WASHINGTON — Medicare is experimenting with a new direction in health care. Starting this 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.
That may also help elderly people stay in their homes longer.
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.
"It begins to break down the wall between long-term care and Medicare, which, with very few exceptions, has never paid for long-term care," Gleckman said.
Change is starting slowly. Policymakers have yet to figure out how to bring similar benefits to traditional Medicare, still the choice of two out of three 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 one in three, 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.
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.
The new benefits take that to a higher level, with Medicare's blessing.
"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.
And the limited new benefits are no substitute for full long-term care coverage, which many people need for at least part of their lives and remains prohibitively expensive. Seniors trying to get long-term care through Medicaid, the program for low-income people, must spend down their life savings.
"Medicare policy has not kept up with the times," said Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., one of the authors of bipartisan legislation seen as a catalyst for expanded services through Medicare Advantage.
Wyden said he's working to bring similar options to traditional Medicare.
"Clearly this is going to have to be an effort that is going to have to be built out," he added.
The changes represent a rare consensus at a time when health care issues are among the most politically divisive. Republican and Democratic lawmakers, as well as SeemaVerma, the Trump administration's Medicare chief, are pulling in the same direction.
The idea of broader services through Medicare Advantage was embodied in a bipartisan Senate Finance Committee bill to improve care for chronically ill seniors. The Trump administration issued regulations in the spring trying to accelerate the changes.
According to Medicare, 12 insurers will be offering expanded supplemental benefits next year through 160 plans in 20 states. In four other states and Puerto Rico, such benefits may be available to seniors with certain health conditions.
"The guidance came out fairly late in the annual planning process, and that's one reason why some of these benefits may start out small," said Steve Warner, head of Medicare Advantage program development for UnitedHealthcare.