Officials have made no secret of their disdain for the ACA, so some accused them of making an excuse to destabilize the market. Not so, says the CMS administrator.
Five months after the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services sent a wave of uncertainty across the health insurance industry by freezing risk-adjustment payments, the agency has finalized a fix for the 2018 benefit year.
The move seeks to appease a federal judge in New Mexico who ruled last February that the government had failed to justify its methodology for calculating the payments for benefit years 2014-2018. That ruling was the basis, CMS said, for the administration's decision to freeze payments suddenly last July.
The freeze lasted only two-and-a-half weeks until CMS announced a final rule to resume the payments for the 2017 benefit year. That final rule re-adopted the existing methodology, with an added explanation regarding the program's budget neutrality and use of statewide average premiums. A similar fix for the 2018 benefit year was proposed two weeks later.
Risk-adjustment payment policies for the 2019 benefit year, which weren't subject to the judge's ruling, were finalized in April.
The risk-adjustment payments are a permanent feature of the Affordable Care Act designed to offset the law's requirement that insurers offer coverage without regard to a consumer's health status. Since some insurers will inevitably attract sicker patient populations than others, the ACA redirects money from insurers with healthier populations to those with higher utilization.
Trump administration officials have made no secret of their disdain for the ACA, so some accused them of using the February ruling as an excuse to inject uncertainty into the market, one exhibit in the menagerie of alleged "sabotage." Even the nonprofit health plan that filed the lawsuit that prompted the freeze accused the government of making "a purely self-inflicted wound" when it could have instead promulgated a new rule all along.
Conservative critics, meanwhile, accused the administration of capitulating to political and industry pressure by ending the freeze, when it should have instead "ended its micromanagement of the insurance market."
CMS Administrator Seema Verma said in a statement Friday that the final rule "continues our commitment to provide certainty regarding this important program, to give insurers the confidence they need to continue participating in the markets, and, ultimately, to guarantee that consumers have access to better coverage options."
Kris Haltmeyer, vice president of legislative and regulatory policy for the Blue Cross Blue Shield Association, lauded the fix.
"We are pleased to see CMS issue this final rule to keep the risk adjustment program in place for the 2018 benefit year, ensuring stability in health care coverage for millions of Americans," Haltmeyer said in a statement. "This important program has worked for years to balance the cost of care between healthy Americans and those with significant medical needs and, as CMS has stated, is working as intended."
"The program’s continued smooth operation is vital to ensure access to a broad range of coverage options for millions of individuals and small businesses," he added.
Verma noted that the litigation is still pending.
Editor's note: This story has been updated to include a statement from the Blue Cross Blue Shield Association.
Steven Porter is an associate content manager and Strategy editor for HealthLeaders, a Simplify Compliance brand.
The fix follows a brief freeze last summer, when the Trump administration said it was just following a judge's order.
The payments are a permanent fixture of the ACA designed to compensate insurers who cover sicker groups.