By Lauren Flynn Kelly

As protests erupt across the U.S. calling for racial justice and police reforms, the COVID-19 pandemic continues to bring to light many of the racial disparities in health care, putting pressure on policymakers and the industry to take a hard look at health and access inequities.

Meanwhile, CMS’s Office of Minority Research in April released a stratified report highlighting the racial and ethnic differences in health care experiences and care of Medicare Advantage (MA) enrollees. The data showed that black members enrolled in MA plans in 2018 received worse clinical care than white enrollees on 20 out of 44 measures, similar care for 20 and better care for four. And all minority populations reported experiences with care that were either worse than or similar to the experiences reported by white enrollees, including the experience measure for getting appointments and care quickly.

Not getting the proper care when it’s needed is a reflection of the provider network, says John Gorman, chairman and CEO of Nightingale Partners LLC. “And then when you look at the clinical measures where there’s huge racial disparities, all of those tie back to a lack of culturally competent physicians serving these populations in a manner that speaks to the way that they need to access health care,” he observes.

John Weis, president and co-founder of Quest Analytics, LLC, predicts that “there will be a significant impact on practice consolidation” from the pandemic. “Given the potential risk to providers, we predict that coming out of COVID, we’ll see an uptick in providers that want to minimize their exposure and consider retirement,” he suggests. And with fewer providers available, “if plans are not prepared, this will drive both out-of-network utilization and increase health care costs in rural areas.”

Dan Mendelson, founder of Avalere Health, suggests that while MA plans have the tools to address racial disparities, they don’t necessarily have the incentives to prioritize them. “I think Medicare Advantage plans are uniquely equipped to measure, understand, identify and mitigate disparities…. So, a proactive form of engagement that is focused on disparities can work,” says Mendelson. “One thing that is not there at this point is any kind of direct incentive to the plans to act.”