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Medicare Stumbles Managing a Costly Problem — Chronic Illness

Nearly a decade ago, Medicare launched a program to help the two-thirds of beneficiaries with chronic conditions by paying their doctors an additional monthly fee to coordinate their care.

The strategy has largely failed to live up to its potential; only about 4 percent of potentially eligible beneficiaries in the traditional Medicare program are enrolled, according to a Mathematica analysis.

But thousands of physicians have boosted their pay by participating, and auxiliary for-profit businesses have sprung up to help doctors take advantage of the program. An analysis of federal data by my KFF Health News colleague Holly K. Hacker shows that about 4,500 physicians received at least $100,000 each in chronic care management pay in 2021.

“This program had potential to have a big impact,” said Kenneth Thorpe, an Emory University health policy professor and an expert on chronic diseases. “But I knew it was never going to work from the start because it was put together wrong.”

Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services spokespeople didn’t respond to questions about the program’s low participation rate, and it’s not clear whether the agency will address the issue.

Under the CCM program, Medicare pays physicians to develop a patient care plan, coordinate treatment with specialists and regularly check in with beneficiaries. Doctors receive an average of $62 per patient per month for at least 20 minutes of work, according to companies in the business.

Without the program, providers often have little incentive to spend time coordinating care for their patients because they can’t bill Medicare for the work.

A host of factors limit participation in the program, according to Thorpe and other experts. Chief among them is that both doctors and patients must opt into participating.

Doctors may not have the capacity to regularly monitor patients outside office visits. Some also worry about meeting strict Medicare documentation requirements for reimbursement and are reluctant to ask patients to join a program that may require a monthly co-payment, if they don’t have a supplemental policy.

“This is very time-intensive and not something physicians are used to doing or have time to do,” Thorpe said.

There’s evidence that wider uptake could generate savings ― as well as happier patients. A federally funded study by Mathematica in 2017 found the CCM program saved Medicare about $888 per patient per year ― owing mostly to decreasing hospital care.

Carrie Lester, 73, looks forward to a phone call every Thursday from her doctors’ medical assistant, who asks how she’s doing and if she needs prescription refills. The assistant counsels her on dealing with anxiety and other health issues.

Lester credits the chats for keeping her out of the hospital and reducing the need for clinic visits to manage chronic conditions including depression, fibromyalgia and hypertension.

“Just knowing someone is going to check on me is comforting,” said Lester, who lives with her dogs, Sophie and Dolly, in Independence, Kan.

This article is not available for syndication due to republishing restrictions. If you have questions about the availability of this or other content for republication, please contact NewsWeb@kff.org.

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