Under a new Executive Order, President Bush has significantly expanded the authority of the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) over policymaking by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

Specifically, OMB now has the authority to review and approve a vast array of written guidance issued day-to-day by CMS and FDA. The expansion of OMB’s oversight authority has far-reaching implications for Medicare and Medicaid policy and the regulation of the drug and device industries.

In recent years, an increasing amount of agency policymaking has come in the form of “sub-regulatory guidance.” That is, written guidance that does not go through the formal rulemaking process. In the case of CMS, this written guidance shows up, for example, as memorandums to health plans, letters to state officials, and manuals or other instructions. In its role administering the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (FDCA), the FDA has its own system of guidance documents.

While the FDA approach to sub-regulatory guidance has its own critics and limitations, the FDA approach is better organized and managed than CMS’ approach. FDA has been at it longer than CMS but also has (relatively speaking) a narrower, more explicit scope of work. The FDCA and all its amendments is no walk in the park, but Titles 18, 19, and 21 of the Social Security Act are exercises in pure legislative surrealism.

President Bush’s new Executive Order means that much of this written guidance is now subject to prior review and approval by OMB. While OMB has always been a key player, particularly in Medicare and Medicaid policy, the E.O. greatly increases OMB’s influence and may result in a substantial power shift in many day-to-day issues affecting providers, health plans, drug manufacturers, states, and other stakeholders. (In the interest of full disclosure, my career includes service on OMB’s Medicare and Medicaid team.)

For those interested in more background, below is a quick overview of the rulemaking process and the increasing role of written guidance in lieu of rules.

OMB%20Rule%20Review.jpgBackground on OMB Regulatory Review:

Virtually all CMS and FDA proposed and final rules are subject to prior review and approval of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), the powerful policy management arm of the White House. (It’s important to note that OMB also reviews Medicare and Medicaid waivers, agency budget requests and legislative proposals, and written testimony to Congress.) OMB’s regulatory oversight was created by Presidential Executive Order in the Reagan Administration and modified but retained by the Clinton Administration.

The basic idea is to help ensure that agency rulemaking activities follow the sitting President’s policy objectives to the extent possible under the laws passed by Congress. OMB oversight also allows for a more thoughtful and disciplined approach to regulations, to keep track of the impact of agency rules on individuals, businesses, and states and guard against such things as unnecessary or excessive regulations and conflicting rules across different federal agencies.

In principle, the rulemaking process is designed to (1) inform the public of planned rules in detail; (2) give the public, including stakeholders and experts, an opportunity to comment, provide new information, and suggest alternatives; (3) ensure the rulemaking agency considers and responds to public comments before issuing final rules; (4) ensure that all federal rules can be found in a central publication (published in the Federal Register and formally codified in the Code of Federal Regulations); and (5) provide a comprehensive public record for use by the courts, Congress, and the news media in overseeing an agency’s use of power and interpretation of statutes.

Written Guidance Instead of Formal Rules:

In other words, the formal rulemaking process provides for far more thoughtful, documented, and transparent policymaking than the so-called sub-regulatory guidance. However, developing proposed and final rules is a laborious process taking months and sometimes even years. And CMS faces the imperatives of implementing massive pieces of legislation, such as the Deficit Reduction Act (DRA) and the Medicare Modernization Act (MMA). Even if CMS always had the necessary staff, expertise, systems, and budget to implement the avalanche of Medicare and Medicaid legislation on time (it never does, unfortunately), there are just not enough hours in the day to promulgate all the necessary rules to meet statutory deadlines.

Therefore, much of CMS policymaking is done through written guidance, letters, memos, and memos – and not regulations. While it’s easy to understand the practical pressures, many legal observers seriously question CMS’s compliance with the Administrative Procedures Act (APA). The APA, originally enacted in 1946, governs when and how agencies must go through the formal rulemaking process.

Privately, several players have told me how CMS’s informal approach to many Medicare and Medicaid policies would likely not stand up in federal court. However, trade groups, states, and other stakeholders don’t want to anger the increasingly powerful agency – and, in many cases, written guidance today is better than waiting months or even years for a rule.

Like its sister agency CMS, the FDA is increasingly using sub-regulatory guidance in lieu of formal rules. Given the demands facing the FDA, including a variety of reforms and pending legislative changes, this is expected to increase. To get a flavor, check out the list of guidance documents from the FDA’s Center for Drug Evaluation and Research (CDRR). You’ll see it includes various backgrounders mixed with policy statements and instructions.