New Report Reveals That Medicare Part A Fund May Be Tapped Out By 2028, Triggering Calls for Congress to Address This Problem

Experts say it is time to change Medicare financing, even as large numbers of baby boomers continue to enroll in the program each year

Medicare’s fund for payment of inpatient hospital care is expected to be tapped out in 2028. That’s according to a new report from Trustees of the Federal Hospital Insurance and Federal Supplementary Medical Insurance Trust Funds (2022 Medicare Trustees Report). That’s somewhat better than running out of money for inpatient care in 2026, which was what Medicare announced in last year’s Medicare Trustees Report.

Either way, if Medicare is allowed to run dry, millions of patients (most among the elderly) may be unable to receive critical care, including clinical laboratory testing and pathology.

“The Hospital Insurance (HI) Trust Fund, or Medicare Part A, which helps pay for services such as inpatient hospital care, will be able to pay scheduled benefits until 2028, two years later than reported last year. At that time, the fund’s reserves will become depleted,” the 2022 Medicare Trustees Report states, which draws its data from a US Treasury Department fact sheet.

Catastrophe in the Making

Kerry Weems, Executive Chairman at Value Based Healthcare Investors Alliance and former Administrator for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) said federal lawmakers are apparently waiting to deal with a “catastrophe” in 2028 instead of a “crisis” in 2026. Weems shared his views in an article he penned for 4Sight Health, a Chicago-based healthcare strategy company, titled, “Dead Seniors Save Congress from Tough Decisions.”

“The progressively worse imbalance of expenditures versus revenues will exhaust the trust funds in 2028,” Weems wrote, adding that one of two payment scenarios will likely happen:

  • Medicare may pay bills on a “discounted basis,” which means if expected revenues are 85% of expenditures, then Medicare would pay bills at 85% of the amount, or
  • Medicare may put bills aside until it has the money from tax dollars.

“And then (Medicare would) pay them on a first-in-first-out basis,” Weems wrote, adding, “At the time of insolvency, that current Administration would have to pick its poison.”

For hospital clinical laboratory leaders and pathologists who provide care to Medicare beneficiaries, neither approach would be satisfactory. And a solution for funding Medicare Part A beyond 2028 needs to be crafted to ensure hospitals are paid on a timely basis.

But what should it be?

James Capretta, Senior Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute
“Medicare’s two-part insurance and trust fund design may have made sense in the mid-1960s, but it no longer does. Modern coverage is not bifurcated in this way and imposing stricter financial control over facility spending than clinician and outpatient services can distort the policy-making process, and thus also patient care,” wrote James Capretta (above), Senior Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, in his analysis of the 2022 Medicare trustees report, published in Health Affairs. If Medicare truly does run out of money, millions of elderly people may lose access to critical healthcare services, including clinical laboratory testing. (Photo copyright: American Enterprise Institute.)

Medicare Funding Scheme is ‘Flawed’

According to the Kaiser Family Foundation (KFF), the amount of money Medicare needs to cover the deficit between 2028 through 2031 (the period studied in the trustees’ projections), is estimated at $247.4 billion.

Medicare is supported by employers and employees, who each pay a 1.45% tax on earnings, KFF explained. Balancing the fund supporting Medicare Part A requires either an increase of .70% of taxable payroll or a 15% reduction in benefits, KFF estimated.

“Medicare will not cease to operate if assets are fully depleted, because revenue will continue flowing into the fund from payroll taxes and other sources,” KFF noted.

However, the current set-up of Medicare trust funds (one for Part A and another funded differently for Medicare Part B, which includes outpatient coverage such as medical laboratory tests), is “flawed” and needs updating to enable reform.

That’s according to analysis written by James Capretta, a Senior Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and Member of the Advisory Board of the National Institute for Health Care Management in Washington, DC, published in Health Affairs. He added that by dividing its coverage, Medicare may not be addressing the big picture in patient care.

Baby Boomers, COVID Challenge Medicare

Furthermore, Medicare faces challenges brought on by an aging population and increasing enrollees.

Baby Boomers (born between 1946 and 1964) will qualify for Medicare by 2030 and potentially leave the workforce, depleting their payroll tax contributions to the program, KFF pointed out.

Also, Medicare reform needs to reflect the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. An analysis of 114,000 COVID-19-associated deaths from May to August 2020 showed 78% of the people were age 65 and older, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

“Medicare beneficiaries whose deaths were identified as related to COVID-19 had costs that were much higher than the average Medicare beneficiary prior to the onset of the pandemic,” the 2022 Medicare Trustees report noted.

“The surviving Medicare population had lower morbidity, on average, reducing costs by an estimated 1.5% in 2020 and 2.9% in 2021. This morbidity effect is expected to continue over the next few years but is assumed to decrease over time before ending in 2028.”

In his 4Sight Health article, Weems suggested that the Medicare reform deadline was bumped to 2028 from 2026 due to fewer people living and able to access Medicare in coming years.

“Let’s honor those seniors by using the time for real Medicare reform,” Weems wrote.

Hospital laboratory managers and pathologists will want to keep a watchful eye on Congress’ handling of the 2022 Medicare Trustees Report. Though it is unlikely the nation’s decision-makers will act on the report during an election year, pressure to develop a solution to meet the funding needs of Medicare Part A hospital care beyond 2028 will start to build in 2023.

Donna Marie Pocius

Related Information:

2022 Medicare Trustees Report

2021 Medicare Trustees Report

Fact Sheet: 2022 Social Security and Medicare Trustees Reports

Dead Seniors Save Congress from Tough Decisions

FAQs on Medicare Financing and Trust Fund Solvency

Medicare’s Supplementary Medical Insurance Fund: A Growing Burden on Taxpayers

Transition from Fee-for-Service to Value-Based Reimbursement for Hospitals, Physicians, and Clinical Laboratories Continues, Albeit Slowly, Reports Say 

Medical laboratories and anatomic pathologists may need to squeeze into narrow networks to be paid under value-based schemes, especially where Medicare Advantage is concerned

Pathologists have likely heard the arguments in favor of value-based payment versus fee-for-service (FFS) reimbursement models: FFS encourages providers to order medically unnecessary procedures and lab tests. FFS removes incentives for providers to order patient services more carefully. Fraudsters can generate huge volumes of FFS claims that take payers months/years to recognize and stop.

Studies that favor value-based payment schemes support these claims. But do hospitals and other healthcare providers also accept them? And how is value-based reimbursement really doing?

To find out, Chicago-based thought leadership and advisory company 4Sight Health culled data from various organizations’ reports that suggest value-based reimbursement shows signs of growth as well as signs of stagnation.

Value-Based Payment Has Its Ups and Downs

Healthcare journalist David Burda is News Editor and Columnist at 4Sight Health. In his article, “Is Value-Based Reimbursement Mostly Dead or Slightly Alive?” Burda commented on data from various industry reports that indicated value-based reimbursement shows “signs of life.” For example:

On the other hand, Burda reported that value-based reimbursement also has these declining indicators:

  • 39.3% of provider payments “flowed” through FFS plans in 2020 with no link to cost or quality. This was unchanged since 2019. (HCPLAN report)
  • 19.8% of FFS payments to providers in 2020 were linked to cost or quality, down from 22.5% in 2019. (HCPLAN report)
  • 88% of doctors reported accepting FFS payments in 2019, an increase from 87% in 2018. (AMA report)

Does Today’s Healthcare Industry Support Value-based Care?

A survey of 680 physicians conducted by the Deloitte Center for Health Solutions suggests the answer could be “not yet.” In “Equipping Physicians for Value-Based Care,” Deloitte reported:

  • “Physician compensation continues to emphasize volume more than value.
  • “Availability and use of data-driven tools to support physicians in practicing value-based care continue to lag.
  • “Existing care models do not support value-based care.”

Deloitte analysts wrote, “Physicians increasingly recognize their role in improving the affordability of care. We repeated a question we asked six years ago and saw a large increase in the proportion of physicians who say they have a prominent role in limiting the use of unnecessary treatments and tests: 76% in 2020 vs. 57% in 2014.

“Physicians also recognize that today’s care models are not geared toward value,” Deloitte continued. “They see many untapped opportunities for improving quality and efficiency. They estimate that even today, sizable portions of their work can be performed by nonphysicians (30%) in nontraditional settings (30%) and/or can be automated (18%), creating opportunities for multidisciplinary care teams and clinicians to work at the top of their license.”

Hospital CFOs Also See Opportunities for Value-based Care

In his 4sight Health article, Burda reported on data from a “Guidehouse Center for Health Insights’ analysis of a 2021 Healthcare Financial Management Association (HFMA) survey of more than 100 health systems CFOs that found that most said they are still interested in seeking value-based payment arrangements this year.”

According to the HFMA survey, among the arrangement CFOs indicated, 59% expressed interest in Medicare Advantage value-based payment contracts.

This could be problematic for clinical laboratories, according to Robert Michel, Editor-in-Chief of Dark Daily and our sister publication The Dark Report. According to Guidehouse, “Nearly 60% of health systems plan to advance into risk-based Medicare Advantage models in 2022.”

Medicare Advantage (MA) enrollments have escalated over 10 years: 26.4 million people of the 62.7 million eligible for Medicare chose MA in 2021, noted a Kaiser Family Foundation brief that also noted MA enrollment in 2021 was up by 2.4 million beneficiaries or 10% over 2020.

Graph of Medicare Advantage Enrollment
The graph above is taken from the Kaiser Family Foundation report, “Medicare Advantage in 2021: Enrollment Update and Key Trends.” According to the KFF, “In 2021, more than four in 10 (42%) Medicare beneficiaries—26.4 million people out of 62.7 million Medicare beneficiaries overall—are enrolled in Medicare Advantage plans; this share has steadily increased over time since the early 2000s.” Since MA employs narrow networks for its healthcare providers, it’s likely this trend will continue to affect clinical laboratories that may find it difficult to access these providers. (Graphic copyright: Kaiser Family Foundation.)

“The shift from Medicare Part B—where any lab can bill Medicare on behalf of patients for doctor visits and outpatient care, including lab tests—to Medicare Advantage is a serious financial threat for smaller and regional labs that do a lot of Medicare Part B testing. The Medicare Advantage plans often have networks that exclude all but a handful of clinical laboratories as contracted providers,” Michel cautioned. “Moving into the future, it’s incumbent on regional and smaller clinical laboratories to develop value-added services that solve health plans’ pain points and encourage insurers to include local labs in their networks.”

Medical laboratories and anatomic pathology groups need to be aware of this trend. Michel says value-based care programs call on clinical laboratories to collaborate with healthcare partners toward goals of closing care gaps.

“Physicians and hospitals in a value-based environment need a different level of service and professional consultation from the lab and pathology group because they are being incented to detect disease earlier and be active in managing patients with chronic conditions to keep them healthy and out of the hospital,” he added.

Value-based reimbursement may eventually replace fee-for-service contracts. The change, however, is slow and clinical laboratories should monitor for opportunities and potential pitfalls the new payment arrangements might bring.

—Donna Marie Pocius

Related Information:

Is Value-Based Reimbursement Mostly Dead or Slightly Alive?

APM Measurement Progress of Alternative Payment Models: 2020-2021 Methodology and Results Report   

Policy Research Perspectives: Payment and Delivery in 2020

Equipping Physicians for Value-Based Care: What Needs to Change in Care Models, Compensation, and Decision-Making Tools

Nearly 60% of Health Systems Pursuing Risk-Based Medicare Advantage Models in 2022, Guidehouse Analysis Shows

Medicare Advantage in 2021: Enrollment Update and Key Trends

CMS’ Latest Value-Based Reimbursement Model Explores Geographic Direct Contracting for Medicare and Focuses on Costs and Quality