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Federal healthcare quality initiatives: recent developments reshaping the landscape

This week, our In Focus section considers the increasing emphasis on quality at all levels of our healthcare system, especially for work that affects federally funded health insurance programs.  

The Universal Foundation Measure Set  

The 2024 Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) Quality Conference, April 8−10, in Baltimore, MD, continued to highlight the harmonizing of quality measures across CMS programs and promotion of CMS’s universal foundation measures. These metrics capture quality across six domains for adults and four domains for children. By promoting and integrating these well-established measures across all CMS programs, end users can align priorities across programs and help to reduce burden on providers and health plans being assessed.   

Medicaid has long been a leader in incorporating the universal foundation measures, having used many of them in managed care contracts, health homes, and other arrangements that include a quality assessment component for the past 20 years. Earlier this year, many universal foundation measures, including those pertaining to behavioral health, became part of the mandatory core measure set that all states must report to CMS as required in the SUPPORT for Patients and Communities Act—comprehensive federal legislation that addresses the opioid epidemic. Mandatory reporting will allow Congress, the Medicaid and CHIP Payment and Access Commission (MACPAC), and other stakeholders to better understand the impact of federal investments on quality of care for Medicaid and CHIP enrollees. 

New Developments in Medicaid’s Approach to Quality  

Forward momentum is evident in other areas of healthcare quality as well. A significant federal milestone in quality of care was included in the Medicaid Managed Care Rule released in April 2024, which required states to design a quality rating system (QRS) and submit their methodology to CMS for approval. The QRS is intended to be user-friendly and help Medicaid members to pick a plan and monitor its quality performance. States will be able to use the QRS as a monitoring and oversight tool to compare plan performance. Not only will a QRS help improve Medicaid’s accountability to states, enrollees, and policymakers, but it also promotes transparency for all end users and the public. At present, Medicaid quality measures are reported by state rather than by plan. Plan performance in Medicaid is typically captured in a state’s external quality review organization (EQRO) annual report, which may impede the ability of most users to extract, compare, and digest information.   

Another federal initiative is the Medicaid Access Rule, also released in April 2024, to help state Medicaid programs move toward public reporting of quality and compliance measures in home and community-based services (HCBS). In 2022, CMS released more than 90 measures that could be used to assess quality of care in Medicaid HCBS waiver populations. Under the rule, CMS will identify a subset of HCBS quality measures in 2026 and the technical specifications for these measures will be made available publicly and updated as needed. Similar to the CMS Child and Adult Core Sets, states will have an opportunity to implement these measures and CMS can use those outcomes to create HCBS scorecards by state. 

Medicare Advantage Star Ratings Program 

Finally, CMS is incorporating the health equity index (HEI) into the Medicare Advantage Star Rating system. The HEI contributes to a plan’s potential bonus and helps level the playing field for plans that enroll and provide services to underrepresented or at-risk populations. The HEI will account for enrollees who are dually eligible for Medicare and Medicaid, individuals with disabilities, or members with a low-income subsidy (LIS). The HEI also assesses plan-level performance for these specialized populations. Allowing plans to earn a better bonus for delivering high-quality services to these populations helps to mitigate adverse selection and reward plans for care that may be resource intensive. 

What’s Next 

Accountability for quality is beginning to emerge in the form of value-based contracting, incentive payments, and other forms of reimbursement focused on reducing disparities and improving outcomes. Health plans, providers, state agencies, vendors and other interested stakeholders need to have a strategy for quality improvement that reflects evolving federal and state quality priorities, reporting systems, and improvement processes.  

HMA’s quality and accreditation team includes experts in the quality space from a variety of backgrounds, including National Committee for Quality Assurance (NCQA) surveyors, former HEDIS auditors, health plan and provider senior quality staff (vice presidents and chief quality officers), and former Medicare/Medicaid leaders. To learn more about implementing quality programs or to explore options for leveraging quality measures to maximize your organization’s value-based contracts, win requests for proposals, increase membership, and optimize member experience, contact Caprice Knapp, PhD, Managing Director, Quality Accreditation.  

Meet the HMA blog contributors

Caprice Knapp, PhD

Managing Director, Quality and Accreditation
Salt Lake City, UT