One of the reasons the health insurance industry worked behind the scenes in 2009 and 2010 to derail Obamacare was the fear that changes mandated by the law would cut their Medicare Advantage profits. Medicare Advantage plans are federally funded but privately run alternatives to traditional fee-for-service Medicare.
Although the industry’s biggest trade group, America’s Health Insurance Plans, said repeatedly that insurers supported Obamacare, the group was secretly financing the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s TV campaign against reform. Among the companies most concerned about the law were those benefiting from overpayments the federal government had been making to their Medicare Advantage plans since George W. Bush was in the White House.
Bush and other Republicans saw the Medicare Advantage program as a way to incrementally privatize Medicare. To entice insurers to participate in the program, the federal government devised a payment scheme that resulted in taxpayers paying far more for people enrolled in the Medicare Advantage plans than those who remained in the traditional program. The extra cash enables insurers to offer benefits traditional Medicare doesn’t, like coverage for glasses and hearing aids, and to cap enrollees’ out-of-pocket expenses.
When the Affordable Care Act became law in 2010, the payments to Medicare Advantage plans exceeded traditional Medicare payments by 14 percent. To end what they considered an unfair advantage for private insurers, and to reduce overall spending on Medicare, Democrats who wrote the reform law included language to gradually eliminate the over-payments. So far, the 14 percent disparity has been reduced to 2 percent. The final reductions are scheduled to be made next year.
Despite that decrease, the fears by Republicans and insurance company executives that the reductions would lead to a steady decline in Medicare Advantage enrollees have proved to be completely unfounded. In fact, the plans have continued to grow at a fast clip.
In March 2010, the month Obamacare became law, 11.1 million people were enrolled in Medicare Advantage plans—one of every four people eligible for Medicare. That was an increase from the 10.5 million Medicare Advantage enrollees in March 2009. Since then, Medicare Advantage membership has grown by more than 8 percent annually. Now 17.3 million—one in three people eligible for Medicare—are enrolled in private plans.