Medicare 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.