CMS’s New Market Stabilization Rules Are A Sham

Instead, They Will Achieve The Opposite Impact
By David Introcaso

On April 13 CMS published the agency’s final “market stabilization” rule, that appears to achieve little to live up to its name.
            The final rule, ostensibly a carbon copy of the proposed, finalizes the six proposed changes without providing any evidence these changes will stabilize the markets by increasing enrollment and issuer participation.
            The final rule will reduce the 2018 enrollment window from three months or to six weeks, or from November 1 to December 15. The rule narrows the definition of guaranteed availability by allowing issuers to apply re-enrollment payments to outstanding debt. The rule will require 100% verification for enrollees’ attempting to acquire insurance during a Special Enrollment Period (SEP) and places other payment, eligibility and exceptional circumstances restrictions on SEP enrollment.
            The rule will allow states to determine plan network adequacy or make a determination using an issuer’s accreditation status. The rule finalizes a reduction from 30% to 20% of plan providers being defined as an Essential Community Provider (ECP). For plans that cannot meet the 20% determination, CMS will allow for a narrative explanation.
            In the final rule’s “impact analysis” CMS is again unable to provide any evidence these changes will produce the intended effect. In the proposed rule CMS stated “on the one hand” premiums could fall but “on the other hand” premiums could increase. In the final rule, CMS stated, “the net effect of these provisions on enrollment, premiums and total premium tax credit payments are uncertain.” “Premiums will tend to fall if more young and health individuals obtain coverage . . . .” “However,” CMS followed, “if changes such as shortened open enrollment period, pre-enrollment verification for special enrollment periods, reduced AV of plans, or less expansive provider networks result in lower enrollment, especially for younger, healthier adults, it will tend to increase premiums.”
            What we do know or still know is these changes will likely reduce enrollment or destabilize the markets. Those aged 18 to 24 are far less likely to complete an enrollment verification process due to “hassle costs” than those aged 55 to 64. Expanding actuarial values would, per the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities estimates, increase out of pocket costs for families. A shorter open enrollment period will likely produce the same result. In a recent Health Affairs blog post, using Kentucky marketplace data, Paul Shafer and Stacie Dusetzina showed that 25% of new enrollments took place in the final week, 60% of those eligible for financial subsidies enrolled during the latter half of the enrollment period and those who changed their plans also did so in the latter half of the enrollment period.
            CMS proposed and went final with this rule because the agency believes it must act. In the final rule CMS argued “we considered maintaining the status quo,” however, “we determined that the 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.”
            From a certain perspective it’s unsurprising CMS went forward with this rule.  The agency was responding to industry pressure that absent changes, they would withdraw from participating.  The day the final rule was released, AHIP, not surprisingly, stated, “This final rule adopts some important changes that have been needed for some time in order to improve the functioning of the individual market, and we appreciate those changes. Those improvements include tightening up rules for special enrollment periods, greater flexibility in product and benefit design, and simplified administrative processes.”
            What is surprising is the fairly obvious confirmation bias exhibited here. The Trump administration has stated over and again it believes the ACA is a failure. The marketplaces are in a death spiral.  If you are biased toward a particular belief you are then prone to interpret information in such a way as to confirm your pre-existing beliefs. Even if CMS truly believed the agency had to act, what is also surprising is the agency, again, promulgated and finalized a rule lacking any evidence.  Instead, the final rule is based simply on the agency’s beliefs. CMS’ explanation for these policy changes in sum amounts to “we believe” – a phrase the agency uses more than 50 times in the final rule. Imagine if the FDA approved a drug that agency admitted it would have an “uncertain” effect.

David Introcaso is a healthcare policy consultant based in Washington, D.C. A version of this article originally appeared at The Health Care Blog.