Association Health Plans (AHPs) permit small businesses to band together and buy health insurance. “By allowing them to join together in associations, small companies can have the same buying power as a large employer,” says Diane Wolfenden, director, Sales and Client Services, East Region, Priority Health, Michigan’s second largest health plan.
In June, when the final rule governing AHPs was released, the Trump Administration emphasized that AHPs will provide small businesses with more choices, access, and coverage options.
Here are six things MCOs should know about AHPs.
1. Critics say AHPs may undermine ACA plans. The most commonly cited concern with new AHP regulations is that they may undermine the ACA marketplace because association plans aren’t required to comply with all ACA regulations. “The fear is that AHPs will siphon off younger, healthier individuals, and leave those with greater health risks and pre-existing conditions in ACA risk pools,” Wolfenden says. “Critics have stated that allowing AHPs will weaken some of the ACA’s protections for consumers and make coverage on the exchanges and through ACA markets more expensive.”
2. The regulation seeks to prevent the forming of associations solely to provide health benefits. Under the new regulations finalized by the Department of Labor, an association must have a substantial purpose for existing in addition to offering health benefits. “Offering health benefits may be the primary reason for forming an association, but the secondary reason must be substantive enough that even without offering health benefits the association could continue to exist,” Wolfenden says.
Businesses can form AHPs in a specific city, county, state, or multi-state metropolitan area. “Therefore, chambers of commerce, trade groups, or businesses in the same geographic area can form or join an AHP,” says Sally C. Pipes, president, CEO, and Thomas W. Smith Fellow in Healthcare Policy, Pacific Research Institute, a free-market think tank. “Alternatively, cross-border AHPs can form for businesses or sole proprietors that occupy the same industry.”
The association needs to have an organized structure with a governing body and policies and procedures in place indicating governance, as well as legalization behind it, says Bryan Komornik, director of West Monroe’s healthcare practice, a business technology consulting firm. Like the ACA, individuals can’t be discriminated against if they have pre-existing conditions.
In addition, association members must be able to demonstrate the income they derive from their business is sufficient to cover the cost of their premium or that they work at least 80 hours per month at the business, Wolfenden says.
3. They could expand the number of insured patients. AHPs will not only give small employers more options for their employees, but they could also encourage some individuals to buy insurance when they may have gone without it otherwise. The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimates that 4 million current ACA enrollees in the individual and small group markets could shift their coverage to these new policies, Wolfenden says. Further, the CBO stated that about 10% of those 4 million people buying plans in 2023 and beyond would have been uninsured otherwise.
Individuals who join a coalition can obtain health insurance coverage for themselves, their spouse, and their children, or they can opt to only get coverage for themselves, Komornik says. If an individual’s spouse has an employer-sponsored health plan, the individual can still get coverage through the association if they qualify otherwise.
4. They might offer fewer benefits. AHPs are likely to offer lower premiums through skinnier plan design, sacrificing benefits for lower costs. “This means that consumers will need to have a better understanding of what will, and will not, be covered by their AHP policy,” Wolfenden says. Because AHP policies aren’t required to comply with ACA regulations, they may not cover prescription drugs or certain types of surgeries.
5. They could lead to more uncompensated care. Because AHP plans may offer leaner benefits, some patient advocacy groups are concerned that patients will end up with healthcare expenses that their insurance company won’t cover and the patient can’t pay. “These bills may end up going unpaid, leading to an increase in uncompensated care,” Wolfenden says. Uncompensated care has fallen in nearly every state since the ACA’s implementation based on the expanded coverage. “Increases in uncompensated care make it harder for providers to invest in new technologies and equipment and maintain enough capacity to care for patients. Transparency will become even more critical as providers will need to work closely with patients to ensure they understand what their insurance policy covers and what their share of the costs will be upfront.”
6. The new rule will have a staggered implementation schedule. The new rule will be phased in in three stages. It will first take effect for associations with fully-insured AHPs on September 1, 2018. It will become applicable for associations with existing self-insured AHPs on January 1, 2019. Finally, the rule will take effect for new self-insured AHPs on April 1, 2019, Pipes says.