Avalere: 1 in 3 Medicare Advantage plans to offer supplemental benefits linked to COVID-19 next year

One in three Medicare Advantage (MA) plans will start offering new supplemental benefits related to the COVID-19 pandemic next year, a new analysis finds.

The analysis, released Wednesday by consulting firm Avalere Health, also found that 94% of MA plans will offer telehealth benefits for Medicare Part B covered services. Telehealth use has exploded during the pandemic thanks to the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) removing barriers to Medicare reimbursement.

Overall, 34% of MA plans will offer supplemental benefits tied to the pandemic. Avalere found that 27% of all MA plans will offer COVID-19 care and relief packages to beneficiaries which include things like masks, hand sanitizer and a thermometer.

But only 2% will offer covering testing and reduced cost-sharing to beneficiaries. Less than 1% will also provide personal protective equipment to beneficiaries.

“MA plans are quickly adapting to the new reality by recognizing the needs of Medicare beneficiaries during the pandemic,” said Joanna Young, a principal at Avalere, in a release on the analysis.

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Supplemental benefits have grown in popularity among MA plans after CMS gave insurers more flexibility in what benefits they can offer over the past couple of years.

The most popular supplemental benefit that MA plans will offer next year is vision benefits, offered by 98% of plans. This is quickly followed by hearing (94%), fitness (92%) and dental at 91%.

Other popular benefits include meal deliveries (57%) and transportation (47%). Meal deliveries have become more popular among MA plans. Only 23% of plans offered the benefit in 2018, Avalere found.

Another benefit that has surged in popularity is over-the-counter drug benefits. Only 50% of plans offered the benefit in 2018, but 79% will do so next year.

The analysis is based on data released by CMS on supplemental benefits.

The report showed that telehealth supplemental benefits have stayed stable, with 7% of MA plans offering them in 2021, the same as in 2020, 2019 and 2018. But the number of plans offering telehealth as a general Medicare benefit has exploded, with 94% of plans expected to offer it in 2021.

Avalere also predicts that CMS will continue to provide more flexibility for supplemental benefits. For instance, CMS has given flexibility for special supplemental benefits for the chronically ill to tackle social determinants of health. 

"I'm thinking in the future, MA plans might gain the ability to offer these types of benefits to more enrollees, not just those with CMS-approved chronic conditions," said Joanna Young, who wrote the analysis, in a statement to Fierce Healthcare.