Physician Reimbursement in Medicare Advantage Compared With Traditional Medicare and Commercial Health Insurance

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Abstract

Importance

Nearly one-third of Medicare beneficiaries are enrolled in a Medicare Advantage (MA) plan, yet little is known about the prices that MA plans pay for physician services. Medicare Advantage insurers typically also sell commercial plans, and the extent to which MA physician reimbursement reflects traditional Medicare (TM) rates vs negotiated commercial prices is unclear.

Objective

To compare prices paid for physician and other health care services in MA, traditional Medicare, and commercial plans.

Design, Setting, and Participants

Retrospective analysis of claims data evaluating MA prices paid to physicians and for laboratory services and durable medical equipment between 2007 and 2012 in 348 US core-based statistical areas. The study population included all MA and commercial enrollees with a large national health insurer operating in both markets, as well as a 20% sample of TM beneficiaries.

Exposures

Enrollment in an MA plan.

Main Outcomes and Measures

Mean reimbursement paid to physicians, laboratories, and durable medical equipment suppliers for MA and commercial enrollees relative to TM rates for 11 Healthcare Common Procedure Coding Systems (HCPCS) codes spanning 7 sites of care.

Results

The sample consisted of 144 million claims. Physician reimbursement in MA was more strongly tied to TM rates than commercial prices, although MA plans tended to pay physicians less than TM. For a mid-level office visit with an established patient (Current Procedural Terminology [CPT] code 99213), the mean MA price was 96.9% (95% CI, 96.7%-97.2%) of TM. Across the common physician services we evaluated, mean MA reimbursement ranged from 91.3% of TM for cataract removal in an ambulatory surgery center (CPT 66984; 95% CI, 90.7%-91.9%) to 102.3% of TM for complex evaluation and management of a patient in the emergency department (CPT 99285; 95% CI, 102.1%-102.6%). However, for laboratory services and durable medical equipment, where commercial prices are lower than TM rates, MA plans take advantage of these lower commercial prices, ranging from 67.4% for a walker (HCPCS code E0143; 95% CI, 66.3%-68.5%) to 75.8% for a complete blood cell count (CPT 85025; 95% CI, 75.0%-76.6%).

Conclusions and Relevance

Traditional Medicare’s administratively set rates act as a strong anchor for physician reimbursement in the MA market, although MA plans succeed in negotiating lower prices for other health care services for which TM overpays. Reforms that transition the Medicare program toward some premium support models could substantially affect how physicians and other clinicians are paid.

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