Health Affairs and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) are pleased to announce a new series of Health Policy Briefs aimed at providing clear, accessible overviews of timely and important health policy topics. The first brief explores the current debate over cutting payments to “Medicare Advantage” plans — the privately run health plans that now serve almost a quarter of Medicare enrollees.

Health Policy Briefs will be available for free on the Health Affairs Web site, along with email or RSS feed alert sign-up. The briefs will also be available via a direct link from RWJF’s Web site.

The briefs, produced by Health Affairs through a grant from the foundation, will allow readers to gain quick background on various policy proposals as health reform discussions proceed. The briefs will explore competing arguments made on various sides of a policy proposal and point out wherever possible the relevant research behind each perspective. For example, the first, on Medicare Advantage, not only explains how payments to private plans are calculated, but also delineates the arguments and points to research on both sides of the issue of cutting plan payments.

“Congress faces two sets of issues this year: a short-term issue related to the Medicare Advantage benchmarks, and a long-term issue over restructuring the payments to private plans.

The short-term issue is that payments to Medicare Advantage plans appear likely to fall an estimated 5 percent in 2010, according to an insurance industry analysis. The drop stems from several factors, all necessitated by law. But one of these factors — changes in physician payment — is actually a wild card that might or might not reduce the size of this expected cut.”

The briefs are written by Health Affairs Senior Writer Susan Jaffe and reviewed by distinguished Health Affairs authors and other outside experts. Robert A. Berenson, Senior Fellow of the Health Policy Center at the Urban Institute, and Marsha Gold, Senior Fellow at Mathematica Policy Research, provided expert review of the first brief on Medicare Advantage.