The next President and Congress will face many fiscal and policy challenges from the $436 billion Medicare program. Following my earlier quick primers on Medicaid policy making and Medicare and Medicaid waivers, here is a similar briefing on the primary vehicles of Medicare policy making.

As a federal health program operating nationwide, Medicare policies are made through:

Federal Medicare Statutes:

Title XVIII of the Social Security Act sets forth the bulk of federal Medicare laws. Given the political importance and visibility of Medicare, Medicare statutes are extremely specific, especially on provider reimbursement, benefits, cost sharing, managed care, and provider conditions of participation. Therefore, CMS’ rulemaking discretion is often limited.

In the House, the Ways and Means Committee has primary jurisdiction over Medicare but often shares jurisdiction on certain issues with the Energy and Commerce Committee. In the Senate, the Finance Committee has primary jurisdiction for Medicare. The Medicare Payment Advisory Commission (MedPAC) advises Congress on Medicare issues and often proposes major policy changes. Like with Medicaid, Medicare legislative changes are typically accomplished through budget reconciliation bills rather than separate stand-alone legislation.

Federal Medicare Rules:

Most federal Medicare rules are promulgated by CMS (42 CFR Part 400 through 429). CMS must follow the same rulemaking and clearance processes for federal Medicaid rules. Medicare rules are developed by the relevant operating center or office with CMS, such as the Center for Medicare Management (CMM) for fee-for-service Part A and Part B issues and the Center for Drug and Health Plan Choice (CDHPC) for Part D and Medicare Advantage issues. Legal advice comes from the HHS Office of General Counsel (OGC).

Before publication in the Federal Register, all proposed and final rules require approval of the HHS Secretary and the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB). OMB’s Medicare rule reviews are conducted primarily by the Medicare Branch in OMB’s Health Division.

Federal Medicare Guidance:

CMS uses numerous vehicles to convey Medicare guidance, including tens of thousands of pages of manuals, instructions, and program transmittals to contractors, providers, suppliers, health plans, and drug plans. Within the framework of the statutes and rules, considerable operational and technical policy is also set through the Medicare Advantage and Part D drug benefit applications, bids, and contracts.

Unlike in Medicaid – where CMS is often criticized for setting substantive policy through sub-regulatory guidance – Medicare guidance is more a product of a layering effect of highly specific statutes and regulations. Therefore, the Medicare administrative guidance focuses on execution issues, operational details (e.g., coding), and clarifications within and across the four complex, sometime conflicting parts of Medicare.

Under a new Executive Order, OMB now has the right to prior review and approval of CMS guidance, particularly any sub-regulatory guidance involving issues about $100 million, which is virtually anything in Medicare or Medicaid. To learn more, read my earlier post on expansion of OMB’s review authority and implications for policy making by CMS and the FDA.