By Will Blackford, Class of 2017
Recently, the Trump administration put forth two key initiatives to ease the burden of the Affordable Care Act (“ACA”) and to stabilize the Obamacare marketplace.
First, the Internal Revenue Service (“IRS”) quietly updated its website with a statement indicating that the agency will not reject 2016 tax filings that fail to indicate whether a taxpayer complied with the ACA’s individual mandate. Second, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (“CMS”), now overseen by Tom Price, the new Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, submitted a new proposed rule aimed at making health insurer plans under the Obamacare exchange more profitable.
Both changes come on the cusp of significant insurer uncertainty, with Humana announcing its departure from the exchange market in 2018, and other insurers—such as Aetna and Anthem—threatening to cease future participation in the absence of meaningful modifications to the system.
New IRS Individual Mandate Policy
Following the signing of an executive order by President Trump on Jan. 20, 2017, which directed federal agencies to reduce the burden of the ACA, the IRS retreated from its previous policy that would have required an indication of health insurance coverage on tax returns. The system the IRS initially developed would have automatically rejected tax returns that failed to indicate whether the individual maintained health insurance, allowing the agency to efficiently enforce the ACA’s assessment of a penalty on those lacking coverage.
Under the newly announced policy, this mechanism for handling so-called “silent returns” will not be implemented. Instead, the IRS will continue to accept and process electronic and paper returns, even in the absence of an indication of coverage status. However, the IRS will still be enforcing the individual mandate if people volunteer on their 1040s that they lacked health coverage in 2016. While the agency reserves the right request additional information from individuals that file “silent returns,” the policy shift will undeniably lead to a lesser degree of enforcement under the mandate.
CMS Market Stabilization Proposed Rule
As Congress continues its debate over repealing, repairing, or replacing the ACA, a recent CMS notice of proposed rulemaking (“NPRM”) is intended to calm insurer anxieties over the long-term viability of the health insurance exchange. The NPRM offers numerous policy and operational tweaks geared toward stabilizing the marketplace, including:
- Shortened 2018 Open Enrollment Period. The NPRM would reduce the open enrollment period for 2018 to 45 days (November 1 to December 15, 2017). This would allow insurers to collect a full year’s premium for 2018 from regular enrollees and limit adverse selection by those individuals who discover health issues during the months of December and January.
- Special Enrollment Periods. The NPRM would target special enrollment periods (“SEP”) by tightening up eligibility, restricting the upgrade ability of existing marketplace enrollees, and limiting overall use of the “exceptional circumstances” SEP.
- New Guaranteed Availability Requirement Interpretation. To address insurer concerns over potential abuses, the NPRM would add flexibility to the guaranteed availability requirement for allowing an issuer to collect premiums for prior unpaid coverage before enrolling a patient in the next year’s plan with the same issuer. This is meant to incentivize patients to avoid coverage lapses.
- Reduced Essential Community Providers Requirement. The NPRM proposes that for 2018, plans be required to include only 20 percent of Essential Community Providers (e.g., community health centers, family planning clinics, safety-net hospitals) within their network, rather than the current requirement of at least 30 percent.
- Network Adequacy Delegated to States. Starting with the 2018 plan year, CMS proposes deferring to the state regulators to ensure network adequacy, provided that the state has adequate authority and resources to ensure reasonable access to providers.
Unlike the traditional 30-day minimum for feedback, the NPRM has an unusually short comment period—only 20 days—for CMS to consider public comments prior to issuing a final rule. This expedited timeframe is intended to accommodate insurers who are frantically working to finalize their forms and rates for 2018.