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Is Medicare Advantage a Failed Experiment? Experts Debate

Enrollment in Medicare Advantage is increasing, but the program has been drawing scrutiny from the government. Can the program be saved? One expert believes Medicare Advantage is a failed experiment. Another thinks that while the program has its flaws, it shows tremendous potential.

More than half of Medicare beneficiaries are enrolled in Medicare Advantage (MA), and enrollment in MA has steadily grown over the years. But as the MA program draws scrutiny from the federal government, should it stick around? Two experts disagreed on this topic during a panel discussion held Monday at HLTH 2023 in Las Vegas.

Dr. Rick Gilfillan, an independent consultant, called the MA program a “failed experiment.” Gilfillan is the former CEO of Trinity Health System and former director of the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Innovation (CMMI). He referred to the program as Subsidized Medicare Advantage because it’s “subsidized to the tune of between 25% and 32% a year in excess payments from CMS.”

“I say failed because for 35 years of its existence, privatized Medicare, now Subsidized Medicare Advantage, has cost more than traditional Medicare,” he said. “In 2023, those numbers are projected to be more than $75 billion to $120 billion in excess payments to MA over what the cost would be in traditional. From a quality standpoint, … what we can say is that [MA plans] put in place obstacles to care, made access to care more difficult.”

Meanwhile, Dr. Sachin Jain, CEO of MA insurer SCAN Health Plan, disagreed that MA is a failed experiment. He noted that Gilfillan was his first mentor in managed care and that the two worked together at CMMI. And while Jain said he agrees with Gilfillan on “most things,” he thinks Gilfillan is “dead wrong” when it comes to Medicare Advantage. 

“You have to think about what we’re comparing Medicare Advantage to, which is fee-for-service Medicare, which was a program that for many years provided people with a sense of stability and security. As healthcare costs grew, as more cost shifting happened to traditional beneficiaries in the fee-for-service Medicare program, they felt less and less secure. … It’s debatable whether [MA] costs more or less, but let’s accept for a second Rick’s premise that it actually costs more. It may cost more because it does more. If you’re a beneficiary in the traditional fee-for-service Medicare program, CMS would have you believe that you don’t have teeth, eyes or ears because there’s no vision coverage, audiology coverage or dental coverage.”

However, Jain conceded that MA needs “refinement, reform, major tweaks and minor tweaks.”

Gilfillan acknowledged that traditional Medicare needs reform as well.

“I think we need to change Medicare, and I think we need to change MA,” he said. “I personally would do away with MA, I think it’s been too long, but that’s unrealistic. So what I would say is, let’s have a level playing field. Let’s create a level playing field where there’s a standard traditional Medicare benefit that includes an out-of-pocket cap, some vision, dental, hearing. And let’s compare it and let’s have a standard package in MA. Let’s stop the overpaying. The dollars we take out of MA will fund the extra benefits for both parties.”

He added that MA is not creating value for patients.

“MA today is not value-based care, it’s value-destroying care. Because it destroys the value of what we have in our healthcare dollar, taking dollars out for profits, for stock buybacks and dividends,” Gilfillan said.

Jain countered that SCAN Health Plan is a nonprofit health plan, and there are several other nonprofit health plans across the country that aren’t “feeding shareholders” and are working collaboratively with the provider community. While Gilfillan said he loves these types of companies, he’s not sure if they can beat the for-profit players like UnitedHealthcare, Aetna, Cigna and Elevance.

Ultimately, Jain believes that MA can be fixed, but healthcare professionals need to be the ones to step up.

“I do think there is an element of trying to recognize the flaws in the system, trying to fix them one-by-one,” he said. “I think we’ve been waiting for Congress to fix the overall system of care for 50 years. They’re not doing a better job today than they did 50 years ago. I think it’s up to us right now to look at these programs and try to make them better.”

Photo: fizkes, Getty Images