President Johnson signs the Medicare bill. (AP photo)

A health policy think tank says Medicare Advantage plan enrollment may be at least 5.5 percent higher this year than it was last year.

Analysts at Avalere Health are reporting that finding in a look at new Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) Medicare Advantage plan enrollment data.

The program open enrollment period started Oct. 1 and ended Dec. 7.

Even though the new CMS figures are from a period that ended Dec. 4, they show that plan providers are on track to enroll 15.4 million people, up from 14.6 million people in February 2013, the analysts say.

Enrollment remains strong even though the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA) has cut federal support for the program, the analysts say.

The Medicare Advantage program gives insurers a chance to provide private alternatives to the traditional Medicare program.

Supporters argue that the private plans give enrollees better benefits that reduce their exposure to financial risk and improve their health.

Critics say the private plans get more money per enrollee than traditional Medicare does and encourage excessive use of medical services by reducing the enrollees’ out-of-pocket costs.

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