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Implementing Health Reform: ACA-Related Tax Penalties Waived; High Court Turns Back Oklahoma AG (Open Enrollment, CO-OP UpDate)


January 27th, 2015

The Internal Revenue Serviceissued a Notice on January 26, 2015 stating that it intends to grant relief from certain penalties that could otherwise be imposed on individuals who have a balance due on their 2014 taxes because the amount that they received in advance premium tax credits exceeded the amount that they were actually due.  The penalties are those that would otherwise apply for late payment of a balance due and for underpayment of estimated taxes.  The relief only applies to individuals who meet certain requirements and only for 2014.

Section 6651(a)(2) of the Internal Revenue Code imposes a penalty for a failure to pay the amount of taxes owing on a tax return by the date it is due, which is usually April 15 of the following year.  It does not apply if the failure was due to a reasonable cause.  Section 6654(a) imposes a penalty for underpayment of estimated taxes, although it does not apply unless the underpayment exceeds certain limits and can be waived under certain circumstances.

Individuals who received advance premium tax credits during 2014 must reconcile these amounts with the premium tax credits they were actually owed.  In some instances this will result in an overpayment, which must be repaid to the IRS.  Absent the relief granted by this Notice, some of enrollees who received too much in premium tax credits might owe a penalty for failing to repay the overpayment by April 15 or for failing to have paid enough in estimated taxes to cover the amount due.

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Early Evidence On Medicare ACOs And Next Steps For The Medicare ACO Program (Updated)


January 22nd, 2015

Note: Pratyusha Katikaneni and Carmen Diaz also contributed to this post. They are both research assistants at the Engelberg Center for Health Care Reform, The Brookings Institution.

On December 1, CMS released a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) for the Medicare Shared Savings Program (MSSP), which requests feedback for changes CMS is considering for the Medicare accountable care organization (ACO) programs in 2016 and beyond. The proposal suggests significant potential alterations to the program, many of which we recently reviewed, that would address major issues that ACOs and others have raised: uncertainty and inexperience at transitioning to increasing levels of risk, lack of timely and accurate data, changes in attributed patient populations from year-to-year, and financial benchmarks that fail to account for regional variations and continue to reward high ACO performance over time.

The proposed rule raises more issues than it settles, but it clearly indicates that CMS is open to meaningful public comments and will make important revisions in the MSSP. However, the proposal also illustrates the challenges of resolving these issues in a way that both assures substantial ACO participation and improvement, as well as Medicare savings.

Ideally, big changes in key features in a major program like the MSSP would be based on extensive empirical evidence on what determines success in the program. Unfortunately, only limited evidence, including case studies and some comparative data, is available on the determinants of success for Medicare ACOs, and thus on the MSSP. Data released by CMS in September, which we previously reviewed, showed that the MSSP has generated over $700 million in savings to date relative to the spending benchmarks in the program. This is around 1 percent of the costs of care for beneficiaries affected by Medicare ACO initiatives.

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Unpacking The Medicare Shared Savings Proposed Rule: Geography And Policy


January 22nd, 2015

The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) recently announced a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) for Medicare Shared Savings Program (MSSP) Accountable Care Organizations (ACOs). The rulemaking contains several proposals that if enacted, would fundamentally change the underlying incentives for providers to participate in the program. These proposed reforms address issues such as data sharing, renewals of participation agreements, beneficiary attribution, incentives to move to two-sided risk, and lastly, reforms to the benchmark calculations against which ACOs compete to earn savings.

The NPRM comes on the heels of a September 16, 2014 release of performance results for MSSP ACOs that began their performance years by 2013. Under the current program rules, ACOs that successfully reported quality performance data and whose savings exceeded their “minimum savings rate” were eligible to share in savings with Medicare. The MSSP program allows ACOs to choose either one-sided risk (Track 1, only upside potential to earn savings) or two-sided risk (Track 2, both upside and downside potential to earn savings/incur losses) with the final sharing amount based on achieving quality targets (up to 50 percent for Track 1 and 60 percent for Track 2). A vast majority of ACOs enrolled in Track 1, the one-sided risk option. Of the 220 ACOs in the program that participated in the first performance year, 53 earned shared savings, 52 saved money but not enough to meet the required “minimum savings rates,” and the other 115 did not accrue savings (spending on patients assigned to the ACO was greater than projected).

In February 2014, the CMS asked stakeholders for input as to how to improve its ACO programs, feedback which they used to generate the NPRM. Many ACOs and other stakeholders argued that failures to achieve savings over and above minimum savings rates were a partial result of residing in low spending areas. In this post, we examine the merits of this contention and consider the policy implications of our results and their bearing on some of the modifications of the MSSP program that CMS has proposed. We also discuss other strategies for improving the program CMS did not mention in the NPRM.

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The Payment Reform Landscape: Drilling Down


January 15th, 2015

Catalyst for Payment Reform’s 2014 National Scorecard on Payment Reform revealed a dramatic jump in the percent of commercial health care payments that is value-oriented, meaning the payments are tied to the quality of care in some way. In last year’s Scorecard, commercial health plans reported 40 percent of payments were value-oriented, up from just 11 percent in 2013. So on the face of it, as the “health care payment reform arms race” continues among commercial health plans, we’re well on our way to a reformed approach to payment.

But we can’t jump for joy or shout from the rooftops just yet. As I shared in my December blog, we’ve learned not all payment reform models are created equal, and a lot of the jump can be explained by an increase in pay-for-performance — not the most ambitious model when it comes to reining in costs. Meanwhile, there was a very sluggish uptick in the use of models that place providers at financial risk (such as shared risk payment arrangements for ACOs). Moreover, while the National Scorecard tells us how plans are paying for care, it cannot answer other lingering questions: Which models should purchasers adopt if they want the best savings and improvements in care? Which models are spreadable and scalable so a broader swath of the population can reap their benefits?

Since Catalyst for Payment Reform (CPR) works on behalf of large employers and other big health care purchasers, we field these kinds of questions frequently. Unfortunately, there are no easy answers. And we often find ourselves stuck at a crossroads. Purchasers say they want payment reform, and they attempt to spell out what they want and need. Health plans work to build it, but often the purchasers don’t come, saying it’s not what they asked for, or citing concerns about return on investment and scalability. Plan leaders, who think they understood the “specs” and tried to deliver, become frustrated. Over time they can become reluctant to get creative. Purchasers can become jaded and start to wonder if the plans just don’t understand their needs.

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Arkansas Payment Improvement Initiative: Self-Insured Participation


January 7th, 2015

Editor’s note: This post is part of a periodic Health Affairs Blog series, which will run over the next year, looking at payment and delivery reforms in Arkansas and Oregon. The posts will be based on evaluations of these reforms performed with the support of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. The authors of this post are part of the team evaluating the Arkansas model.

Designed and launched by the state’s Medicaid program and some of its largest private insurers, including Arkansas Blue Cross Blue Shield (BCBS) and QualChoice, the Arkansas Payment Improvement Initiative (APII) has been a multi-payer effort since its inception in 2011. As the APII has developed, participation from some of the state’s largest self-insured employers has increased its scope and impact.

While we’ve referenced self-insured participation in our previous blog posts, we provide more detail in the following blog post on its ongoing development and explore what it takes for self-insured plans to adapt to the Arkansas Payment Improvement Initiative’s payment model. What has been the response from Arkansas employers and plans? What is the effect on existing contractual relationships? What are the hurdles?

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Implementing Health Reform: Open Enrollment Progress For 2015 (Updated)


December 31st, 2014

On December 30, 2014, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services released several reports on enrollment numbers covering the second marketplace enrollment period to date.  It released its first monthly ASPE (Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation) report covering October 15 to November 15, 2014.   (press release here  )  The ASPE report for the first time includes some — very incomplete — information on enrollment in the state-operated exchanges.

CMS simultaneously released a snapshot report covering enrollment in the Federally Facilitated Marketplace (FFM) for the sixth week of open enrollment.

The bottom line is that the reports confirm what we all knew already: The first month of open enrollment is going much better than the early months of open enrollment last year.  As of December 26, 6,490,492 individuals had selected a plan through the FFM.  Only 96,446 selected a plan in Week 6, compared to 3.9 million in week 5, emphasizing again the importance of the December 15 deadline for January 1 coverage in driving enrollment.

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What Does ‘Big Data’ Mean In The Context Of Coordinated Care?


December 30th, 2014

Editor’s note: This post is part of a series of several posts related to the 4th European Forum on Health Policy and Management: Innovation & Implementation, to be held in Berlin, Germany on January 29 and 30, 2015. For more information or to request your personal invitation contact the Center for Healthcare Management.

In economic terms, coordinated care is about vertical integration in the quest of a competitive edge. Just as IBM subjects its computer chip suppliers to rigorous monitoring to ensure a high-quality, high-price product, so too do health insurance companies impose restrictions on participating providers designed to achieve a favorable ratio of patient utility to cost and with it, a competitive ratio of the utility of policy holders to premiums.

This endeavor calls for collating information from multiple sources, which is typical of big data: When does a particular health problem arise? Why? What is the appropriate intervention? Who should provide it? How should it be carried out? Where should it be provided? Answers to these questions are necessary for the implementation of quality assurance programs.

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Rethinking The Gruber Controversy: Americans Aren’t Stupid, But They’re Often Ignorant — And Why


December 29th, 2014

M.I.T. economist Jonathan Gruber, whom his colleagues in the profession hold in very high esteem for his prowess in economic analysis, recently appeared before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. Gruber was called to explain several caustic remarks he had offered on tortured language and provisions in the Affordable Care Act (the ACA) that allegedly were designed to fool American voters into accepting the ACA.

Many of these linguistic contortions, however, were designed not so much to fool voters, but to force the Congressional Budget Office into scoring taxes as something else. But Gruber did call the American public “stupid” enough to be misled by such linguistic tricks and by other measures in the ACA — for example, taxing health insurers knowing full well that insurers would pass the tax on to the insured.

During the hearing, Gruber apologized profusely and on multiple occasions for his remarks. Although at least some economists apparently see no warrant for such an apology, I believe it was appropriate, as in hindsight Gruber does as well. “Stupid” is entirely the wrong word in this context; Gruber should have said “ignorant” instead.

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Sovaldi, Harvoni Payment Issues Lead Health Affairs Blog November Most-Read List


December 24th, 2014

A piece by Laura Fegraus and Murray Ross on the challenges of paying for lifesaving but high-priced drugs like Sovaldi and Harvoni from was the most-read Health Affairs Blog post for November. This was followed by a critical analysis of workplace wellness programs from Al Lewis, Vik Khanna, and Shana Montrose.

Next came a post on the 2016 Notice of Benefit and Payment Parameters Proposed Rule from Tim Jost, and then a look at health care policy after the mid-term elections from James Capretta.

The full top-ten list for November is below.

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Health Insurance Rate Setting: Time To Raise The Bar And Lift The Veil Of Secrecy


December 24th, 2014

Over 15 million Americans stand to benefit from a strong health insurance rate review system, with the number growing each year. But in many states the rate review laws—and how they are carried out—fall short. Health insurance is one of the most expensive purchases consumers make, it is vital to the financial and physical health of their families, and it is required under the Affordable Care Act.

It is, therefore, important for insurance regulators to ensure consumers pay a fair price for their coverage. At the recent National Association of Insurance Commissioners (NAIC) meeting, we, along with two other organizations, presented a set of recommendations designed to strengthen the rate review process at both the state and federal level so that all consumers will be assured fairly priced health insurance.

The Affordable Care Act introduced new, important protections for consumers, while at the same time retaining a large role for state policy and regulation. This framework resulted in inconsistent policies across states. States that expanded Medicaid sit adjacent to states that did not. Some states operate their own insurance Marketplace, while consumers in other states use the federal Marketplace.

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Implementing Health Reform: Proposed Changes To Summary Of Benefits And Coverage, Uniform Glossary (Updated)


December 23rd, 2014

On December 22, 2014 the Departments of Treasury, Labor, and Health and Human Services, stubbornly refusing to allow the rest of us to start our holidays, released a joint notice of proposed rulemaking to amend the Summary of Benefits and Coverage and Uniform Glossary rule (fact sheet).  In conjunction with the proposed rule, the Departments released a proposed updated Uniform Glossary and proposed updated summary of benefits and coverage (SBC) templates, SBC language, instructions, and coverage example narratives and calculators.  The changes proposed will be effective as of the first open enrollment period or plan year beginning on or after September 1, 2015.

The Affordable Care Act requires health insurers to offer to group health plans, and health insurers and group health plans to offer to their applicants and enrollees, SBCs that summarize the coverage offered by the insurer or plan, including coverage and limitations, through the use of a common SBC template.  The SBC allows potential groups and applicants to comparison shop among potential plans, but also helps enrollees to better understand the coverage offered and limitations and restrictions imposed by the plan in which they are enrolled.

The initial SBC rule, promulgated early in 2012, was the end product of a lengthy process and was based on the recommendations of a panel convened by the National Association of Insurance Commissioners.  Since the 2012 rule was issued, however, the agencies have released a stream of frequently asked questions modifying, clarifying, and conditioning the 2012 rules. (FAQs Parts VII, VIII, IX, X, XIV, and XIX) The proposed regulations and accompanying documents incorporate much of this interim guidance, and they update the 2012 rule to take account of the changes made in insurance markets by the 2014 reforms.

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New Health Policy Brief: Reenrollment


December 22nd, 2014

This year open enrollment under the Affordable Care Act (ACA) began on November 15, allowing new customers to sign up for health insurance. Open enrollment also provided current policyholders the chance to change plans and request a redetermination on the amount of subsidy they received. During this second year of open enrollment for the ACA’s insurance Marketplaces, insurers and policy makers are working to keep last year’s enrollees in the system — and the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) estimates that 95 percent of them are eligible for automatic renewal.

A new policy brief from Health Affairs and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) examines the pros and cons of reenrollment options for consumers, whether they are using the federal Marketplace or live in states that operate their own exchanges. Automatic reenrollment means that almost seven million people already enrolled will not necessarily need to flood HealthCare.gov and exchanges during open enrollment. On the other hand, it also may discourage consumers from exploring alternative coverage that might better fit their needs and get a more accurate determination of eligibility for subsidies.

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Implementing Health Reform: Wraparound Coverage Excepted Benefits And Draft 2016 Letter To Issuers (Updated)


December 20th, 2014

In December 19, 2014, in what one hopes were their last major regulatory actions before the holidays, the Departments of Labor, Health and Human Services, and Treasury released a proposed rule on a new excepted benefit for wraparound coverage, while the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services released a Draft 2016 Letter to Issuers in the Federally Facilitated Marketplace.

This post will describe the wraparound coverage proposed rule.   It will be updated in the next day or two to analyze the letter to issuers (issuers being the Affordable Care Act word for insurers.)  I will note briefly, however, that the letter to issuers is very similar to the 2015 letter to issuers, with two major exceptions.  First, because open enrollment for 2016 begins on October 1, rather than November 15, as in 2015, the time frame for completing regulatory review begins earlier and is quite compressed.  Second, the 2016 letter picks up on a few new regulatory initiatives for 2016, such as attempts to provide more accurate provider directories and formulary information.  These changes will be explored more thoroughly in the update to this post.

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The Medicare Shared Savings Program: CMS Turns To Stakeholders On Incentivizing ACO Risk


December 19th, 2014

On December 1, 2014, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (“CMS”) released its long awaited Proposed Rule to update regulation and operation of the Medicare Shared Savings Program (“MSSP”). In response to concerns raised by participating accountable care organizations, CMS proposes to revise the MSSP program in several ways to provide greater flexibility for ACOs.

However, in important areas CMS may not have gone far enough. This post describes the framework CMS has set forth and then suggests several ways in which the proposal could, in our view, be improved to achieve the CMS objective of encouraging ACOs to bear more risk. In particular, CMS should consider using its waiver authority more robustly; allowing Medicare beneficiaries to designate their primary care providers, and by extension their ACO; and revising the MSSP risk-adjustment methodology to better reflect the changing risk profiles of ACOs.

CMS is actively seeking stakeholder input, which may indicate agency recognition that further changes beyond those in the propose rule are needed. By all indications, stakeholder input will be seriously considered; more than any time in recent memory, stakeholder comments will make a difference in the shape of the Final Rule. This presents a unique opportunity for stakeholders and we urge concerned parties to share their perspectives through comments – the deadline for submitting comments is February 6, 2015.

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The Dane Difference: Why Are Dane County’s Exchange Premiums Lower?


December 18th, 2014

During the next few years, states and the federal government will likely seek solutions to control costs and improve quality in the Affordable Care Act (ACA) health insurance marketplaces. State and federal policymakers should look carefully at the decades-long success of the Wisconsin State Employee Health Plan (WSEHP) in controlling the rapid rise of health insurance costs in Dane County—where Madison, Wisconsin’s state capital, and the University of Wisconsin, are located—as they seek to improve the effectiveness of the ACA’s marketplaces and health insurance costs in general.

The WSEHP consistently obtains substantially lower health insurance premiums in Dane County than in Wisconsin’s 71 other counties. In 2013, an individual plan in the WSEHP was about $1,400 cheaper annually in Dane County, or 16 percent less than the average in the rest of the state; and a family plan was about $3,500 cheaper, also a 16 percent difference. This Dane difference has existed for at least a decade, with the gap slowly widening over that time.

Why does WSEHP get much lower premiums in Dane County than in the state’s 71 other counties, and what lessons can policymakers learn from this difference?

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Implementing Health Reform: Enrollment And Reenrollment For 2015 (Updated)


December 16th, 2014

The December 15, 2014 deadline for reenrolling in qualified health plan (QHP) coverage to assure continuous coverage as of January 1, 2015 has come and gone.  Individuals who were enrolled through the federally facilitated marketplace (FFM) for 2014 but did not return to the marketplace to shop for 2015 plans will be passively reenrolled in their 2014 plan or in a plan similar to it.  The 2015 open enrollment period lasts through February 2015, and individuals can return to the FFM at any time before then to change plans.  But the change will not be effective for January 1.

A number of state-operated exchanges—including New York, Massachusetts, Idaho, Rhode Island, Washington, Minnesota, and California—have reportedly either extended the date by which individuals can enroll or reenroll and still have coverage effective January 1 or given individuals who had begun the enrollment process as of December 15 extra time to complete the process for January 1 coverage.  The FFM has not extended the deadline.

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Implementing Health Reform: Beneath The Hood Of The ‘Cromnibus’


December 12th, 2014

The “Consolidated and Further Continuing Appropriations Act, 2015” or “Cromnibus” legislation moving through Congress contains a number of provisions that relate to the implementation of the Affordable Care Act (ACA).

Risk Corridors

The provision that has been most widely noted so far requires the risk corridor program to be budget neutral for 2014. The risk corridor program moves funds from qualified health plans (QHPs) that have lower than anticipated allowable costs to those with higher than anticipated allowable costs. Section 1342 of the ACA, which creates the risk corridor program, contains no explicit appropriation.

A report issued earlier this year by the Government Accountability Office (GAO), which is the final authority on the legitimacy of government expenditures, determined that the continuing resolution for 2014 permitted the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) to fund the risk corridor program for 2014 both from payments collected from plans with lower than anticipated costs, which were properly characterized as user fees, and from funds transferred from other CMS accounts. No risk corridor payments were in fact payable in 2014, however, as risk corridor payments will first be made in 2015 for 2014.

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Two Theologies Have Blocked Medicare-For-All


December 11th, 2014

Editor’s note: This post is part of a series of several posts stemming from presentations given at “The Law of Medicare and Medicaid at Fifty,” a conference held at Yale Law School on November 6 and 7.

In the 50 years since Medicare was enacted, Congress has never seriously considered extending Medicare to all Americans, nor even lowering Medicare’s eligibility age below 65. This pattern persisted even during those periods when national health insurance was at the top of the national agenda. This is not what the original advocates of Medicare anticipated when Medicare was enacted in 1965. They saw Medicare as the cornerstone of a national system of health insurance that would eventually cover all Americans.

Two Myths that Undercut Medicare-for-All: Managed Care and Competition

In the paper we presented at the Yale conference, we reviewed short- and long-term factors affecting the debate about Medicare over its lifetime, and then turned to a discussion of two long-term factors: the rise of what came to be called the managed care movement, and the resurgence of a longstanding campaign promoting the idea that competition can right the wrongs of American medicine.

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What To Watch For During This Year’s Open Enrollment Period: Lessons From The Health Reform Monitoring Survey


December 10th, 2014

The Obama Administration recently lowered its expectations on the number of individuals that are likely to enroll in health insurance plans through the Marketplace by the end of 2015—suggesting that it might be more difficult than expected to find and enroll remaining uninsured residents while retaining people who signed up during the first open enrollment period (New York Times; Wall Street Journal; Washington Post’s “Wonkblog”).

One potential barrier to enrollment is low levels of Marketplace awareness among the uninsured: September 2014 estimates from the Urban Institute’s Health Reform Monitoring Survey (HRMS) indicate that only 52 percent of uninsured adults reported hearing some or a lot about the health insurance Marketplace created by the Affordable Care Act (ACA). Despite this large knowledge gap, awareness of the Marketplace has improved since last September, when only 30 percent of the uninsured reported hearing some or a lot about the Marketplace prior to the first open enrollment period.

While increasing awareness of the Marketplace will continue to be important as the second open enrollment period unfolds, there are two additional issues that may determine how many more uninsured people actually gain coverage this year. First, will the remaining uninsured be reluctant to seek coverage and enroll during the current open enrollment period, and if so, why? Second, for people seeking information on health plans, what sources of information are they likely to turn to, and will those sources be adequate to meet the demand?

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Children’s Health: Health Affairs’ December Issue


December 8th, 2014

The December issue of Health Affairs includes a number of studies examining current threats to the health and health care of America’s children, and what can be done to meet their needs within an ever-evolving health care system. Some of the subjects covered: the role of Medicaid in reducing early-term elective deliveries; how pediatric services are covered in the state insurance Marketplaces; Medicaid spending on children with complex medical conditions; and the effect of abuse and neglect on children’s health and school engagement.

This issue of Health Affairs is supported by The W.K. Kellogg Foundation as well as by the Children’s Hospital Association, The David and Lucile Packard Foundation, Nemours, the Annie E. Casey Foundation, and The Child and Adolescent Health Measurement Initiative.

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