Federal waivers are powerful tools to demonstrate Medicare or Medicaid reforms, including new payment methods, benefit packages, and delivery systems. The business and policy opportunities are considerable. Here’s a quick primer.

Demonstration Waivers:

Historically, federal policymakers have understood the need to test new ideas in the complex Medicare and Medicaid programs. Research and demonstrations projects – whether initiated by states, health services researchers, providers, health plans, CMS, or Congress – often lead to models or reforms available or mandated nationwide.

Therefore, federal law permits the Secretary of Health and Human Services to waive certain provisions of the Social Security Act and associated regulations as needed to conduct demonstration projects in Medicare, Medicaid, or both Medicare and Medicaid. Waivers are purely discretionary unless legislation mandates a specific project.

Medicaid Waivers under Section 1115:

Section 1115 of the Social Security Act is the principal waiver authority in Medicaid. The HHS Secretary may waive most federal requirements regarding Medicaid benefit packages, eligibility, cost sharing, managed care, and other care delivery. A Medicaid demonstration may be statewide or for only a portion of the state (select counties). (States may also request similar waivers of federal law to reform SCHIP.)

Ostensively, Medicaid waiver projects are research-oriented and intended to test the merits of a new reform(s) not permitted under current law. However, in practice, many Medicaid “demonstrations” are or soon evolve into indefinite, alternative models of Medicaid. Although under no obligation to do so, the HHS Secretary may approve similar or even identical waivers for multiple states.

Medicaid waivers must be requested by the state Medicaid agency, with the approval of the governor. Federal officials may encourage states to propose waivers and Congress occasionally enacts legislation calling for waivers to demonstrate specific reforms. However, the vast majority of Medicaid waiver-based projects are initiated and designed by state governments, often with the assistance of outside experts.

Once approved, Medicaid demonstration projects are operated by the state Medicaid agency, with oversight by CMS. The state may contract with third parties, such as health plans or other contractors, but s. 1115 demonstrations remain part of Medicaid and therefore the state is also responsible for the demonstration project.

Roughly speaking, between a quarter and a third of Medicaid spending operates under s. 1115 waivers instead of standard Medicaid statutes and rules.

Medicare Waivers under Sections 402/222:

Under Sections 402/222, the HHS Secretary may waive Medicare statutes and rules to demonstrate new approaches to provider reimbursement, including tests of alternative payment methodologies, demos of new delivery systems, and coverage of additional services to improve the overall efficiency of Medicare. (Sections 402/222 refer to section 402[a] of the Social Security Amendments of 1967, as amended by section 222[a] of the Social Security Amendments of 1972.)

Medicare demonstrations may be national or limited to certain states, regions, populations, provider types, or even providers or plans designated in advance. They may also be limited in other ways, such as capped in number of participating beneficiaries or providers. Unlike Medicaid demonstrations, participation in Medicare demonstrations, whether by beneficiaries or providers, is rarely mandatory and then only if required by a Congressional mandate.

Any organization or individual may propose a Medicare waiver project. This includes providers, health plans, state Medicaid agencies, and health services researchers. CMS maintains an open invitation for outside parties to propose Medicare demonstration projects and the necessary waivers. However, the bulk of Medicare waiver-based demo projects are congressionally mandated in legislation or initiated administratively by CMS. CMS-initiated Medicare demonstration projects are often developed at the behest of the HHS Secretary, the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB), the Medicare Payment Advisory Commission (MedPAC), or the Office of the Inspector General.

Unlike many Medicaid waiver-based projects, most Medicare waiver projects tend to be genuine demonstrations projects with a careful research design and evaluation methodology. Given this research emphasis, requests to replicate currently operating Medicare demonstrations are often denied unless a research value can be shown.

Occasionally, ss. 402/222 authority is used to issue what CMS informally calls “operational waivers.” These later waivers are often made to address emergencies or fix short-term operational problems (e.g., provider payments after a natural disaster, reimburse states for drug payments during Medicare Part D transition).

Once approved, Medicare waiver projects are administered by CMS either directly, through contractors (e.g., Medicare administrative contractors, Medicare Advantage plans), or (rarely) through states. Except for operational waivers, CMS evaluates each demonstration projects. Major Medicare demonstrations, including congressionally mandated projects, are evaluated by independent health services researchers hired by CMS. CMS’ budget for evaluations is small, with congressionally mandated demonstrations using most of the available funding. This, coupled with the administrative burden of designing, operating, and monitoring waivers, tends to limit the number of Medicare waivers CMS is able to consider.

Combined Medicare-Medicaid Projects:

States may propose demonstration projects involving the waiver of both Medicaid and Medicare statutes and rules. Combining the authority offered by s. 1115 (Medicaid) and ss. 402/222 (Medicare), the HHS Secretary is able to consider an array of Medicare-Medicaid demonstration ideas, most notably state-wide or regional initiatives changing care delivery, benefit packages, and service reimbursement for dual eligibles.

Examples of combined Medicare-Medicaid waiver projects include:

  • Massachusetts Senior Care Options: Fully integrated managed care program, offered through Senior Care Organizations (SCOs), covering the full range of acute and long-term care benefits for dually eligible and Medicaid-only recipients age 65 and over.
  • Minnesota Senior Health Options (MSHO): Combines all Medicare and Medicaid covered health benefits and support systems into one health care package. Covers beneficiaries aged 65 older who are dual eligibles or who have Medicaid only. MSHO enrollees are assigned a care coordinator who helps them get their heath care and related support services.

Historically rarer than Medicaid-only and Medicare-only demonstrations, combined waiver-based projects are increasingly popular as states develop integrated care models for dual eligibles and managed long-term care models. A variety of other activities by policymakers and the marketplace have also dramatically increased interest in and practicality of combined waiver demonstrations. These include the advent and popularity of Medicare Advantage Special Needs Plans (MA-SNPs), advances in risk adjustment methodologies and quality measurement, sharing of best practices, and collaborations among influential states, foundations, thought leaders, think tanks, and CMS.

Waiver Application Process:

Applications for Medicare or Medicaid waivers must include project scope and objectives, the specific statutes and rules to be waived, spending and enrollment projections, research design, evaluation plan, and details on safeguards appropriate to the project (e.g., quality, access, appeal rights).

Applications for s. 1115 Medicaid waivers are submitted to the HHS Secretary or CMS Administrator and reviewed by the CMS Center for Medicaid and State Operations (CMSO). Other CMS offices – such as the Office of Research, Development and Information (ORDI) – may provide technical advice to CMSO.

Proposals for Medicare waiver projects are submitted to the HHS Secretary or CMS Administrator and reviewed by the Office of Research, Development and Information (ORDI) and the affected operating center: the Center for Medicare Management for projects related to fee-for-service Part A or Part B and the Center for Drug and Health Plan Choice for Medicare Advantage or Part D related projects.

The Medicare and Medicaid Cost Estimates Group in the CMS Office of the Actuary (OACT) estimates the fiscal impact of proposed Medicaid and Medicare waivers.

Proposals for combined Medicaid-Medicaid waivers are naturally reviewed by several units of CMS, with a center, a cross-agency team, or the Administrator’s office taking responsibility for coordinating the review. The particulars vary and are highly situational.

Waiver Approval Process:

Waiver applications – particularly the details of s. 1115 Medicaid waivers and combined Medicare-Medicaid demonstrations – are subject to complex and often lengthy negotiations. Given the technical complexity and policy and fiscal implications of Medicaid or combined Medicare-Medicaid waiver requests, specialized consultants often support senior state staff during CMS negotiations. Senior federal and state officials often weigh in during negotiations. This may include active participation by the HHS Secretary, CMS Administrator, Governor, and State Medicaid Director.

Every proposed Medicaid or Medicare waiver program must be budget neutral to the federal government. That is, Medicaid or Medicare under the requested waivers must be projected to cost the applicable federal program no more than expected spending without the waivers. By tradition, proposed Medicare-Medicaid demonstrations may not claim federal savings in one program to offset higher federal costs in the other.

While not required by federal law, the last four Administrations have enforced the policy expectation that all waivers are determined to be budget neutral prior to approval. The budget neutrality requirement applies only during the review process. Unless the waiver includes a cap on the federal share of spending, there is no fiscal penalty if a demonstration is ultimately not budget neutral.

There is no set methodology – economic or actuarial – for determining federal budget neutrality. Successful Medicaid waiver negotiations are highly dependent on a state’s ability to demonstrate budget neutrality to the satisfaction of federal officials, particularly to CMS actuaries and White House budget staff. Modeling budget neutrality often requires a rigorous mix of creative policy work and analytically sound forecasting. Political priorities and imperatives – together with caution regarding setting new precedents – often informally influence waiver negotiations and assessments of budget neutrality.

Authority to issue waivers under s. 1115 and ss. 402/222 rests with the HHS Secretary. However, all Medicaid and Medicare waivers, regardless of size and scope, require the prior review and approval of the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB). OMB may require changes, additional terms and conditions, or reject the proposed waivers.

Once approved, waivers include specific terms and conditions negotiated with CMS. These vary considerably, depending on the nature of the demonstration.

Medicaid demonstrations are typically approved for an initial five-year period. Thereafter, they may be renewed ever three years indefinitely. Renewals must be budget neutral and receive OMB approval.

Medicare waiver projects initiated by CMS are typically operated for three or five years, depending on how much time is needed to test the policy change. Congressionally mandated waivers vary in length, with most three to five years in length and some indefinite.