On September 16, 2022, the Kaiser Family Foundation (KFF) released a report titled Beneficiary Experience, Affordability, Utilization, and Quality in Medicare Advantage and Traditional Medicare: A Review of the Literature. The report reviewed 62 studies published since 2016 that compare Medicare Advantage (MA) and traditional Medicare on a number of measures, including “beneficiary experience, affordability, utilization, and quality [and] finds few differences that are supported by strong evidence or have been replicated across multiple studies” according to a press release accompanying the report.
As noted in the report, “[t]he growing role of Medicare Advantage and the relatively high spending on this program raise the question of how well private plans serve their enrollees compared to traditional Medicare.” While the press release noted that “relatively few studies specifically examined specific subgroups of interest, such as beneficiaries from communities of color, living in rural areas, or dually eligible for Medicare and Medicaid, making it difficult to assess the strength of the findings or how broadly they apply”, the research did identify “noteworthy differences” between MA and traditional Medicare.
The Executive Summary of the report states:
We found few differences between Medicare Advantage and traditional Medicare that are supported by strong evidence or have been replicated across multiple studies. Both Medicare Advantage and traditional Medicare beneficiaries reported similar rates of satisfaction with their care and overall measures of care coordination. Medicare Advantage outperformed traditional Medicare on some measures, such as use of preventive services, having a usual source of care, and lower hospital readmission rates. However, traditional Medicare outperformed Medicare Advantage on other measures, such as receiving care in the highest-rated hospitals for cancer care or in the highest-quality skilled nursing facilities and home health agencies. Additionally, a somewhat smaller share of traditional Medicare beneficiaries than Medicare Advantage enrollees experienced a cost-related problem, mainly due to lower rates of cost-related problems among traditional Medicare beneficiaries with supplemental coverage. Several studies found lower use of post-acute care among Medicare Advantage enrollees but were inconclusive as to whether that was associated with better or worse outcomes. Findings related to the use of other health care services, including hospital care and prescription drugs, and condition-specific quality of care measures varied – likely due to differences in data and methodology across studies.
According to these studies, MA appears to perform worse than traditional Medicare in certain areas, including:
- Switching from MA to TM: “rates of switching from Medicare Advantage to traditional Medicare were relatively higher among beneficiaries who are dually eligible for Medicare and Medicaid, beneficiaries of color, beneficiaries in rural areas, and following the onset of a functional impairment. Switching rates may be a proxy for dissatisfaction with current coverage arrangements.”
- Post-Acute Care: “lower rates of skilled nursing facility (SNF), inpatient rehabilitation facility (IRF), and home health use among Medicare Advantage enrollees, and shorter lengths of stay in SNFs and IRFs for Medicare Advantage enrollees than traditional Medicare beneficiaries”
- Quality of Providers: “Medicare Advantage enrollees were less likely than traditional Medicare beneficiaries to receive care in the highest-or lowest-rated hospitals overall or in the highest-rated hospitals for cancer care, skilled nursing facilities (SNFs), and home health agencies.”
- Affordability: “a somewhat larger share of Medicare Advantage enrollees than traditional Medicare beneficiaries experienced a cost-related problem, mainly due to lower rates of cost-related problems among traditional Medicare beneficiaries with supplemental coverage […] Medicare Advantage enrollees who are Black, under age 65 with disabilities, or in fair or poor health were more likely to report cost-related problems than their traditional Medicare counterparts.”
Correspondingly, the areas in which MA appears to outperform TM include:
- “use of preventive services”
- “more likely to report having a usual source of care”
- “Medicare Advantage enrollees reported better experiences getting needed prescription drugs than traditional Medicare beneficiaries overall, but among beneficiaries with specific conditions, findings were mixed”
- Hospital readmission rates “were generally lower in Medicare Advantage than in traditional Medicare”
The conclusion of the report notes: “As Medicare Advantage plans continue to have an expanding role in the Medicare program, the studies in our review provide useful context for understanding how well Medicare Advantage plans are serving their enrollees relative to traditional Medicare. At the same time, data limitations remain a significant concern.”
As noted in a separate KFF report, Medicare Advantage is projected to exceed more than half of all Medicare beneficiaries as soon as next year. At the same time, it is well documented that MA plans are overpaid, and such overpayments unnecessarily drive-up programmatic spending. But what have Medicare beneficiaries and the Medicare program as a whole gained from these overpayments?
Not surprisingly, the insurance industry often paints MA as “better” for beneficiaries than traditional Medicare, issuing statements such as “More than 28 million seniors and people with disabilities choose Medicare Advantage (MA) because it delivers better services, better access to care, and better value” (AHIP), and MA is “delivering better health outcomes, through better quality care at a better cost for Medicare beneficiaries” (Better Medicare Alliance).
But is Medicare Advantage really “better” than traditional Medicare? According to this KFF report and its analysis of recent studies, coupled with our own experience serving Medicare beneficiaries who need care for significant illnesses or injuries, the answer is an unequivocal “no”.