Medicare Advantage Tied to Less Use of Pricey Diabetes Drugs

Dr Utibe R. Essie

US Medicare beneficiaries with type 2 diabetes who had health coverage through a Medicare Advantage (MA) plan received treatment with an SGLT2 inhibitor or GLP-1 receptor agonist significantly less often than patients with traditional fee-for-service (FFS) Medicare coverage in 2014-2019, according to a study of more than 411,000 patients.

“MA beneficiaries had modestly but significantly poorer intermediate health outcomes and were less likely to be treated with newer evidence-based antihyperglycemic therapies compared with Medicare FFS beneficiaries,” conclude Utibe R. Essien, MD, and coauthors in a study published July 6 in Diabetes Care.

The report comes as the US Congress is looking closely at the MA program and evidence that insurance companies that provide these policies sometimes impose inappropriate barriers on enrolled beneficiaries by denying or limiting access to treatments and interventions in ways that run counter to Medicare’s coverage policies.

According to Representative Diana DeGette (D-CO), who chaired a hearing on MA plans on June 28 by the House of Representatives’ Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, beneficiaries who are covered through an MA plan “do not always get the care that they are entitled to.”

The study by Essien and colleagues also documents some positives of care delivered through MA plans for patients with type 2 diabetes compared with what FFS Medicare beneficiaries generally receive, such as significantly higher rates of screening for nephropathy and ophthalmologic disorders, and foot examinations.

But the apparently dampened use of sodium-glucose cotransporter 2 (SGLT2) inhibitors and glucagon-like peptide-1 (GLP-1) receptor agonists among MA beneficiaries stand out as notable shortcomings, Essien maintained.

Cost Containment May Limit Use

“The differences in health outcomes and in treatments in MA plans are important to highlight,” Essien said in an interview. “We worry that the cost-containment challenges [associated with MA plans] may be limiting use of these newer treatments.”

The study was based on 2014-2019 data from the Diabetes Collaborative Registry, which collects information from more than 5000 US clinicians whose practices include patients with diabetes, as well as claims data recorded by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services during 2014-2017.

The main analysis focused on 345,911 Medicare beneficiaries ≤ 75 years old with diabetes, which included 34% with MA coverage and 66% with FFS coverage. The two subgroups had similar ages, about 75 years old, and roughly half were women in both subgroups. The rate at which both subgroups received statin treatment was nearly the same: 72% for those with MA coverage and 71% for those with FFS Medicare.

But MA beneficiaries differed from those with FFS coverage in several other ways. MA beneficiaries had a higher prevalence of Medicaid eligibility than the FFS group (20% vs 12%) and lower rates of consultations with cardiologists (41% vs 45%) or endocrinologists (7% vs 10%).

Some of the positive differences in the care received by MA beneficiaries compared with FFS beneficiaries, after adjustment for potential clinical and sociodemographic confounders, included:

  • Screening for nephropathy, at a significant 14% higher relative rate.

  • Screening for ophthalmologic disorders, at a significant 8% higher relative rate.

  • Undergoing a diabetic foot examination, at a significant 13% higher relative rate.

  • Receiving smoking-cessation counseling, at a significant 5% higher relative rate.

  • Receiving treatment with an angiotensin-converting enzyme inhibitor or angiotensin-receptor blocker (87% vs 81%).

  • More consistently receiving treatment with metformin, with rates of 72% versus 69% in 2017.

However, these positive differences were accompanied by these relative shortcomings for those with MA compared with FFS coverage:

  • Lower rates of treatment with an SGLT2 inhibitor (5.4% vs 6.7%), a significant 9% relative difference after adjustment.

  • Lower rates of treatment with a GLP-1 agonist (6.9% vs 9.0%), a significant 20% relative difference after adjustment.

  • Higher average levels of low-density lipoprotein cholesterol (81.5 vs 78.9 mg/dL), a significantly higher average A1c level (7.1% vs 7.0%), and a trend toward a lower prevalence of blood pressure control (70.3% vs 71.5%).

Researchers also highlight that the lower rate at which people with MA coverage received SGLT2 inhibitors or GLP-1 agonists was consistent in patients with established cardiovascular or kidney disease, for whom these agents are particularly recommended.

In addition, a secondary analysis of data for another 65,000 Medicare beneficiaries in 2018 and 2019 showed the disparity in use of agents from these two drug classes continued.

Low Systemic Use of SGLT2 Inhibitors, GLP-1 Agonists

Essien acknowledged that, even in people with FFS Medicare coverage, use of SGLT2 inhibitors and GLP-1 agonists was low, but the difference between those with MA coverage is “important,” he stressed.

Researchers offered four factors that might drive reduced prescribing of agents from these two classes for patients with type 2 diabetes with MA coverage: cost-containment strategies put in place by MA plans; the lower rate of consultations with specialists (cardiologists and endocrinologists); possible exclusion of clinicians from MA provider networks who tend to prescribe these higher-price agents; and lower household incomes of people with MA plans, which may lead to cost-related nonadherence.

Most SGLT2 inhibitors have an average retail cost of about $6,000/year, and some GLP-1 agonists cost more than $10,000/year.

In general, MA coverage includes more oversight of care and its cost than occurs with FFS coverage, noted Essien, an internal medicine physician at the University of Pittsburgh and a researcher at the Center for Health Equity Research and Promotion of the VA Pittsburgh Healthcare System, Pennsylvania.

“Incentives for using these more expensive treatments may not be there in MA plans,” he explained. Overcoming cost-related barriers is a challenge that will require “bold policy changes,” as well as better education of clinicians so they make correct treatment decisions, and of patients to resolve possible concerns about treatment safety.

Representative DeGette hinted during her remarks at the June hearing that policy changes may be coming from Congress.

“Our seniors and their doctors should not be required to jump through numerous hoops to get coverage for straightforward and medically necessary procedures,” she said.

The study received no commercial funding. Essien has reported no relevant financial relationships.

Diabetes Care 2022;45:1549-1557. Abstract

Mitchel L. Zoler is a reporter for Medscape and MDedge based in the Philadelphia area. @mitchelzoler

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