By Congresswoman Allyson Y. Schwartz
President and CEO, Better Medicare Alliance
Last week, Better Medicare Alliance brought together leaders from across the health care community at our annual Medicare Advantage Summit for a three-day event dedicated to exploring the state of Medicare Advantage today and its path for the future.
While the COVID-19 pandemic moved our conference from in-person to virtual, it did not change the high caliber of our speakers, the engagement of our attendees, or the depth of our discussions.
Those who attended, sponsored and spoke at our 2020 Summit offered thoughtful insights and shared news of the Medicare Advantage response to COVID-19, lessons for the future, and the opportunities in Medicare Advantage to address social determinants of health, improve health equity, and deliver better outcomes through integrated care, care coordination, and benefit design. Here are some of our top takeaways from the Summit.
The Medicare Advantage Response to COVID-19 Saved Lives
The COVID-19 pandemic continues to hang over our lives and our communities, with the U.S. now leading the world in infections and fatalities. It is difficult to draw good news from the grim numbers in the daily headlines, but our Summit made this much clear: the Medicare Advantage community stepped up quickly and effectively, working to meet the needs of beneficiaries vulnerable to COVID-19 and to ensure they had access to the care they needed to maintain their health and wellbeing.
Dr. Gordon Chen, Chief Medical Officer for ChenMed – which operates more than 70 primary care centers for seniors on Medicare Advantage in states around the country – shared that following the onset of the pandemic, “We started making ‘love calls’ to our patients. That’s where we call them every week to educate them, ask them about their needs, and tell them we care about them as well. When patients had needs, we did everything we could to meet them … If they were too scared to leave their home and needed toilet paper, we went out and bought it for them and delivered it.”
Chen added that, “The transmission and mortality rate for COVID-19 among our patients should have been much higher because of where they live and the complexities of their diseases. We saved thousands of lives in the most vulnerable communities.”
Knowing how loneliness and lack of social connection can impact seniors’ overall well-being, Christopher Ciano, President of Aetna Medicare, a CVS Health company, shared with us the important work being carried out by Aetna’s Social Isolation Index. Ciano noted, “We’ve used an algorithm with a lot of information and data that we’ve collected on our members to really try to stratify those members that are at the most risk for social isolation … Once we know those members, then we begin this identification and intervention phase. We have a group called ‘Resources for Living’ … they started to make outbound calls to those members and those calls started to open up a wealth of learning. What the Resources for Living group can do is actually connect seniors to local resources that are in their community – even in the pandemic.”
Aetna and ChenMed aren’t alone. All of Better Medicare Alliance’s 147 Ally organizations are involved in the response to COVID-19 in some way. Our Summit gave voice to many of their stories, whether it was Landmark Health finding ways to safely continue to provide in-home care to at-risk patients with complex chronic conditions, or leaders like Doctor on Demand bringing the power of telemedicine to bear in this time of crisis.
The work of the Medicare Advantage community to keep seniors safe amid COVID-19 drew praise from HHS Secretary Alex Azar who opened his keynote address to our Summit saying, “I want to begin by thanking both the Medicare Advantage plans that many of you represent and all of the partners within BMA for your efforts to combat COVID-19 … I know that many of you have worked to check in on vulnerable patients and ensure that they can continue to receive the care and services they need, and we are deeply appreciative of those efforts.”
Historic Efforts Being Made to Address Racial Disparities in Health Care
Better Medicare Alliance plans, providers and community partners have long worked to be part of the solution in addressing health disparities, a commitment that predates the COVID-19 pandemic. Yet, the new broader awareness of the depth and persistence of these disparities gained during this health crisis has added a sense of urgency to this work.
As Daniel Dawes, Director of the Satcher Health Leadership Institute at Morehouse College and a member of BMA’s Council of Scholars explained at the Summit, “The COVID-19 pandemic has laid bare inequities within the U.S. health care system and our society at large.”
To that end, we convened a conversation between top executives at some of the largest Medicare Advantage health plans, including UnitedHealth Group, Humana, and CVS Health, along with Dr. Gary Puckrein, President of the National Minority Quality Forum, and moderated by Daniel Dawes, about the racial and ethnic disparities in health care and the role of Medicare Advantage in accelerating the drive to health equity.
The panelists talked candidly about racism and unconscious bias in health care and the intersection between the broader societal reckoning on race relations playing out across the country and the work they do each day.
Michael Currie, Senior Vice President and Chief Health Equity Officer for UnitedHealth Group challenged the Medicare Advantage community to make health equity a collaborative effort, explaining that “When I honestly and candidly look at where there are opportunities to do more … those opportunities lie in non-competitive collaboration with the partners that you see here as well as partners that aren’t represented on this panel to do more collective good … Insomuch as we can work together to identify those opportunities to do something that raises the overall health equity boat … I challenge myself and I challenge the rest of us on this panel, let’s get together and figure it out.”
Gary Puckrein noted the historic significance of our panel discussion, proclaiming “I can’t tell you how excited I am by this conversation … we’re making the business case that it [racial discrimination] is not okay… that’s what I just heard people say here, that we’re going to invest in taking care of black lives … I hope everyone appreciates the value of what you just heard from these companies. That is extraordinary!”
“No Undoing” Long-Awaited Telehealth Advanced Spurred by COVID-19
Many of our conversations at the Medicare Advantage Summit drew attention to the dramatic increase in telehealth adoption and utilization spurred by the COVID-19 pandemic. Panelists and speakers attested to the critical role that this technology played in keeping patients safe. “In many ways, technology saved the health care system from imploding,” explained Ann Mond Johnson, CEO of American Telemedicine Association.
Valinda Rutledge, Senior Vice President of Federal Affairs for America’s Physician Groups, pointed to the high satisfaction with telehealth services seen across the health care landscape. “What we found out, when many of our practices surveyed our patients, was incredibly high satisfaction – they loved it,” Rutledge said in remarks echoing Better Medicare Alliance’s own polling which found 91% satisfaction with telehealth from Medicare Advantage beneficiaries.
In his keynote address, HHS Secretary Alex Azar told our audience that there would be “no undoing” of the telehealth revolution.
“We’ve already worked over the past several years to create permanent flexibilities … in Medicare Advantage, expanding the ability for plans to pay for virtual check-ins and a wider variety of circumstances, allowing patients to receive this care from the convenience of their home rather than a doctor’s office,” Azar added.
Indeed, the latest figures from CMS indicate that, in 2021, over 94% of Medicare Advantage plans will offer additional telehealth benefits reaching 20.7 million beneficiaries, up from about 58 percent of plans offering telehealth benefits in 2020.
Sandy Markwood, CEO of the National Association of Area Agencies on Aging (N4A) was quick to remind us that this technology should complement the efforts of community-based organizations that offer services in the home and are physically present with some of the most vulnerable beneficiaries. “I think as we look forward it’s how are we going to blend the best of technology with the important human touch that community-based organizations [provide],” shared Markwood. “We need to make sure we’re using the best of both strategies.”
Dr. Nereida Correa, MD, Chairwoman of the National Hispanic Medical Association, emphasized the importance of coming alongside seniors and helping them adapt to virtual care and involving their families in the process. “Our generation – and I consider myself an elder – is not as techy as the 25-year olds,” said Correa.
Our bipartisan roster of Members of Congress who spoke during the Summit also spoke powerfully on the role of telehealth in the future of health care and the ways that Medicare Advantage works to blend the use of this technology with in-person care.
The Future for Medicare Advantage is Bright
While we spent plenty of time talking about the here-and-now of Medicare Advantage at our Summit, our speakers and panelists also cast a vision for its future – and it looks exceedingly promising.
Congresswoman Donna Shalala (D-FL) pointed to Medicare Advantage’s simplicity for beneficiaries as key to its continued success. “What I hear from seniors is they want simplicity,” Shalala told our audience. “They want high quality care but an easy way to access it and to access all of it. They don’t want to be shunted around … As they get older, they want the system much simpler than a kind of traditional Fee-for-Service system.”
Tom Scully, who served as President George W. Bush’s CMS Administrator from 2001 to 2004, echoed Shalala’s comments, putting it thusly: “The future of MA is driven by human behavior and great economic incentives and it’s going to keep going … It’s a wonderful program that’s going to keep growing and keep providing great services for seniors … I think it’s the only way to go and the MA model is only going to grow and grow across the rest of health care.”
Will Shrank, M.D., Chief Medical Officer for Humana, referenced that Shalala is part of a supermajority in Congress that is standing up for Medicare Advantage. “Over 400 Senators and members of the House signed a letter in strong support of the important role that Medicare Advantage plays in promoting the health of seniors – and it was a relatively even split of Republicans and Democrats,” Shrank explained.
Dr. Shrank and fellow panelist, Sachin Jain, MD, President and CEO of SCAN Health Plan, discussed the many ways Medicare Advantage is addressing both the medical and social risks and leading the way on such high-value care that is importance to the future of health care, during a panel discussion on the opening day of the Summit.
With Medicare Advantage consumer satisfaction at a near-unanimous 99%, premiums reaching the lowest level in 14 years, and continued leadership from those who graced the virtual State at our Summit, the state of Medicare Advantage is poised to remain strong, leading to continued broad support from seniors and policymakers alike.
For our part, Better Medicare Alliance will continue working to tell the story of Medicare Advantage as we move into 2021 and to advocate for the high quality, high-value care it offers to millions of beneficiaries.
Join Us in 2021!
My thanks to all of you who attended our Summit. I look forward to working with all of you, as BMA continues its role as the leading research and advocacy organization working in support of Medicare Advantage.
Of course, a single blog post can only begin to scratch the surface of all that we heard and learned together during our Summit. Now that you’ve heard some of the highlights for me, you can find more details, view reports referenced at the Summit, and see our full library of Summit videos HERE – and make plans to join us again in 2021!