Medicare Advantage plans shift their financial risk to doctors

Doctor and patient with heldheld device
Increasingly Medicare Advantage plans are shifting more risk to physicians. (Getty Images)

He strode into the exam room where Priscilla Finamore was crying about having to leave her home and husband, Freddy.

“Look, I would feel the same way if I was you and did not want to go to a nursing home, to a strange place,” Rao told her in September, holding her hand. “But the reality is, if you slip at home even a little, it could end up in a bad, bad way.”

After a few minutes of coaxing, Finamore, 89, relented and agreed to go into rehab.

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Keeping patients healthy and out of the hospital is a goal for any physician. For Rao, a family doctor in this retiree-rich city 100 miles north of Miami, it’s also a wise financial strategy.

Rao works for WellMed, a physician-management company whose doctors treat more than 350,000 Medicare patients at primary care clinics in Florida and Texas. Instead of being reimbursed for each patient visit, WellMed gets a fixed monthly payment from private Medicare Advantage plans to cover virtually all of their members’ health needs, including drugs and physician, hospital, mental health and rehabilitation services.

If they can stay under budget, the physician companies profit. If not, they lose money.

This model—known as “full-risk” or “global risk”—is increasingly used by Medicare plans such as Humana and UnitedHealthcare to shift their financial exposure from costly patients to WellMed and other physician-management companies. It gives the doctors’ groups more money upfront and control over patient care.

As a result, they go to extraordinary lengths to keep their members healthy and avoid expensive hospital stays.

WellMed, along with similar fast-growing companies such as Miami-based ChenMed, Boston-based Iora Health and Chicago-based Oak Street Health, say they provide patients significantly more time with their doctors, same-day or next-day appointments and health coaches. These doctors generally work on salary.

ChenMed doctors encourage their Medicare patients to visit their clinic every month—for no charge and with free door-to-door transportation—to stay on top of preventive care and better manage chronic conditions. If patients are not feeling well after-hours, ChenMed even will send a paramedic to their home.

“We can be much more creative in how we meet patient needs,” said Iora CEO Rushika Fernandopulle. “By taking risk, we never have to ask … ‘Do we get paid for this or not?’”

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