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Medicare plans surge 9% in FL

By Lottie Watts
6/23/2010 © Health News Florida

For the first time, Florida has more than 1 million Medicare beneficiaries enrolled in managed-care plans, according to data released Tuesday by the Kaiser Family Foundation.

The 9-percent leap in membership this year means that almost one-third of beneficiaries in the state are now in a Medicare Advantage plan, the new study shows. Trailing only California in the numbers, Florida accounts for about one in 11 beneficiaries in managed-care plans nationwide.

The growth in the program is likely a result of Florida plans' receiving the nation’s highest average premium payments from the government, about $1,040 a month this year. This so-called "benchmark rate" is also above $1,000 a month for Louisiana and New Jersey, but is lower in other states. The national average is $884.

When it began in the 1990s, Medicare managed care was supposed to save money for the federal program, but Advantage payment rates gradually increased until studies found they were higher by about 13 or 14 percent. So the new federal health law -- the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act -- trimmed future plan payments somewhat to cover the cost of subsidies for health insurance for moderate-income families beginning in 2014.

That trimming came under fire from Medicare beneficiaries nationwide during the health debate last year, especially in Florida. But it survived, and so Florida members -- many of whom now enroll for free, or even get a rebate -- may have to pay a small premium in future years.

The continued availability of the program is important, said AARP state director Lori Parham, because it is “part of the mix of choices” available to beneficiaries along with a strong traditional Medicare program.

Even though Florida has more plans to choose from than most states –  – one company continues to dominate the market: Humana, with almost 39 percent.

Dr. Scott Latimer, Humana Central and North Florida Senior Products market president, attributed the company’s popularity to its 25-year experience in the state. Partly through acquisitions of state-based plans, Humana now offers an extensive network of physicians and was one of the first in the country to offer free gym membership, "Silver Sneakers."

“Medicare is in the DNA of this company,” Latimer said. “We've had a long-term commitment to this group of people and our planning has always had a long view.”

Second-largest Florida enrollment is in UnitedHealthcare, with 19 percent; and Tampa-based WellCare was third with 6.5 percent.

Increases in enrollment and dominance by a few players was the tendency nationwide, the Kaiser study showed.

Across the country, Medicare Advantage enrollment increased by 5.7%. 

--Lottie Watts, a student at University of South Florida - St. Petersburg, is a summer intern with Health News Florida. Editor Carol Gentry, who helped in the reporting and writing, can be reached at 727-410-3266 or by e-mail.