Medi­care ex­pands ac­cess to in-home sup­port for se­niors

Texarkana Gazette - - NATION - By Ri­cardo Alonso-Zaldivar

WASH­ING­TON—Medi­care is ex­per­i­ment­ing with a new di­rec­tion in health care. Start­ing next year, se­niors in many states will be able to get ad­di­tional ser­vices such as help with chores and respite for care­givers through pri­vate Medi­care Ad­van­tage in­sur­ance plans.

There’s a grow­ing recog­ni­tion that such prac­ti­cal help can have a mean­ing­ful im­pact on pa­tients’ well-be­ing—and re­duce some costs for tax­pay­ers. A cou­ple of hun­dred dol­lars to in­stall grab bars in the shower can pre­vent a fall lead­ing to a bro­ken hip, a life-chang­ing in­jury.

The newly cov­ered ser­vices are sim­i­lar to what peo­ple might need if they re­quired long-term care, said Howard Gleck­man, a se­nior re­searcher at the non­par­ti­san Ur­ban In­sti­tute think tank.

Change is start­ing slowly. Pol­i­cy­mak­ers have yet to fig­ure out how to bring sim­i­lar ben­e­fits to tra­di­tional Medi­care, still the choice of 2 out of 3 se­niors.

The new ser­vices will be of­fered by some Medi­care Ad­van­tage plans in more than 20 states next year, and that’s ex­pected to grow over time.

There has to be a health-re­lated rea­son to qual­ify, and costs will vary among plans. In some plans, there’s no added cost. But lim­its do ap­ply. For ex­am­ple, a plan may cover one day per week at an adult day care cen­ter.

Nearly 23 mil­lion Medi­care ben­e­fi­cia­ries, or more than 1 in 3, are ex­pected to be cov­ered by a Medi­care Ad­van­tage plan next year. The pri­vate plans gen­er­ally of­fer lower out-of-pocket costs in ex­change for lim­its on choice of doc­tors and hos­pi­tals and other re­stric­tions such as prior autho­riza­tion for ser­vices. It’s a grow­ing busi­ness for in­sur­ers.

Medi­care Ad­van­tage open en­roll­ment for 2019 ends Dec. 7. But it’s not easy to use Medi­care’s on­line plan fin­der to search for plans with ex­panded ben­e­fits, so ben­e­fi­cia­ries and their fam­i­lies will have to rely on pro­mo­tional ma­te­ri­als that in­sur­ers mail dur­ing open en­roll­ment.

For years, Medi­care has per­mit­ted pri­vate plans to of­fer sup­ple­men­tal ben­e­fits not cov­ered by the tra­di­tional pro­gram. Think free gym mem­ber­ships, trans­porta­tion to med­i­cal ap­point­ments or home-de­liv­ered meals fol­low­ing a hos­pi­tal­iza­tion.

“It is a big con­cept, in the sense that it is of­fi­cially en­cour­ag­ing plans to get across the line into the many, many things that af­fect the health and well-be­ing of ben­e­fi­cia­ries,” said Marc Russo, pres­i­dent of in­surer An­them’s Medi­care busi­ness. “I, for one, who have been in and around Medi­care for decades, be­lieve it pays.”

In­sur­ers un­der An­them’s cor­po­rate um­brella are of­fer­ing dif­fer­ent pack­ages in 12 of 21 states where they op­er­ate Medi­care plans. They can in­clude al­ter­na­tive medicine, like acupunc­ture, or adult day care cen­ter vis­its or a per­sonal helper at home.

Other ma­jor in­sur­ers like Unit­edHealth­care and Hu­mana are par­tic­i­pat­ing. It’s a cal­cu­lated gam­ble for in­sur­ers, who still have to make a profit.

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