Risk Corridors: The Obama Administration at War with Itself?

Ferrets in a sack might prove an apt description of the internal infighting plaguing the Obama Administration regarding risk corridors. Last week, sources — whether within the Administration, amongst the insurer community, or both — wanted to portray a multi-billion dollar Judgment Fund settlement with insurers as a fait accompli, telling the Washington Post an agreement could be reached within two weeks.

But in two separate motions filed late last Friday regarding pending lawsuits, lawyers for the Department of Justice pulled a Lee Corso: “Not so fast, my friend!” The filings stated repeated claims made in a related lawsuit this summer that the case made by insurers is not yet ripe for adjudication in court. However, in a new development, Justice also alleged that insurers had no claim to make in court at all:

Third, Count I fails on the merits. Section 1342 [of Obamacare] does not require HHS to make risk corridors payments beyond those funded from collections. And even if that intent were unclear when the Affordable Care Act was enacted in 2010, Congress removed any ambiguity when it enacted annual appropriations laws for fiscal years 2015 and 2016 that prohibited HHS from paying risk corridors amounts from appropriated funds other than collections.

Here are four things you need to know about the latest risk corridor developments:

  • DOJ vs. CMS? Whereas the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services stated in a September 9 document that it considered unpaid risk corridor claims “an obligation of the United States government for which full payment is required,” the Justice Department has now argued before two separate district court judges that no additional payment is required — not now, and not ever. In testifying before Congress last month, both Acting Administrator Slavitt and his Chief of Staff separately claimed that the Justice Department were consulted before CMS issued its September 9 memo. While last week’s Post article claimed that “Justice officials have privately told several health plans” they want to settle claims on insurers’ terms as quickly (and as quietly) as possible, the filings show that at least some Justice officials have no intention of “tanking” the government’s case for political reasons.
  • Political Appointees vs. Career Civil Servants: Two congressional reports provide some clues to the possible divides within the Administration. A 2014 House Oversight Committee investigative report showed how insurers immediately contacted Valerie Jarrett and other political appointees seeking increased risk corridor payments when insurers’ enrollees started skewing older and sicker than expected. And a report by two House committees earlier this year showed how political appointees have put the proverbial screws to uncooperative civil servants, threatening those civil servants if they exercised their statutory rights to provide information to Congress regarding a related program of Obamacare cost-sharing subsidies. The mixed messages regarding the risk corridor suits could represent a similar divide — political appointees want to pay the claims before President Obama leaves office, whereas career civil servants are focused on the heretofore novel notion of actually enforcing the law as written.
  • Andy Slavitt, Bailout King? During his own testimony before the House Energy and Commerce Committee last month, CMS head Andy Slavitt made absolutely no attempt to argue the points Justice made in its filings — namely, that Congress has made its intent regarding risk corridors crystal clear, and that insurers are not owed any money. In this context, it is worth noting: 1) Administrator Slavitt’s at least $4.8 million in stock compensation from a unit of UnitedHealthGroup — the nation’s largest insurer; 2) the special ethics waiver he had to receive from the Obama Administration to make policy decisions impacting his former employer; and 3) the fact that Mr. Slavitt will likely require new employment in three months. Could Administrator Slavitt be attempting to help his once — and perhaps future — employers in the insurance industry…?
  • Constitutional “Takings,” Redefined: In one of the court cases, filed by Blue Cross Blue Shield of North Carolina, the Justice Department responded to claims that the risk corridor non-payment represent a Fifth Amendment violation on the part of the federal government. This Blue Cross insurer has argued — apparently with a straight face — that the federal government NOT giving it a multi-billion dollar, taxpayer-funded risk corridor payment represents a “taking” that violates its constitutional rights. To repeat: Blue Cross alleges it has a constitutional right to a multi-billion dollar bailout — even though the Justice Department notes that there is no contractual right to payment under the risk corridor program at all.