Government Remains Silent on Emergency, No-Bid Obamacare Financial Management Contract
12:40 PM, Nov 21, 2013 • By JERYL BIER
Even before the October 1 launch, concerns were mounting over the ability of the government to handle the implementation of the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare. Though many expressed those concerns publicly, insiders at the White House, Health and Human Services, and the contractors hired to design and run the site and its programs were largely silent about potential pitfalls, or at least they downplayed them However, some internal memos and reports have since come to light as the "glitches" mounted. But at least one red flag is hiding in plain sight, and the impacts of the serious concerns expressed in an HHS document first reported on by THE WEEKLY STANDARD on September 16 are still looming against a fast-approaching January 1 deadline.
In testimony before Congress on Tuesday, Deputy Chief Information Officer Henry Chao for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services addressed a heretofore largely overlooked element of the federal government's role in Obamacare's ongoing functions: what happens beginning in 2014. The website roll out problems have obscured the larger issue of the ongoing responsibilities of CMS. But, as Politico reports, Chao spoke to some of those issues on Tuesday:
Last Thursday, President Obama said that the problems of healthcare.gov stem from the fact that it is "very complicated. The website itself is doing a lot of stuff." While there may be room for debate about whether healthcare.gov rivals Amazon or Travelocity in complexity, arguably the real work of Obamacare still lies ahead: the financial management of Obamacare functions over the long haul, to which Chao referred. While the current functions of the website may be complex, the financial management functions that CMS needs to have in place by January 1 are far more involved. Details of these functions and the concerns CMS expressed about its readiness and ability to carry them out are contained in a Justification and Approval that accompanied the awarding of a no-bid, emergency contract to Novitas Solutions, Inc. in early August of this year.
In September TWS reported the $11.6 million contract award, noting that in early August CMS had recognized that the "specialized financial management services and expertise are needed beyond what was initially anticipated and beyond CMS' currently available resources," and that development and testing, at that point less than two months from the October 1 launch and less than five months from the January 1 effective date of new coverage, were "already minimally two months overdue."
The document is remarkable both for its dire warnings and its candor. CMS disclosed that the need had "reached an unusual and compelling level of urgency. The prospect of a delay in implementing the Marketplace by the operational date of January 1, 2014, even for a few days, would result in severe consequences, financial and other" and "if payments are not made and debts are not collected, with critical consideration given to timeliness, accuracy and integrity, the Agency's implementation and operation of the Marketplace and the Affordable Care Act will certainly be jeopardized." These statements are part of a rather lengthy narrative describing the tenuous position in which CMS finds itself, and it is worth an extended look to appreciate the magnitude of the task and the level of CMS's concerns regarding the dire circumstances that would likely result from any further delay [emphasis added]:
The document goes on to describe how CMS arrived at the decision to award the no-bid contract to Novitas, a contractor that already does a considerable amount of work for CMS. The approval was signed by no fewer than nine CMS officials, up to and including Chief Operating Officer A. Michelle Snyder.
The type of work to be done by Novitas is quite extensive and is itemized in the project description:
The contract announcement and accompanying documents are not completely clear how these activities translate into functions to carry out the ACA and support Healthcare.gov. For example, regulations governing the marketplaces say that an "Exchange may establish a process to facilitate through electronic means the collection and payment of premiums to QHP issuers." It remains unclear if Healthcare.gov offers such a facilitation process yet, or if that feature will be activated later. (Maryland recently announced that its state-run exchange was indefinitely suspending the bill-pay feature.)
In any case, as another example, CMS will be responsible for facilitating the payment of the advance tax credits for consumers receiving government subsidies for their plans. The regulations describing that one function alone reveal a complex formula to determine how, when, and to whom the funds should be remitted, and notifications and other requirements regarding the disposition of the credits.
However, since the exact nature of the contractor's work remains unclear, we contacted CMS on September 26 to ask for clarification on the contract, and how the work related to the ACA and its functions. The following email was received in reply:
However, despite repeated followup email requests, no further information has been received from Mr. Olague or anyone else at CMS in the seven intervening weeks. A similar email to the contractor, Novitas, was answered promptly, but the company declined to provide further details and referred questions back to CMS.
The lack of proper operational and security testing of Healthcare.gov that was revealed in the last month and a half give rise to serious questions about the readiness of other areas under CMS's purview related to Obamacare. Though the agency acknowledged back in August that development and testing were "already minimally two months overdue," there has been no publicly available update on the status of the Obamacare financial management system until Chao's rather vague testimony on Tuesday that the system may be 60% or so complete. Without some level of transparency from CMS, the public has no way of knowing if CMS's warnings of "severe consequences, financial and other" will materialize, or whether concerns that the "Agency's implementation and operation of the Marketplace and the Affordable Care Act will certainly be jeopardized" have been adequately addressed.
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