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‘Cancel This Failed Experiment’: Physicians Tell Biden HHS To End Medicare Privatization Pilot

The Medicare privatization program "presents a threat to the integrity of traditional Medicare, and an opportunity for corporations to take money from taxpayers while denying care to beneficiaries," said Physicians for a National Health Program.

Homage to Medicare and Medicaid: Sculpture Art.,Via Pixabay. // Juan Cole's Informed Content

A national physician group this week called for the complete termination of a Medicare privatization scheme that the Biden White House inherited from the Trump administration and later rebranded—while keeping intact its most dangerous components.

Now known as the Accountable Care Organization Realizing Equity, Access, and Community Health (ACO REACH) Model, the experiment inserts a for-profit entity between traditional Medicare beneficiaries and healthcare providers. The federal government pays the ACO REACH middlemen to cover patients' care while allowing them to pocket a significant chunk of the fee as profit.

The rebranded pilot program, which was launched without congressional approval and is set to run through at least 2026, officially began this month, and progressive healthcare advocates fear the experiment could be allowed to engulf traditional Medicare.

In a Tuesday letter to Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra and Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services Administrator Chiquita Brooks-LaSure, Physicians for a National Health Program (PNHP) argued that ACO REACH "presents a threat to the integrity of traditional Medicare, and an opportunity for corporations to take money from taxpayers while denying care to beneficiaries."

The group, which advocates for a single-payer healthcare system, voiced alarm over the Biden administration's decision to let companies with records of fraud and other abuses take part in the ACO REACH pilot, which automatically assigns traditional Medicare patients to private entities without their consent.

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CMS said in a press release Tuesday that "the ACO REACH Model has 132 ACOs with 131,772 healthcare providers and organizations providing care to an estimated 2.1 million beneficiaries" for 2023.

"As we have stated, PNHP believes that the REACH program threatens the integrity of traditional Medicare and should be permanently ended," Dr. Philip Verhoef, the physician group's president, wrote in the new letter. "Whether or not one agrees with this statement, we should all be able to agree that companies found to have violated the rules have no place managing the care of our Medicare beneficiaries."

Among the concerning examples PNHP cited was Clover Health, which has operated so-called Direct Contracting Entities (DCEs)—the name of private middlemen under the Trump-era version of the Medicare pilot—in more than a dozen states, including Arizona, Florida, Georgia, and New York.

PNHP noted that in 2016, CMS fined Clover—a large Medicare Advantage provider—for "using 'marketing and advertising materials that contained inaccurate statements' about coverage for out-of-network providers, after a high volume of complaints from patients who were denied coverage by its MA plan. Clover had failed to correct the materials after repeated requests by CMS."

Humana, another large insurer with its teeth in the Medicare privatization pilot, "improperly collected almost $200 million from Medicare by overstating the sickness of patients," PNHP observed, citing a recent federal audit.

"It appears that in its selection process [for ACO REACH], CMS did not prevent the inclusion of companies with histories of such behavior," Verhoef wrote. "Given these findings, we are concerned that CMS is inappropriately allowing these DCEs to continue unimpeded into ACO REACH in 2023."

While the Medicare pilot garnered little attention from lawmakers when the Trump administration first launched it during its final months in power, progressive members of Congress have recently ramped up scrutiny of the program.

Last month, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) led a group of lawmakers in warning that ACO REACH "provides an opportunity for healthcare insurers with a history of defrauding and abusing Medicare and ripping off taxpayers to further encroach on the Medicare system."

"We have long been concerned about ensuring this model does not give corporate profiteers yet another opportunity to take a chunk out of traditional Medicare," the lawmakers wrote, echoing PNHP's concerns. "The continued participation of corporate actors with a history of fraud and abuse threatens the integrity of the program."

[Jake Johnson is a staff writer for Common Dreams.]

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