Over the weekend, former Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) acting administrator and Obamacare defender Andy Slavitt took to Twitter to denounce what he viewed as the Trump administration’s “aggressive and needless sabotage” of the health care law:
BREAKING: Trump aims severe blow at ACA, says payments for insuring sicker individuals (called risk adjustment) will not be paid for prior years.
This is aggressive and needless sabotage of the ACA. Impact likely chaos.
I have more details. Follow here if interested. 1/
— Andy Slavitt 💙💛 (@ASlavitt) July 7, 2018
Unfortunately for Slavitt, the facts suggest otherwise. The Trump administration took actions to comply with a federal court order that vacated rules promulgated by the Obama administration—including rules CMS issued when Slavitt ran the agency. If Slavitt wants to denounce the supposed “sabotage” of Obamacare, he need look no further than the nearest mirror.
What’s the Issue?
This legal dispute involves risk adjustment payments, one of the three “Rs” Obamacare created. Unlike the risk corridor and reinsurance programs, which lasted only from 2014 through 2016, Obamacare made the risk adjustment program permanent.
In general, risk adjustment transfers funds from insurers with healthier-than-average enrollment to insurers with sicker-than-average enrollment. Without risk adjustment, plans would have perverse incentives to avoid enrolling sick people, due to the Obamacare regulations that require insurers to accept all applicants, and prohibit them from charging higher premiums due to health status.
Since the Obamacare exchanges began operations in 2014, many newer and smaller insurers say that the federal risk adjustment formula unfairly advantages incumbent carriers—in many cases, local Blue Cross Blue Shield plans. The small carriers complain that larger insurers do a better job of documenting their enrollees’ health conditions (e.g., diabetes, etc.), entitling them to larger risk adjustment payments.
Regardless of whether certain insurers had successfully “gamed” the risk adjustment formula, the program led to significant losses for many Obamacare co-ops—non-profit insurers created by the law. A 2016 House Energy and Commerce Committee oversight report noted that many co-ops faced major losses, because they faced massive (and unexpected) payments in to the risk adjustment program.
A July 2016 analysis concluded that “for most co-ops, these recently announced risk adjustment payments have made a bad situation worse, and for a subset, they may prove to be the proverbial last straw.” Indeed, most Obamacare co-ops failed, and the risk adjustment methodology proved one reason. Two co-ops—Minuteman Health in Massachusetts (now in receivership) and New Mexico Health Connections—sued to challenge the risk adjustment formula.
What Happened in the Lawsuits?
On January 30, a federal district court in Massachusetts ruled in favor of the federal government with respect to Minuteman Health’s case. Judge Dennis Saylor ruled that the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) did not act in an arbitrary and capricious manner when setting the risk adjustment formula.
However, a few weeks later, on February 28, another federal district court in New Mexico granted partial summary judgement in favor of New Mexico Health Connections, ruling that one element of the risk adjustment formula—the use of statewide average premium (discussed further below)—violated the Administrative Procedure Act as arbitrary and capricious. Judge James Browning vacated that portion of the risk adjustment formula for the years 2014 through 2018, and remanded the matter back to HHS and CMS for further proceedings.
On Saturday, CMS issued a press release indicating that Browning’s February ruling “prevents CMS from making further collections or payments under the risk adjustment program, including amounts for the 2017 benefit year, until the litigation is resolved.”
If the Trump administration wanted to use the risk adjustment ruling to “sabotage” Obamacare, as people like Slavitt claim, it would have halted the program immediately after Browning issued his order in February. Instead, the administration on March 28 filed a motion to have Browning reconsider his decision in light of the contrary ruling in the Minuteman Health case.
The administration also asked Browning to lift his order vacating the risk adjustment formula, and just remand the matter to CMS/HHS instead. In that case, the rule would remain in effect, but the administration would have to alter it to comply with Browning’s ruling. However, at a June 21 hearing, Browning seemed disinclined to accept the government’s request—which likely led to the CMS announcement this weekend.
Who Issued ‘Arbitrary and Capricious’ Rules?
The Obama administration did, in all cases. Browning’s ruling vacated a portion of the risk adjustment formula for plan years 2014 through 2018 (i.e., the current one). Even though President Trump took office on January 20, 2017, the outgoing Obama administration rushed out rules for the 2018 plan year on December 22, 2016, with the rules taking effect just prior to Obama leaving office.
Browning ruled that the Obama administration acted appropriately in most cases, but in an “arbitrary and capricious” manner in basing the risk adjustment payments on statewide average premiums instead of each plan’s average premium, as New Mexico Health Connections prefers. He noted that a 2011 risk adjustment white paper issued by CMS assumed budget neutrality. Likewise, the draft rules for the initial 2014 plan year proposed using statewide average premiums to determine the risk adjustment formula in large part because they would ensure a budget neutral program.
However, Browning believed the statute does not require budget neutrality—it does not prohibit it, nor does it require it. Therefore, the administration needed to provide a “policy rationale” for its budget neutrality assumption. For instance, HHS could have argued that, because Obamacare did not include a separate appropriation for the risk adjustment program, implementing risk adjustment in a budget neutral manner would prevent the diversion of taxpayer resources from other programs.
But as Browning noted, “the Court must rely upon the rationale the agency articulated in its internal proceedings and not upon post hoc reasoning.” HHS did not explain the reasoning behind budget neutrality in its final rules for the 2014 plan year, nor for several years thereafter.
While both the 2011 white paper and 2014 rules (the final version of which HHS released in March 2013) preceded the July 2014 start of Slavitt’s tenure in senior management at CMS, the agency released rules for the 2016, 2017, and 2018 plan years on his watch. If Slavitt believes “sabotage” occurred as a result of Browning’s court ruling, he should accept his share of the responsibility for it, by issuing rules that a federal judge struck down as “arbitrary and capricious.”
Ironically, as one observer noted, the federal government “argued that the court’s ruling as it applies to the 2018 benefit year should be set aside because the agency responded directly to comments regarding its rationale for budget neutrality in the final 2018 payment rule.” However, Browning held that “subsequent final rules” did “not elaborate further on [HHS’] budget neutrality rationale,” and struck down the 2018 rule along with the rules for 2014 through 2017.
Browning’s decision to strike down the 2018 rule demonstrates Slavitt’s “sabotage.” HHS released that rule months after Minuteman Health and New Mexico Health Connections filed their lawsuits, and thus had adequate time to adjust the rule in response to their claims. Regardless, Browning thought the agency did not elaborate upon or justify its policy reasoning regarding budget neutrality in the risk adjustment program—a direct swipe at Slavitt’s inability to manage the regulatory process inside his agency.
What Would Andy Slavitt Do Instead?
On Friday night, Slavitt claimed that an interim final rule could “clarify and resolve everything:”
HHS could issue what is known as an “interim final rule” to clarify and resolve everything.
But instead Trump is using this as a big bullet in hopes of finally killing the ACA.
How? . . . 6/
— Andy Slavitt 💙💛 (@ASlavitt) July 7, 2018
However, on Sunday, Slavitt tweeted a link to a New York Times article entitled “A Fatal Flaw as Trump Tries to Remake Health Care: Shortcuts.” That article cited several court cases “that the Administration has lost [that] have a common theme: Federal judges have found that the Administration cut corners in trying to advance its political priorities.” It continues:
Two federal courts blocked Trump Administration rules that would have allowed employers who provide health insurance to employees to omit contraceptive coverage if the employers had moral or religious objections. Two federal judges, in separate cases, said the Administration had violated the law by adopting the rules without a public comment period, which the Trump Administration had declared ‘impracticable and contrary to the public interest.’
Those rules regarding the contraception mandate that the Trump administration adopted “without a public comment,” and which were struck down as unlawful, were both interim final rules—the same type of rule Slavitt now wants to use to change the risk adjustment formula. (Interim final rules do require the agency to take comments, but go into effect on the date of their release—thus notice-and-comment occurs retroactively.)
Nicholas Bagley, an Obamacare supporter, explained at the time of their release why he thought the contraception rules would get stricken (as they were) for violating the notice-and-comment requirement. It’s certainly possible that the administration could use Browning’s ruling as a reason to justify forgoing notice-and-comment, and releasing an interim final rule
But it also makes sense that, given the series of legal setbacks the administration has suffered in recent weeks—and the Times article highlighted—officials at CMS and HHS would take a more cautious approach to issuing regulations, to ensure their actions withstand legal scrutiny.
More to the point, it’s disingenuous of Slavitt to tweet an article criticizing the Trump administration for using interim final rules to enact policies he dislikes, then accuse the administration of “sabotage” for not using that same expedited process for policies he likes. It’s even more disingenuous for Slavitt given that the legal dilemma the Trump administration faces regarding risk adjustment comes entirely from a mess they inherited from the Obama administration—and Slavitt himself.
On Sunday, Slavitt cited a conservative article that in his view “called out Trump’s motivation for ending risk adjustment and raise [sic] premiums on millions: Punishing a former President.” Maybe the next time Slavitt makes allegations about supposed “sabotage” by the Trump administration, he should get his facts straight—CMS’s announcement didn’t “end” the risk adjustment program; only Congress can do that—rather than making unfounded against the current president.