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What Will the New Medicare Advantage Plan Ranking System Look Like?

Susan Jaffe recently published a great read on Medicare Advantage plan ranking systems. Although the Advantage ratings purportedly help seniors weed out the best possible plans, the ratings system is flawed and most seniors rely on a combination of plan costs and benefits to determine which plan they want. The impending Medicare reforms will be rewarding top-ranked Advantage plans with bonuses, despite the obvious flaws within the system. The Center for Medicare Services (CMS) plans on using the current system at first, and later evaluating which factors work and which do not.  Programs with 4 or 5 star ratings will receive higher bonuses from Medicare.

What will the new MAPD ranking system look like?
What will the new MAPD ranking system look like?

I feel that improving the ratings system is integral to Medicare reform. While costs and coverage are indeed incredibly important facets of every Advantage plan, quality of care and benefits are equally important for seniors. Relying on price alone may net a senior an affordable plan while sacrificing quality.  Unfortunately, many seniors do rely on price. According to Jaffe, over 75% of Advantage plan beneficiaries select plans with less than 3 stars.  Improving the ratings system can make seniors more aware of the quality of their Advantage plan, and possibly provide them with improved health care.  Adding the incentive to perform better could ultimately help seniors out.  However, that incentive needs to be clear and the ratings system needs to be solid.

Another part to the issue raised by Jaffe is that not all plans are rated, and not all areas boast 4 or 5 star rated plans.  By expanding the ratings system, and breaking down all the benefits and coverage associated with the plan, perhaps CMS can provide more comprehensive analyses to facilitate Advantage plan selection for seniors. At the same time, plans need the opportunity to improve their ratings and quality. Improvement should be recognized as a factor in the ratings.   Perhaps adding incentives for improvement in addition to overall rating might be helpful, although not necessarily cost-effective. By making providers accountable for their services and seniors more aware of the ins-and-outs of Advantage plans, perhaps there can be genuine improvements in the Medicare system.

At the same time, I feel that it might be difficult for the bonus system to work as it should, especially because standards of care vary across the country.  Jaffe quotes Vicki Gottlich of the Center for Medicare Advocacy, who raises the concern that a simple average score might bury a plan’s deficiencies beneath its stronger points. And is it really fair to rate a 3 star plan in say, Idaho, to a 5 star plan in Florida? How can the rating system be most effective when there are so many variables involved?

Although the new bonuses may help improve the quality of care available for Medicare, CMS must ensure that all the wrinkles in the rating system are ironed out before applying the ratings to all plans. Perhaps a better path for CMS to follow would be to improve the ratings, helping out both consumers and providers, before analyzing each Medicare Advantage plan.

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