Many of my clients ask me how Medicaid policy is made, particularly for coverage, reimbursement, and managed care and other delivery systems. The $360 billion Medicaid program is highly complex and there are many nuances and exceptions, but here is a high-level primer on the basics.
Given the Medicaid program’s shared federal-state funding and governance, underlying complexity, and variability across the respective states, Medicaid policy is set through several distinct vehicles, some federal and some state.
Medicaid Policy Making by Federal Government:
The primary federal policy making vehicles are:
Federal Medicaid Statutes:
Title XIX of the Social Security Act provides the federal statutory framework for Medicaid nationwide. Like its Medicare counterpart, Title XIX is extraordinarily complex and frequently amended by Congress. The federal Medicaid statutes are a mix of mandates and options for states. Medicaid legislative changes are often accomplished through budget reconciliation bills rather than separate stand-alone legislation. Short-term fixes may be made through appropriations bills.
Federal Medicaid Rules:
The vast bulk of federal Medicaid rules are promulgated by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS). As with Medicare rules, CMS must follow the rulemaking process required by federal Administrative Procedures Act (APA) and the same clearance process. Most proposed and final rules affecting Medicaid are drafted by staff in CMS’ Center for Medicaid and State Operations (CMSO), with legal advice from the HHS Office of General Counsel (OGC). Before publication in the Federal Register, proposed and final rules require approval of the HHS Secretary and White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB). OMB’s Medicaid rule reviews are conducted primarily by the Medicaid Branch in OMB’s Health Division but coordinated through OMB’s Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs.
Federal Medicaid Guidance:
CMS uses several mechanisms to make or clarify Medicaid policy through “sub-regulatory guidance.” This includes CMS’ State Medicaid Manual and an important and influential ad hoc series of letters to State Medicaid directors – both issued by CMSO.
Federal law requires formal rulemaking for most substantive policy making, including interpretations of federal statutes. However, CMS often sets policy administratively, either in lieu of or far in advance of formal rule making. For example, if Congress makes significant changes to Title XIX with a tight deadline for implementation, CMS often issue a guidance letter or directive months in advance of issuing necessary conforming regulations. CMS must perform a balancing act to comply with the intent of APA and still implement frequent changes enacted by Congress or expected by the White House or HHS Secretary.
Officially, letters to State Medicaid directors (SMDs) are not intended to make policy per se but many states and experts believe some of these SMD letters make policy that requires formal rulemaking. Under a new Executive Order, OMB now has the authority to review and approve CMS guidance. This is consistent with its longstanding authority to review rules and waivers and a response to growing use of sub-regulatory issuances by agencies across the Executive Branch. OMB’s new role continues to evolve.
Federal Medicaid Waivers:
Under sections 1115 and 1915 of the Social Security Act, the HHS Secretary may waive a variety of federal statutes and rules to permit state Medicaid programs to change benefit packages, eligibility, cost sharing, and care delivery in ways not permitted by current law. For my recent primer on federal Medicaid and Medicare waivers, click here.
The state-level policy making mechanisms in Medicaid are:
Medicaid State Plan:
Each state Medicaid program has its own “State Plan,” which serves as the funding agreement between the state Medicaid agency and CMS. The State Plan specifies all of the state’s key policies on Medicaid eligibility, benefits, cost sharing, reimbursement, managed care, quality assurance, utilization management, and program integrity. Here’s an example of a Medicaid State Plan.
State Plans are highly detailed (typically 1000-2000 or more pages in length) and subject to frequent revision to reflect changes in federal law or rules, CMS guidance, state policy choices, and court rulings. State Plan Amendments (SPAs) are drafted by the state Medicaid agency and submitted to CMS for approval. Many SPAs are routine, following “preprints” – boilerplate checklists that allow states to propose SPAs needed to conform the State Plan to federal mandatory policies or common practices already approved for other states. States don’t have to follow the preprints but it makes routine SPAs much easier. The state publishes a prior public notice for each SPA.
Routine SPAs are handled by the CMS regional offices but CMSO’s central office staff in Baltimore handles all major and controversial SPAs. CMS may ask questions and may deny SPAs that it determines fail to comply with federal requirements. If an SPA rejected, the state may appeal CMS’ decision to the HHS Departmental Appeals Board (DAB) and thereafter to the federal courts.
State Statutes and Administrative Rules:
Each state also sets some degree of Medicaid policy through state statutes and administrative rules. States vary widely in the degree to which state Medicaid policies are set forth in statutes or rules. Most states set eligibility, benefit packages, and cost sharing in statute and/or rules. Other policies, such as specific reimbursement methodologies and rates, are sometimes set administratively by the state Medicaid agency through manuals and instructions to providers. The basic parameters of hospital and nursing home payment formulars are often set in state statute. Still other policies are made through the state budget process or contracting mechanisms, such as managed care RFPs and Medicaid health plan contracts.
However, some states, specify a considerable amount of Medicaid policy through rules. While state Medicaid rules are drafted and promulgated by the state Medicaid agency, some states require legislative committee review and approval of all rules. (Note that regardless what is addressed in state statutes or rules, the State Plan must reflect the latest policies.)