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Data: Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services; Chart: Axios Visuals

Nine out of 10 Medicare Advantage members are enrolled in plans that earned the government's highest quality marks for 2022, according to new federal data.

Between the lines: Health insurers were quick to tout the quality scores in press releases. But the federal government went easy on the grades during the pandemic, and experts have long considered MA's quality system to be "flawed and inconsistent."

Driving the news: Medicare releases MA star ratings every year ahead of the program's open enrollment window, which starts Oct. 15 and runs until Dec. 7, as a way to help seniors shop for plans (versus enrolling in traditional Medicare).

  • Using a five-star system, Medicare grades MA plans on things like their customer service, members' access to drugs and services, and how well they help people get health screenings.
  • Insurers that attain at least four stars get additional bonus payments from the federal government. Those bonuses have almost quadrupled from $3 billion in 2015 to $11.6 billion in 2021, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.

The big picture: It was a lot more difficult to be graded as a "high-quality" plan a decade ago.

  • In 2013, just 38% of MA enrollees were in plans with four or more stars.
  • A large chunk of that change can be attributed to insurance companies working the system.
  • Over the past several years, big insurers have merged lower-rated plans into higher-rated ones to get the bonus money, and with no discernible improvement in quality, the Wall Street Journal reported in 2018.

The bottom line: Just because a Medicare Advantage plan gets at least four stars doesn't mean quality is guaranteed.

Go deeper: Medicare Advantage continues growth despite longstanding problems

Go deeper

Scoop: Medicaid-focused Circulo acquires primary care startup Huddle

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Circulo Health, an Ohio-based insurance startup focused on people who use Medicaid, has quietly acquired primary care provider Huddle Health, Axios has learned. Circulo is also said to have partnered with telehealth startup Brave Health to deliver tele-psychiatry services.

Why it matters: Much of the recent healthcare buzz has focused on using tech to provide affluent people with more convenient, comprehensive care. That’s left people who use Medicaid or Medicare — notably, those most in need of care — behind.

Fed: Rate hikes "will soon be appropriate"

The Federal Reserve's headquarters building. Photo: Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images

Federal Reserve officials expect "it will soon be appropriate" to raise the central bank's main target interest rate, setting the stage for a rate hike at its next meeting in mid-March.

Driving the news: In a statement following a two-day meeting published Wednesday afternoon, however, the policy-setting Federal Open Market Committee teed up its next move without taking new action.

How long it’s taken to confirm Supreme Court justices

Expand chart
Data: Axios research, U.S. Supreme Court, Supreme Court Historical Society; Chart: Jacque Schrag/Axios

It takes a U.S. president an average of 70 days from the date a Supreme Court seat is vacated to nominate a replacement, according to data from the Supreme Court Historical Society.

Why it matters: With news outlets reporting liberal Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer's plans to retire, Democrats will be looking to confirm President Biden's nominee with enough time to refocus the national political debate ahead of the midterms.