residents face dramatic changes to their drug benefits starting January 1, 2006. While some aspects of the Medicare drug benefit may ultimately help improve care, the highly complex Medicare program will likely exacerbate the problem of medication errors.


    Some key factors to consider:


    1. More restrictive formularies: The drug formularies offered by the Medicare drug plans will be far more restrictive than state Medicaid formularies. For many nursing home residents, this will mean changes to drug therapy regimens.


    2. More complex drug management: It's unlikely that all of a facility's residents will be enrolled in the same drug plan. Therefore, nursing homes face the challenge of navigating multiple formularies and benefit procedures. In addition, the Medicare drug plans will likely force significant changes to nursing home?s long-established relationships with the specialty pharmacies that know and serve this market.


    3. Misaligned financial incentives: Most Medicare beneficiaries in nursing homes will be enrolled in brand-new kind of creature, i.e., stand-alone drug plans that are at financial risk only for the drugs. This is in sharp contrast to health plans (HMOs, PPOs) which are at risk for all care and therefore have a built-in incentive to maintain a safe, therapeutically sound drug benefit to guard against hospitalizations and other more costly events. Because of the serious misalignment of incentives and the potential for cost-shifting and other gaming, no employer or Medicaid program would ever consider a similar at-risk carve out of drug benefits.

    posted: February 18, 2005

    Drugs from Rx Bottle.jpgWhen the Medicare prescription drug benefit begins on January 1, 2006, about seven million beneficiaries face more restricted drug formularies. Currently, these "dual eligible" individuals receive their drug benefit through state Medicaid programs, which offer more liberal formularies than what will be expected of the new Medicare drug plans.


    In addition, most of these high-risk patients will be enrolled in stand-alone prescription drug plans (PDPs) at risk for drug costs only. Unlike health plans, which are at risk for the full spectrum of care, PDPs will have no financial incentive to use drugs to avoid costlier hospitalizations.


    A new report sponsored by the American Society of Consultant Pharmacists (ASCP) describes a variety of health risks to seniors and disabled persons (particularly those in nursing homes) posed by drugs excluded under the Medicare drug benefit.


    The author, Dr. Richard G. Stefanacci, executive director of the Health Policy Institute at the University of Sciences in Philadelphia, concludes:

    While the magnitude of the change from the current Medicaid coverage of many medications for dually eligible residents is enormous, the real costs may not be realized for some time. These will come in the form of costly medication substitutions, potentially avoidable emergency room visits and admissions and, even worse, untimely deaths.
    posted: February 7, 2005

    Handcuffed to Money.jpgSome legal gurus are questioning the constitutionality of a key provision of the Medicare prescription drug benefit: the so-called "clawback" provision that requires states to send the federal government cash to help cover the cost of drugs for dual eligibles. The mandatory payments are enormous - $6 billion in 2006 and over $48 billion (likely much more) during the first five years. And controversial idea of making states pay for a federal program benefit has generated strong criticism from governors and state Medicaid directors.


    Recent decisions by the U.S. Supreme Court and appeals courts have placed new restrictions on the ability of Congress to use its spending power to "encourage" state action. The clawback - and the consequences of late payment - would appear to cross the line. When Congress attaches conditions to federal funding, the Supremes say "the financial inducement offered by Congress might be so coercive as to pass the point at which pressure turns into compulsion."


    No doubt some states will go to court to challenge the clawback. It may be hard for the feds to argue in court that states, by signing up for the federal-state Medicaid partnership, somehow waived their sovereignty and agreed to remit state cash to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services to pay for a federal program.


    For more on this, check out an excellent article by James N. Gardner, JD, in the January 2005 issue of State News, published by the Council of State Governments. Mr. Gardner, a former Oregon state senator, also served as a law clerk to Justice Potter Stewart.

    posted: January 31, 2005

    Dollar Sign on Blue Background.jpgFrom 2000 to 2003, a sharp rise in enrollment during the economic downturn triggered Medicaid budgets to increase by a third - an average annual increase of 10.2 percent. A new analysis in Health Affairs found that during this four-year period:


    ● In per capita terms, average annual Medicaid costs for acute care services grew by 6.9 percent, compared to 12.6 percent for employer-sponsored insurance.


    ● While low-income families represented 90 percent of enrollment growth, they accounted for 44 percent of cost increases. Elderly and disabled beneficiaries, with their dramatically higher per capita costs, drove 56 percent of Medicaid spending growth.


    The implications are clear. First, state Medicaid programs are often more effective than employers in controlling health expenditures - especially during economic downturns and the worst part of the commercial underwriting cycle. Second, in a slow economy states will always experience big budget hits from increased enrollment of low-income kids and their parents. However, over the long-term, states must focus most of their cost containment efforts on high-cost beneficiaries, where care is notoriously inefficient.


    To learn more, read the full article in Health Affairs or watch a webcast of the briefing.

    posted: December 10, 2004

    Financial Risk - Dice - 2.jpgPrescription drug utilization varies dramatically among individuals. To make sure Medicare payments to Prescription Drug Plans (PDPs) reflect the health status of enrollees, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) is developing a risk adjustment methodology. Risk adjustment is a statistical process used to identify and adjust for variation in patient costs that stem from differences in key risk factors - each a demographic or diagnostic characteristic of the patient.


    The CMS methodology, which is mandated by the Medicare Modernization Act (MMA), will use various inputs ? age, sex, disability status, and diagnoses ? to create a reasonable estimate of a PDP?s cost liability. Risk adjustment will result in more fair and accurate drug plan payments and help ensure access for the most vulnerable beneficiaries.


    For PowerPoint slides on CMS? planned approach, click here.

    posted: December 3, 2004

    Pills Spilled.jpgUnder the new Medicare prescription drug benefit, drug plans will have a fair amount of discretion in setting formularies. The idea is to encourage competition among drug plans and offer Medicare beneficiaries choice. The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) will review the benefit designs of drug plan bidders to ensure the beneficiaries have appropriate access to needed drugs.


    CMS has released draft guidelines for reviewing prescription drug plan formularies. CMS' strategy for drug benefit review is designed to promote "appropriate operation of beneficiary protections and formulary oversight that includes access to all Part D covered drugs, while providing flexibility in plan design as expected under the Medicare Modernization Act (MMA)." Public comments are due by Thursday, December 30, 2004.


    CMS also released a helpful fact sheet that summarizes the formulary review process.

    posted: October 29, 2004

    A Bright Idea.jpgMedicaid health plans are the Ginger Rogers of managed care. They have to do everything commercial and Medicare health plans do but have to do it backwards and in high heels. Despite dealing with more complex requirements and the toughest, most vulnerable patient populations, Medicaid health plans often provide higher quality and better access to care than their commercial counterparts.


    To reward the highest performing health plans, state Medicaid agencies are increasingly using a new tool - performance-based auto-assignment. Auto-assignment is when new Medicaid beneficiaries are automatically assigned to a health plan when they don't voluntarily select a plan within the required time frame. While a state may simply assign new patients randomly among available plans, it may also use auto-assignment to incentivize the best health plans with increased enrollment. The better the perform, the greater the plan's proportion of auto-assigned enrollees.


    Michael Bailit, CEO of Bailit Health Purchasing LLC and a leading expert on Medicaid and employer managed care, says for auto-assignment to work as an incentive additional assignment volume must be desired by the health plans. States must also:

    - Establish clear goals at the outset and involve stakeholders early in the process.
    - Focus on data that is reliable and measures that can be audited.
    - Revisit measures on a regular basis and view the algorithm as something that is modifiable.
    - View auto-assignment as an incentive strategy that can be use in complimentary fashion with other incentive strategies.


    With the help of Bailit Health Purchasing, California Medicaid (MediCal) is developing a performance-based auto-assignment program. Starting in 2005, MediCal will use the approach to reward health plans with superior performance (relative to other health plans in the county), create a quality improvement incentive for all plans, and support the preservation of the safety net. Medicaid programs in Michigan and New York state already have experience using auto-assignment to drive quality improvement.


    When the new Medicare prescription drug benefit begins in January 2006, 7 million dual eligibles (persons enrolled in both Medicare and Medicaid) will receive their drug benefits through prescription drug plans (PDPs). If they don't select a PDP, Medicare will auto-assign them into a plan. Given the positive experience of state Medicaid programs, Medicare may wish to consider using performance-based auto-assignment to help drive drug plan quality.

    Consider This
    In ancient China, physicians were paid only when their patients were kept well and often not paid if the patient got sick. If a patient died, a special lantern was hung outside the doctor's house. Upon each death, another lantern was added. This is the first known use of the two most powerful drivers for health care performance - incentives and transparency.
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