Medicare 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.