NU Online News Service, Feb. 2, 2004, 10:42 a.m. EST – Managed care companies rushed today to announce plans to improve their Medicare managed care programs.[@@]

Companies announcing reductions in premiums and improvements in benefit packages include Aetna Inc., Hartford; Health Net Inc., Los Angeles; Highmark Inc., Pittsburgh; and Oxford Health Plans Inc., Trumbull, Conn.

The new Medicare Prescription Drug, Improvement and Modernization Act of 2003 includes a significant increase in Medicare managed care program funding. Carriers that get the increased funding must use it to improve benefits for program beneficiaries.

Health Net, which administers Medicare managed care coverage for 171,000 residents of Arizona, California, Connecticut, New York and Oregon, says it expects its government funding to increase 8.8%. Health Net will use the extra funding to reduce or eliminate premiums for more than 65% of its Medicare managed care program members.

Aetna says it will use the extra funding to offer “zero premium” plans in some markets, and Oxford says it will use its share of the funding to maintain zero premium plans in some markets and lower premiums in other markets.

Carriers that announced similar improvements in Medicare managed care programs last week include Horizon Blue Cross and Blue Shield, Newark, N.J., and Coventry Health Care Inc., Bethesda, Md.