Accountability: An Unwritten Element

Last year around this time, we were mulling over the Fall Conference and Webcast delivered by the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS). So much has changed in the way we collaborate and interact with each other, both in our professions and personal lives. With all of us keeping our state and local guidelines in mind, we do our best to keep it compliant so we can stay healthy. The likelihood that we will return to the good old days of Ubering to the CMS Woodlawn office soon are slim.

Since we have a public health emergency that requires us to comply with a set of rules in the spirit of slowing or stopping the spread, I’ve been thinking about accountability. When the unexpected happens, who speaks up? Who takes ownership?

I read a recent compliance and ethics report from LRN which noted that when it comes to compliance failures, a poor culture simply deteriorates standing rules. Culture determines whether policies and guidelines will be followed or ignored. The report also showed that in companies with significant compliance failures, key leaders did not take ownership of the problems. Employees raised concerns and reported either being ignored or pressured to look the other way.

For a policy or a code of conduct to be effective, it cannot simply sit on a shelf. The culture within an organization must promote compliance and ethics to demonstrate accountability. Now that many employees are scattered to the wind, is the corporate culture message getting lost in the fray? If so, I recommend making it a priority to communicate a brief message once a week to remind your team about the organization’s mission, commitment to customers, and culture of compliance. Remember, there is no CMS playbook on culture, but you know it when you see it (and when you don’t!).

How to Spend: MLR and COVID-19

I am reminded of the effect the public health emergency (PHE) has had on 2020 plan spending on a weekly basis. I field numerous questions on what creative spending would fall in line with the permissible flexibilities previously issued by the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS). In my opinion, the most creative Medicare Advantage (MA) and Part D stakeholders are in sales and marketing, so perhaps those folks need to have a seat at the table!

In a July post, I mentioned benefit enhancements as the topic became more prevalent in my discussions. I am hard-pressed to identify any plan sponsor who could have forecasted the PHE or the benefit utilization stats that are present today.

This leads us to the importance of medical loss ratio (MLR) and the CMS requirements surrounding it. Section 1857(e)(4) of the Social Security Act (“the Act”) requires MA organizations to maintain a MLR of at least 85%. CMS knows this is a concern of the entire industry, and released some Q&As in July regarding spending related to COVID-19.

More recently, CMS issued an enforcement action related to a MA organization’s failure to maintain a MLR of 85% for three years. This does not happen often, but paired with the PHE, it is a stark reminder that many MA organizations may find themselves under the 85% threshold for the first time this year. My tip: field those creative spending solutions, align them with CMS’ permissive actions guidance, and notify your account manager.

COVID-19 Permissible Activities and CMS Enforcement

On May 22 of this year, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) informed the industry via memo they will exercise its enforcement discretion and adopt a temporary policy of relaxed enforcement with the prohibition on mid-year benefit enhancements, such as expanded or additional benefits, or more generous cost-sharing, as the enhancements are provided in connection with the COVID-19 outbreak. These enhancements must be beneficial to enrollees and provided uniformly to all similarly situated enrollees. They will do this until is determined that the exercise of this discretion is no longer necessary in conjunction with the COVID-19 outbreak.

What is a mid-year benefit enhancement? Back in the old days, these were permissible changes to a plan benefit. An excerpt from revision 87 of the Medicare Managed Care Manual Chapter 4, dated June 8, 2007 reads:

Excerpt from CMS MMCM manual Chapter 4 defining mid year benefit enhancements

As a result of the public health emergency, many Medicare Advantage Organizations (MAOs) have made the decision to enhance benefits through the end of the year. You see this communicated on plan websites, taking the form of enhanced benefits or waived cost-sharing. However, these permissible activities may only be provided in connection with the COVID-19 outbreak. As it stands now, the current public health emergency has been extended a second time, set to expire on October 23, or earlier if terminated by Secretary Azar.

Mid-year benefit enhancements prior to their prohibition were typically put into effect for the remainder of a contract year. So, the question is if the public health emergency is not renewed after October, will the agency still exercise enforcement discretion relative to a mid-year benefit enhancement put into place through the end of this contract year? Or, will the expectation be that MAOs reconfigure their systems to return back to their original benefit design?

I recently posed this question during CMS office hours. Mr. Demetrios Kouzoukas, Principal Deputy Administrator of CMS and Director of the Center for Medicare, acknowledged this is a question that has been received in the past and the agency is working to develop a response. Without additional commitment or clarity, MAOs should prepare to flip the switch back as the permissible activities are currently only permissible while the public health emergency is in place. Keep your eyes open for additional guidance released by the agency.

You Don’t Need to Drink the Sea: 2021 Program Audit Protocols 30-day Comment

On June 4, 2020, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services released 95 ever-loving pages of industry comments received for the draft 2021 Program Audit protocol. The document includes their responses and actions taken, including what edits they have made to the 60-day package released a few months ago. In my opinion, there is a general feeling of streamlining and simplification to focus on the agency’s areas of priority. 

As I was pulling out clarifications that I am unsure will end up in any FAQ, methodology, or audit process document, I realized the entire responses document should have a proper place on the shelf along with the finalized protocols. Why? Because not all clarifications provided resulted in changes to instructions or data request information. This document can be helpful in communicating expectations to employees and first tier entities alike. 

While it seems like a lot to digest, there was no sign of eliminating an entire review area, or creating a new care delivery branch of review, which is the current focus at the moment due to the public health emergency. If you reviewed the 60-day package thoroughly, the 74-page crosswalk posted with the 30-day package could be your best friend. Therefore, take the comments, hold a meeting, divide and conquer to make sure your business partners and colleagues understand the changes. Comments on this collection must be received by July 6, 2020.

Proposed Rule CMS-4190-P: Past Performance

Today I want to focus on another aspect of the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) proposed rule 4190-P, which deals with the review of past performance. This is covered in Title 42 of the Code of Federal Regulations, in Section 422.502 for Medicare Advantage (MA) and 423.503 for Part D. 

In 2005, CMS established that they may deny an application submitted by an organization seeking an MA or Part D contract if the organization had failed to comply with the requirements of a previous MA or Part D contract – meaning, their past performance could influence the decision of CMS to approve a submission, including new applications and expansion requests. About nine years ago, CMS established a rule to place a limit on the time period CMS would review, which ended up being a 14-month window.

2011 was quite a busy year for the agency (when is it not busy!); they released some plans from intermediate sanctions, they provided detailed trainings and clarification on marketing guidelines and expectations, and as a boon for enrollees and well-performing organizations, it was the first year a beneficiary could use a special election to join a 5-star plan. How far we have come!

More recently, CMS reduced the look-back period for past performance to 12 months. The most recent review methodology published on January 25, 2019 for the 2020 application cycle consists of 11 performance categories: compliance letters; star ratings; multiple ad-hoc corrective action plans (CAPs); ad hoc CAPs with beneficiary impact; failure to maintain a fiscally sound operation; one-third financial audits; program audits; exclusions; enforcement actions, terminations and non-renewals, and documented significant compliance issues awaiting formal CMS clearance. 

In the proposed rule, CMS suggests adopting three categories: imposition of Civil Money Penalties (CMPs); low star ratings scores, and the failure to maintain a fiscally sound operation. If finalized, they propose to add these three items to their already codified authority. (They state they “decline to consider” an application from an organization still covered by the 2-year prohibition period they agreed to as part of a mutual termination agreement entered into CMS, though the 2021 MA application still includes a waiver request an applicant may complete.)

What would this finalized provision mean for a beneficiary? Medicare beneficiaries should arguably not feel the impact of this change should it be finalized as written. CMS may be narrowing down the categories but the spirit of the past performance review remains the same. As a former colleague once told me about plan expansions, “if you don’t treat your current members right, you do not deserve to grow.” The agency has talked about the importance of beneficiary choice in conferences, and this change, in theory, should only eliminate the possibility of a beneficiary choosing a plan that still needs to get its house in order.

What would this finalized provision mean for a plan? New applicants and existing contract-holders take note: application reviewers are looking at corporate structure and ownership. They ask if any covered person (defined in regulations) served as a covered person for an entity that non-renewed or terminated within the past 2 years. They request organizational charts of the legal entity’s parent organization, affiliates, subsidiaries, and related entities. This is not anticipated to change, and past performance will be applied to applicants that have ties to plans with performance issues.

If finalized with no modifications, I still expect sub-regulatory guidance to be published to provide the industry clarification on whose past performance may be evaluated as part of the application review. Current guidance makes it clear the agency is not intending to be punitive in this process, allowing legal entities with good performance to continue to expand even if the parent organization holds another poor performing contract.