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Nursing home study raises questions on Medicare managed care networks

From Reuters - January 18, 2018

CHICAGO (Reuters) - Managed care is the hot trend in Medicare, with the number of seniors enrolled in Medicare Advantage plans projected to soar over the coming decade.

These plans offer simplicity by combining all the different parts of Medicare into a single buying decision - and they can save you money.

But before you sign up, ask this question: What happens if I get really sick?

Most Medicare Advantage plans are HMOs or PPOs. When you join, Medicare provides a fixed payment to the plan to cover Part A (hospitalization) and Part B (outpatient services). Advantage is growing quickly, fueled by its value proposition of savings and simplicity - the plans bundle together prescription drug coverage and the out-of-pocket protection of Medigap plans.

But like any type of managed care coverage, there is a trade-off: you must use in-network healthcare providers. For example, one recent study found shortcomings in the quality of providers in some Medicare Advantage provider networks - one out of every five plans did not include a regional academic medical center - institutions that usually offer the highest-quality care and specialists (reut.rs/2DGIvhy).

Now, a new study raises questions about the quality of skilled nursing facilities (SNFs) that are included in Medicare Advantage provider networks.

Researchers at Brown Universitys School of Public Health examined Medicare beneficiaries entering skilled nursing facilities (SNFs) from 2012 to 2014. The yardsticks for quality were Nursing Home Compare - Medicares own database of nursing home quality ratings - and rates of hospital readmission for those admitted to SNFs. Their key finding: Medicare Advantage enrollees appear more likely to enter lower-quality skilled nursing facilities than people enrolled in traditional fee-for-service Medicare.

Medicare Advantage plans also are subject to a quality rating system, but the researchers found that enrollees in both lower- and higher-quality plans were admitted to SNFs with significantly lower quality ratings.

The SNF quality gaps could impact a large group of people, considering the large - and growing - Medicare population.David Meyers, one of the Brown University study authors, calculates that about 315,000 patients from lower-rated Advantage plans need to use an SNF annually. If those people had used fee-for-service Medicare, up to 13,000 more of them might have gone to a higher-quality nursing home, he said.

UNCLEAR HEALTH OUTCOMES

The study does not conclude that healthcare outcomes arenecessarily worse for Medicare Advantage enrollees - that was outside the scope of the research. Some researchers have correlated NHC star ratings with patient outcomes, but the jury really is out on this question - partly because of the shortcomings of NHC itself. Much of the data that determines ratings is self-reported by nursing homes, and reviews of this system have found numerous cases of facilities attempting to game the system to inflate their ratings.

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