In a decision last week that could affect $12 billion that insurers assert is owed by the federal government, the Federal Circuit decided that HHS was not required to pay amounts required by statute because Congress had repealed or suspended those obligations through riders to appropriations bills. In Moda Health Plan, Inc. v. United States, the Federal Circuit rejected one insurer’s claim that it was statutorily and contractually owed close to $210 million under the government risk corridors program.
The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (“ACA”) established health benefit exchanges in each state for individuals and small groups to purchase health coverage. Insurers, however, faced significant risk if they offered plans in the exchange, because they lacked reliable data to estimate the cost of providing care for an expanding pool of individuals seeking coverage. To mitigate that risk and discourage insurers from setting higher premiums to offset that risk, the ACA established the risk corridors program.
Under the risk corridors program, participating plans whose costs of coverage exceeded the premiums received would be paid a share of their excess costs by HHS (“payments out”), and plans whose premiums exceeded their costs would pay to HHS a share of their profits (“payments in”). HHS promulgated regulations providing that health plans would receive payments in from HHS or make payments out to HHS in the formulas set forth in the statute. Congress, however, provided in riders to appropriations bills that none of the funds appropriated for HHS in fiscal years 2015 through 2017 could be used for payments under the risk corridors program. The Congressional purpose was to make the risk corridor program budget neutral, so that HHS would not pay out more than it collected under the program. CMS reported that in the three year period of 2014-2016, payments in to HHS fell short of payments out by more than $12 billion. For that reason, HHS paid only prorated portions of the payments out to insurers.
Moda Health Plans sued under the Tucker Act, seeking almost $210 million, constituting the unpaid amounts it claimed it was owed under the risk corridors program under the ACA. Moda argued that the ACA itself obligated HHS to pay insurers the full amount under the risk corridors program, regardless of the amount of payments in, and that HHS breached its contractual agreement to pay the full amount required by the statute. The Federal Circuit rejected both arguments.
The Court agreed with Moda that the ACA obligated the government to pay the full amount of the risk corridors payments, but held that the Congressional appropriations riders effected a suspension of that obligation for each of the relevant years. The Court first held that the statute was mandatory with respect to payments out, and could not be read to require such payments to be budget neutral. Thus, the plain language of the statute created an obligation of the government to pay the full amount for payments out under the risk corridors program.
The Court held, however, that through HHS appropriations riders, Congress repealed or suspended the obligation to make any payments out if they exceeded payments in. Repeals by implication are generally disfavored, but the Court held that the appropriations riders adequately expressed Congress’s intent to suspend payments on the risk corridors program beyond the sum of payments in. Congress clearly indicated its intent to limit the funding of payments out to payments in, thus requiring the risk corridors program to be budget neutral. As a result, no taxpayer funds would be used for the risk corridors payments, and the government would not pay out more than it collected from insurers under the program.
The Federal Circuit also rejected Moda’s claim for HHS’s breach of an implied-in-fact contract. Absent clear indication, legislation and regulation cannot establish the government’s intent to bind itself in a contract. The Court held that the overall scheme of the risk corridors program lacked the trappings of a contractual arrangement.
The Moda Health Plan decision may affect billions of dollars that insurers claim they are owed by the federal government. The Supreme Court may be the next stop for the risk corridors program issues decide by the Federal Circuit, and the Justices may have yet another chance to examine the Affordable Care Act and Congressional intent.