United States: Trump Administration Takes First Steps To Support Exchanges, But Key Questions Remain

Summary

In an effort to stabilize the Exchanges and encourage issuer participation, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) recently extended the federal Exchange application and rate filing deadlines and published a proposed rule affecting the individual health insurance market and the Exchanges. While issuers will likely see these actions as encouraging signs of the Trump administration’s willingness to support the Exchanges, these actions do not resolve the political uncertainty regarding the Affordable Care Act’s fate or whether cost-sharing reductions will be funded for 2018. These outstanding questions will likely be a key factor in Exchange stability going forward.

On February 17, 2017, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) published a proposed rule in the Federal Register outlining a series of proposals intended to stabilize the individual health insurance market and the Exchanges created by the Affordable Care Act (ACA). Comments on the proposed rule are due to CMS on March 7, 2017.

On the same day as the proposed rule was published, CMS announced that it was extending the federal Exchange application and rate filing deadlines with the apparent goal of ensuring that the proposed rule changes could be finalized and taken into account when issuers make Exchange participation and rate decisions for 2018. Although issuers are likely to support the proposed rule and delayed federal filing deadlines, it is not clear what effect these changes will have since they do not resolve the ongoing uncertainty regarding the fate of the ACA repeal effort in Congress and federal funding of cost-sharing reductions in 2018. 

CMS believes that the proposed “changes are urgently needed to stabilize markets, to incentivize issuers to enter or remain in the market and to ensure premium stability and consumer choice.” The agency’s urgency is underscored by recent reports that Humana would exit the Exchanges entirely for 2018 and other companies have publicly stated that they are uncertain about the extent of their participation in 2018. Looking just at states using healthcare.gov, there are 960 counties with only one issuer in 2017. Additional issuer defections for 2018 would increase the odds that certain counties will have no issuers participating on the Exchange. This would result in residents of such counties being unable to utilize premium or cost-sharing subsidies for which they otherwise qualify.

The proposed rule addresses long-standing issuer concerns about special enrollment periods and perceived gaming of the 90-day grace period available to enrollees receiving premium subsidies. Looking beyond the specific proposals, the proposed rule is significant for the simple fact that it is the Trump administration’s first concrete step to support and stabilize the Exchange market. This likely provides a measure of relief for industry stakeholders that were unsure whether Republicans would be willing to support the Exchanges, which were a key focus of Republican opposition to the ACA. There had been mixed signals during the Trump administration’s first weeks about how it would approach ACA implementation. President Trump issued an executive order his first day in office directing the Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS) and other agencies to “exercise all authority and discretion available to them to waive, defer, grant exemptions from, or delay the implementation of” ACA requirements, creating uncertainty regarding how this broad directive would be implemented. In addition, the administration reportedly pulled back on advertising healthcare.gov during the final weekend of open enrollment, leading some to speculate that the Trump administration would be less supportive of Exchange stability than the Obama administration. In the proposed rule, however, CMS tries to make clear that it shares issuers’ goals of “improv[ing] the risk pool and promot[ing] stability in the individual market.”

The question remains whether the proposed changes (and the directional signal of Trump administration support) are sufficient to achieve their stated policy goals. That question is significantly influenced by the status of the ongoing legislative process seeking to quickly repeal the ACA. Although CMS has in this proposed rule endorsed the goal of Exchange market stability in anticipation of CY 2018 open enrollment proceeding as planned, a Republican-led Congress and the Trump administration have continued to signal their commitment to repeal the ACA. Even with the recent delay in Exchange product and rate filing deadlines, the political process (and the related uncertainty about the ACA’s fate) may not be resolved by the time issuers need to begin developing their rates and making decisions on CY 2018 participation. The proposed rule also does not resolve lingering questions related to Exchange funding, such as the availability of cost-sharing reductions for 2018, that will likely be a key factor in Exchange stability going forward.

Summary of Proposed Rule Changes

The proposed rule changes are largely designed to close potential avenues of adverse selection and improve the overall risk pool by encouraging healthier individuals to enroll in coverage.

Open Enrollment

CMS proposes shortening the 2018 open enrollment period from November 1, 2017, through January 1, 2018, to November 1 through December 15, 2017. CMS originally proposed that the shortened open enrollment period would be effective for the 2019 open enrollment period, but the agency is now proposing to move this up by one year. CMS expects that this change would improve the risk pool by reducing enrollments late in the open enrollment period spurred by an applicant’s recent discovery of a need to access health care services. This policy would also increase premium payments to plans, as more enrollees would begin the year’s coverage in January instead of February.

CMS likely would need to extensively market the shortened enrollment period to ensure public awareness. It remains to be seen whether the Trump administration is comfortable with such a commitment to marketing the program given the pull back on marketing efforts for the end of CY 2017 open enrollment.

Special Enrollment

CMS proposes a series of limitations on special enrollment periods intended to reduce adverse selection. Previously, issuers had complained that many healthy individuals were forgoing coverage until they were sick, taking advantage of lax special enrollment period rules to enroll in coverage only when it was needed.

To limit gaming, CMS proposes to expand an enrollment verification pilot program for states using healthcare.gov, planned to begin in summer 2017. CMS proposes that applicants enrolling in coverage under a special enrollment period would have their enrollment pended until they provide documentation that they actually qualify for the special enrollment period. Where providing and processing documentation would result in a delay in coverage after the requested coverage effective date, this policy would result in retroactive coverage. As such, where verification results in a delay in coverage of two months or more, CMS proposes to permit enrollees to request a later effective date.

Guaranteed Availability

CMS also proposes to reinterpret the “guaranteed availability” standard, which requires health plans in the individual market to sell coverage to any willing buyer during open or special enrollment periods. CMS proposes to create an exception to guaranteed availability for individuals with unpaid premiums due to the issuer from which the individual is seeking to purchase new coverage. In part, this proposal seems to address issuers’ concern that some individuals have taken advantage of generous grace periods to discontinue premium payment towards the end of a benefit year only to reenroll with the same plan for the next benefit year. Individuals could still enroll in coverage without coming due on unpaid premium amounts by enrolling with a different issuer (if there is more than one issuer participating in the service area).

Accepting Comments on Continuous Coverage Proposals

CMS requests comments on potential policies it could implement to promote continuous coverage, but the agency is not proposing any specific policies at this time. A continuous coverage requirement is a central feature of many Republican ACA replacement proposals as an alternative to the ACA’s individual mandate. The ACA’s statutory guaranteed availability protections are broad, so adoption of a generally applicable continuous coverage requirement would likely require a legislative change. This is, however, a signal that CMS, under HHS Secretary Price and congressional Republicans, is considering similar policy solutions.

De Minimis Variation

CMS proposes to expand the definition of de minimis variation, the amount by which a qualified health plan’s (QHP’s) actuarial value may vary from the statutorily mandated value. CMS proposes to increase the amount of permissible variation to -4/+2 percentage points from the +/-2 percentage points currently permitted. CMS argues that this policy will promote market stability by permitting plans to maintain the same plan design year over year. CMS additionally argues that this policy may promote competition and put downward pressure on premiums, encouraging healthier individuals to participate in the plan.

Network Adequacy

CMS also proposes to defer to states with respect to network adequacy for Exchange plans in federally facilitated Exchange (FFE) and state-based Exchange states. In past years, CMS has proactively verified that QHPs in FFE states have an “adequate” network of providers. Through such reviews, CMS has enforced “maximum time and distance standards” requiring, for at least 90 percent of enrollees, that certain types of providers be within a specified distance and travel time. These quantitative standards mirrored the Medicare Advantage program requirements. CMS proposes to discontinue its analysis of QHP time and distance, instead deferring to state regulators and accrediting bodies.

Network adequacy requirements vary significantly across states, so this change will affect issuers differently. While the National Association of Insurance Commissioners has adopted a new Health Benefit Plan Network Access and Adequacy Model Act, it has not been adopted in any states and defers to individual states to set applicable time and distance standards. Thus, CMS’s deferral of network adequacy to states may permit narrower networks than under CMS’s quantitative standards.

Executive Order on Significant Regulatory Actions

Also of note is CMS’s approach to President Trump’s recent executive order, which requires that any “significant regulatory actions that [impose] costs” be offset through the elimination of costs associated with at least two prior rules. The proposed rule offers an early opportunity to examine how the administration will implement this executive order. CMS determined that the proposed rule “is not a significant regulatory action that imposes cost” under the recent executive order. The basis for this finding appears to be CMS’s belief that the proposed rule results in a net cost reduction. Thus, while CMS characterized the rule as “significant” for creating separate costs and benefits that exceed $100 million, the net cost reduction allows the agency to avoid eliminating two rules. Industry stakeholders should continue to monitor how CMS implements President Trump’s recent executive order.  

Trump Administration Takes First Steps to Support Exchanges, but Key Questions Remain

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