Focusing on the impacts of social determinants among the Medicare Advantage population is good – but it might be too late

Social factors impact a person’s health and their potential health outcomes. While this has long been discussed (especially by folks of color, individuals with lived experiences, and those in public health), it is finally now getting deserved mainstream attention, including by health insurers.

Medicare Advantage (MA) — a program that offers private plan alternatives to traditional Medicare — is one key player looking at social determinants of health. It’s a good thing, too; an estimated 42% of the Medicare population are enrolled in MA plans, and that share grows each year. MA plans have more flexibility in offering supplemental benefits and services, some of which can address social determinants of health.

In 2018, the Creating High-Quality Results and Outcomes Necessary to Improve Chronic (CHRONIC) Care Act passed with bipartisan support and marked a substantial shift in MA policy by including acknowledgment of the role of social determinants of health. It allows even greater flexibility for MA plans to help with the very conditions that impact how a person lives, such as providing financial assistance for nutritional needs, transportation to appointments, caregiver support, and even home construction projects. Interestingly, it does not mandate coverage, so it is still dependent on what plans an individual has access to and how health plans are choosing to move forward with this freedom.

The problem is, however, that most individuals aren’t eligible for Medicare until age 65 (there are some exceptions). If we wait until Medicare eligibility to act on social determinants of health, are we waiting too long?

The short answer is yes. Although addressing social determinants of health in the Medicare-eligible population is important, what we know suggests that more could be done earlier.

Why are social determinants important in Medicare Advantage?

Chronic disease is a significant issue among Medicare-eligible individuals, and one that’s exacerbated by social determinants of health. There are substantial implications for both beneficiaries and MA plans. For beneficiaries, chronic disease affects not only their quality of life, but also their wallet. From the plans’ perspectives, the presence of comorbid chronic diseases is a significant differentiator between so called “high cost” beneficiaries and those who are not.

Current MA enrollment trends also point to the need to sharpen the focus on social determinants of health. Although they make up a minority of MA enrollees, persons of color are enrolling in MA plans at a breakneck pace: especially among Black people, dual enrollees, and people living in disadvantaged neighborhoods.

Historically, these are folks most negatively impacted by social determinants of health, and the likelihood of poor health outcomes is only compounded when enrollees reside in disadvantaged neighborhoods. These are neighborhoods commonly characterized by high concentrations of poverty, crime, and harmful environmental exposures compounded by limited resources to support economic and social well-being, and research has consistently found strong associations between neighborhood disadvantage and health risks and outcomes.

Health systems must do more about social determinants earlier in life

Social determinants of health affect us all — regardless of age. Until recently, they have received relatively little attention from insurers.

However, that’s changed in recent years. Insurers are making investments in affordable housing, funding research into food insecurity, and some are even willing to help their members pick up the tab on their internet bill.

It is difficult though to discern the extent that these actions are altruistic or opportunistic, especially when they can technically be both. While that might not be the worst thing, it does matter if it leaves out the very people it should be helping.

Let’s consider internet access, for example. If a patient isn’t connected to the web, they can’t participate in a telehealth visit, leaving in-person care as the only option. In a world where telehealth visits are reimbursed at a fraction of the in-person rate, there are substantial cost savings (read: profit) associated with facilitating and promoting virtual care. Critics have also pointed out that most of these steps can be attributed to insurers’ philanthropic apparatuses as opposed to any substantive change or innovation in member benefits.

What is also becoming readily apparent, is that while telehealth use is increasing, it does not make care accessible for everyone. It could even serve to increase disparities if it is not done properly.

Beyond insurance, there are several existing programs that aim to address social determinants of health and are accessible earlier in a person’s life cycle. Programs such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, Early Intervention, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or even the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program can be a lifeline for those most in need.

However, administrative hurdles and societal stigma can challenge people’s willingness to participate in these programs no matter how beneficial they might be. We should all be asking what more the health system — providers, payers, and government — should be doing to improve social determinants of health earlier in life.

The CHRONIC Care Act has the potential to mitigate some of these harmful impacts of long-standing structural inequities by providing greater flexibility for plans to cover non-medical needs. The law illustrates that policymakers believe that health insurers should do more to address social determinants of health. Perhaps they should also focus on how plans can address these social factors earlier in the life cycle as well.

Research for this piece was supported by Arnold Ventures.

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