If you are about to make plan election choices for yourself or a loved one, you might find yourself asking what are the advantages and disadvantages of Medicare Advantage plans?
In this MedicareWire article, we’re going to look at Medicare Advantage (MA) from a financial and usability point of view. Here’s why.
As we age into our retirement years two things happen. First, for most of us, our budget tightens and becomes fixed. As a result, we need a predictable health care budget. Second, we begin to slow down, and our mental capacity declines. As this happens, it becomes more and more challenging to make complex decisions. With these simple concepts in mind, here are the top 9 advantages and disadvantages of private Medicare plans:
- They are a pay-as-you-go system
- They limit your annual out-of-pocket costs
- They change every year
- Most bundle Part D with the health plan
- Most use a managed care approach to service delivery
- They do not travel with you
- They favor the poor, chronically ill, and institutionalized
- Plans can’t turn you down
- Most plans offer additional coverage
Medicare Advantage Plans Are A Pay-As-You-Go System
One of the biggest misconceptions of Medicare Advantage is that it saves you money. This is completely false. As we will discuss in the next section, MA plans will protect you with an annual cap, but the cap can be very high.
The cost-saving misunderstanding is rooted in the zero-dollar premium feature of many plans. A zero-dollar ($0) premium simply means that the entire cost of the plan is covered by what Medicare pays the plan and the monthly Medicare Part B premium paid by the beneficiary.
Unfortunately, many people see the $0 monthly price tag, and mistakenly think that all or most costs are covered. Or they don’t take into account their personal health situation and how that will translate into copays when they use health services.
Is pay-as-you-go healthcare a good thing or a bad thing? It all depends on the state of your health. For healthy, younger seniors who are accustomed to using HMO-style employer group plans, Medicare Advantage is a great way to save money.
Medicare Advantage Plans Limit Your Annual Out-Of-Pocket Costs
This is one of the most significant advantages of Medicare Advantage vs. traditional Medicare. All Medicare Advantage plans have a maximum out-of-pocket (MOOP) limit that protects members from excessive health care costs. But it only applies to health service copays and coinsurance. It does not include monthly premiums, deductibles, or outpatient prescription costs. It also does not include costs of secondary services, like dental, vision, or hearing.
For the 2021 plan year, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services set the maximum MOOP amount at $7,550 for in-network services. When combined with monthly premiums, prescriptions, and deductibles, that’s potentially a crushing blow to the budget of most retirees.
Medicare Advantage Plans Change Every Year
As MedicareWire approaches its tenth anniversary, we have witnessed massive changes in plans, carriers, and availability. And 2021 presented the most changes of all.
On one hand, the expansion of plans into new markets is a very good thing because it increases competition and choice. On the other hand, the constant change, merging of companies, and new benefits create so much noise and confusion that many seniors simply ride out the same plan year after year.
The sheer complexity of choosing a Medicare Advantage plan causes most people to stay in a plan until the plan itself forces them to choose a new plan. This, in turn, causes member copays and coinsurance to go up because people resist change, and the national health plans drown out the small local HMOs with cost-saving features.
Most Medicare Advantage Plans Bundle Part D with the Health Plan
At first glance, it might seem like having your prescription drug plan included with your health plan is a good thing. And for many people, particularly healthy seniors, it works out just fine. However, what happens if your Advantage plan has favorable copays for the health services you use but unfavorable copays on the medications you need most? Or vice versa.
This is exactly the position many seniors find themselves in with their Medicare Advantage plan, and it happens because plan features are difficult to compare. It also happens when a healthy person joins a plan, because it has a zero-dollar premium, and is later diagnosed with a chronic illness.
The simple fact is that bundling Part D prescription drug plans with Medicare Advantage plans makes it infinitely more difficult to choose the best plan. It works out great when you are healthy and your prescription needs are few, but the onset of chronic health issues makes plan selection challenging.
Most Medicare Advantage Plans Use A Managed Care Approach to Service Delivery
Managed-care plans are health plans that contract with health care providers and medical facilities to provide care for members. The contracted providers make up the plan’s network. Health plans that restrict your provider choices usually cost you less. In Medicare, there are three types of managed care plans:
- Health Maintenance Organizations (HMO) usually only pay for care within the network. You choose a primary care doctor who coordinates your care.
- Preferred Provider Organizations (PPO) usually pay more if you get care within the network. They still pay part of the cost if you go outside the network.
- Point of Service (POS) plans let you choose between an HMO or a PPO each time you need care.
Most people who have been covered by an employer’s group health plan are familiar with how managed care works. To the extent that your plan maintains their provider network, or your primary care doctor remains in the network, this style of care typically works out pretty well.
For Medicare Advantage plan members, there is often a struggle between changing plans and changing doctors. If you find a plan that offers the coverage you need, at a price you can afford, but your doctor is not in the plan’s network, do you make the choice to find a new doctor or choose a less desirable plan?
Medicare Advantage Plans Do Not Travel With You
For many of us, retirement is a time to travel, explore, enjoy the good life, and do the things we were unable to do with the responsibilities of family and career. But, what if you have a chronic health condition that necessitates regular doctor visits? This is the issue many snowbirds face. Your primary residence is in Idaho where the summers are mild, but you like to winterover in Arizona where the sunshine warms your bones.
Unfortunately, Medicare Advantage simply isn’t suitable for a travel lifestyle. Sure, you’re completely covered in an emergency situation, but regular care isn’t. MA plans are regional (county-by-county), and you must get your regular care within the plan’s network or pay out-of-pocket. For travelers among us, the best coverage is a Medigap plan and traditional Medicare.
Medicare Advantage Plans Favor The Poor, Chronically Ill, and Institutionalized
For the 2021 plan year, Medicare Advantage Special Needs Plans (SNP) saw a huge increase in plan choice, carriers, and regional availability. This is great news, particularly for those with a dual-eligible status.
Dual-eligibles are people who qualify for both Medicare, due to their age or SSDI status, and Medicaid, due to their financial status. As of 2020, more than 3 million people enrolled in an SNP, the majority were dual-eligibles. The expansion of the number and regional availability of SNPs will greatly increase the number of enrollees in the future. As a result, Medicare Advantage will suddenly become more affordable to those who need it the most.
Medicare Advantage Plans Can’t Turn You Down
When President G. W. Bush signed Medicare Advantage into law in 2003, he started the pre-existing condition coverage revolution that went into The Affordable Care Act. Unlike Medicare supplement insurance, which only has one guaranteed-issue period for most people, Medicare Advantage members can change plans every year without having to answer questions about their health.
Only those with ESRD and a few rare health conditions can be turned down. For these people, Medicare offers special coverage directly.
This is a significant benefit of the Medicare Advantage program that cannot be overstated. Millions of Americans, who would otherwise be bankrupted by healthcare costs in traditional Medicare, are able to get quality care through an MA plan.
Most Medicare Advantage Plans Offer Additional Coverage
One of the primary advantages of MA plans is their ability to add secondary health services not covered by traditional Medicare. In addition to the over-the-counter we’ve already discussed, many plans include some or all of the following:
- Eye exams and glasses
- Dental benefits
- Hearing exams and hearing aids
- Fitness benefits
- In-home support
- Bathroom safety
- Meal benefits
Plans may provide extra (“supplemental”) benefits and can use rebate dollars to help cover the cost of the extra benefits. Plans may also charge additional premiums for such benefits.
Since 2019, Advantage plans have had the option to offer supplemental benefits that were not offered in previous years. These supplemental benefits must still be primarily health-related, but CMS has since expanded this definition, so more services are available as supplemental benefits. One primary example is in-home care support.
So, Are Medicare Advantage Plans Good Or Bad?
In this article, we have done our level best to remove any personal bias we may have for or against Medicare Advantage plans to get to the simple truth. Medicare Advantage plans work for tens of millions of Americans and are an option to traditional Medicare coverage.
So we pose these two questions. If a plan keeps your costs to a minimum while giving you added benefits, how can it be seen as anything but good? But if your costs skyrocket and your access to a preferred doctor or specialist is limited, how can this be anything but bad? Both situations exist in relatively equal numbers.
Is Medicare Advantage the right option for you? The only way to know for sure is to do the math, weigh your risks, add up the benefits, and make an honest assessment of your personal health and financial needs.