Judge rules Trump AHP expansion unlawful ‘end-run’ around ACA

https://www.healthcaredive.com/news/judge-rules-trump-ahp-expansion-unlawful-end-run-around-aca/551601/

Image result for association health plans

Dive Brief:

  • A federal judge on Thursday struck down a Trump administration expansion of association health plans, which aren’t bound by the requirements of the Affordable Care Act. U.S. District Judge John Bates said the June rule from the Department of Labor that loosened restrictions on what groups could band together to offer AHPs “is clearly an end-run around the ACA.”
  • The ruling stems from a lawsuit 11 states and the District of Columbia filed to challenge the DOL rule. It comes the same week the Trump administration stepped up its attacks against the ACA, arguing in a court filing Monday the law should be eliminated in its entirety following a Texas judge’s decision the act is unconstitutional without the individual mandate penalty.
  • The judge had strong language condemning the administration’s attempt to allow for easier creation and use of AHPs, calling the regulatory change a “magic trick” that allowed for “absurd results” undermining the intent of Congress.

Dive Insight:

The ruling is a blow to the Trump administration’s efforts to circumvent the ACA, which ramped up significantly with the administration’s filing this week seeking complete repeal of the law. Another hit to those efforts came down Wednesday when a different federal judge struck down Medicaid work requirements in Arkansas and Kentucky.

The renewed fight comes as Democrats lining up for a 2020 presidential run are pushing for more progressive policies than have previously gained public traction. Some Democratic contenders are making Medicare for all and other single-payer models a central part of their platforms as healthcare shapes up to be a major issue for the next presidential election.

Experts have argued extended use of AHPs could siphon away young and healthy people looking for minimum coverage at a lower cost. If they choose AHPs they upset the balance on risk pools for more comprehensive coverage. Also, many consumers don’t understand the tradeoff and could be surprised by what isn’t covered when they are in need.

But even though the plans aren’t required to meet ACA standards, some that have formed have been adamant they provide adequate coverage, including the 10 essential ACA benefits. The plans are less obstructive to the regulatory environment than short-term health plans, which have also been granted more leeway under the Trump administration.

Land O’Lakes, for example, which said it was the first to offer an AHP under the more relaxed rules, said its plan covered essential benefits and pre-existing conditions, as well as “broad network coverage.”

The Society of Actuaries has said as many as 10% of people in ACA plans could leave for AHPs, which would also drive up premiums for plans in the individual market. Avalere predicted about 3.2 million people would shift and premiums would rise by 3.5%.

Supporters of AHPs decried the judge’s decision Thursday. Kev Coleman, founder of AssocationHealthPlans.com, said in a statement the ruling will hurt small businesses throughout the country.

“Thousands of employees and family members within the small business community have already enrolled in association health plans — which help lower health care costs — since they first became available last fall,” he said. “They have provided a means by which broad benefits may be accessed at more economical prices. While I do not believe today’s ruling will survive appeal, I believe Judge Bates’ decision is an unnecessary detour on small businesses’ path toward more affordable health coverage.”

 

 

Six Things Health Execs Should Know about Association Health Plans

http://www.managedhealthcareexecutive.com/policy/six-things-health-execs-should-know-about-association-health-plans?rememberme=1&elq_mid=2696&elq_cid=876742

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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.

 

Association Health Care Plans Not Gaining Traction

http://www.thefiscaltimes.com/2018/07/19/Association-Health-Care-Plans-Not-Gaining-Traction

The influential National Federation of Independent Business long supported the expansion of association health care plans, which allow small businesses and trade groups to join together to offer health insurance. At NFIB’s 75th anniversary party in June, President Trump announced new rules that make it easier to offer such plans, promising a new option for “low-cost, great health care” for business owners and employees around the country. But it looks like few groups are taking advantage of the new system, Politico reports, and even the NFIB has abandoned long-held intentions to offer a plan for its hundreds of thousands of members.

Although association plans can’t be sold until September 1 — despite Trump’s recent claim that millions of people are already signing up — several nationwide trade groups told Politico that it’s not clear how the new system will work, if it will work at all. For example, the National Association of Realtors, which had long favored the expansion of association health plans, said it was still working on understanding the new rules and has no plans to offer insurance anytime soon.

While the Trump administration’s new rules removed some restrictions on the operation of association health care plans, such as the ability to cross states lines, other limits remain. Groups can join together only if they are in the same industry; if not, small businesses still must be in the same state in order to join together. The remaining restrictions may inhibit the widespread adoption of the plans, Politico says, although NFIB is looking into workarounds such as offering insurance to small businesses at the state level.

 

 

Podcast: ‘What The Health?’ While You Were Celebrating …

Podcast: ‘What The Health?’ While You Were Celebrating …

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The year in health policy has already begun: The Trump administration Thursday released a long-awaited regulation aimed at making it easier for small businesses and others to form “association health plans.” Now advocates and opponents will be able to weigh in with more specific recommendations.

Meanwhile, in December, the health policy focus was on the tax bill and its repeal of the Affordable Care Act’s “individual mandate” penalty for most people who don’t have health insurance. But some recent key court decisions could reshape the benefits millions of people receive as part of their health coverage.

This week’s “What the Health?” guests are Julie Rovner of Kaiser Health News, Paige Winfield Cunningham of The Washington Post, Alice Ollstein of Talking Points Memo and Margot Sanger-Katz of The New York Times.

They discuss these topics, as well as the prospects for pending health legislation on Capitol Hill.

Among the takeaways from this week’s podcast:

  • The Trump administration’s decision to expand association health plans faces a number of obstacles, including the lack of good oversight in many states and the poor track record of many past plans.
  • Consumer advocates fear that growth of association plans could leave many consumers without adequate benefits because some plans will not cover the same essential benefits that Obamacare plans guarantee. They also are concerned that healthy customers will migrate to the new plans and leave the ACA’s marketplace plans with an abundance of enrollees who are ill.
  • The prospects of the bill to stabilize the individual insurance market sponsored by Sens. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) and Patty Murray (D-Wash.) appear to be dimming.
  • Two federal judges have ruled against the Trump administration rule to change the ACA’s contraception mandate. The decisions, though, are not based on the policy but on faulty rule-making.
  • In another highly watched court case, a federal judge has ruled that the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has until 2019 to set new rules on what employers can require of workers in their wellness programs.

Association health plan proposal: Experts wary of weak consumer protections, oversight issues

https://www.fiercehealthcare.com/regulatory/association-health-plans-consumer-protections-tim-jost?mkt_tok=eyJpIjoiTjJRNU5qUXlZVEJqWmpjNCIsInQiOiJOR2V2bEp4NkdoeVB3VndhZE43TVBjZXdaTGJcLzk1Z3hBd1wvZ05teDMrcjZ5UzJhb0tzUkpQbWlaSmVvUmJFazVDcERmajBTREhCTXJxR3BBaGtoY1MrZlVtQW5xeXRSbFwvYVhPOE44VE9uYUhNZWNnbGtoR3c3S0xHUlp5SlwvS2kifQ%3D%3D&mrkid=959610

stethoscope, coins and calculator

The new proposal to expand association health plans promises to provide more affordable insurance options for small-business owners and employees. But some experts aren’t convinced that this is the right solution.

For one, the proposal’s promises of consumer protections aren’t as strong as they seem, said Timothy Jost, a Washington and Lee University professor emeritus who closely follows the ACA.

Association health plans can’t charge higher premiums or deny coverage based on health status, according to the Department of Labor (DOL). But because AHPs would be subject to large-employer market rules, they wouldn’t have to cover the list of essential health benefits that the Affordable Care Act mandates.

The upshot, Jost told FierceHealthcare, is that insurers could legally weed out those with costly conditions while still complying with regulations that bar them from denying those individuals coverage or hiking their premiums.

“If you can’t exclude someone because they have cancer, it’s easy to just not cover chemotherapy,” he said. “Or if you can’t exclude people who have mental illness, it’s easy to just not cover mental health care.”

And Larry Levitt, senior vice president of the Kaiser Family Foundation, pointed out in a Twitter post that insurers could still hike premiums based on factors other than health status:

 The association health plan regulation prohibits variation in premiums based on health. It does not prohibit premium variation based on any other factor, such as gender, age, industry or occupation, or business size.
 Cherry-picking enrollees

Association health plans are also likely to be marketed toward the healthiest, youngest individuals, Jost noted.

“I doubt anybody is going to be out there writing association coverage for occupations that are predominantly people who are older or have chronic health problems,” he said.

The problem, then, is that AHPs would siphon more low-risk consumers out of the individual marketplaces—thus skewing that risk pool and likely causing insurers to raise premiums.

“I think everybody understands that this is going to undermine the market for ACA-compliant plans,” Jost said.

Andy Slavitt, the former Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services acting administrator, laid out his own criticisms in a Twitter thread—including pointing out that breaking up risk pools goes against the proposal’s stated purpose of giving small businesses more clout:

 The regulation aims to push the idea of what can be considered an association.

Someone I talked to today referred to it as being able to create an “air breathers association.” Essentially, making it as rude-less as possible.

 Many of the premises of AHPs have been shown not to work in the past.

For example, the rule says AHPs will create “increased buying power”. Breaking up pools does exactly the opposite.

Instead, a “Runners’ Association” just sends a clear signal that these are healthy people.

Limited impact

Merrill Matthews, Ph.D., a resident scholar at the right-leaning Institute for Policy Innovation, praised the new proposed rule, noting that it allows small businesses to do what large employers have long been able to: self-insure.

“Self-insured employers have been able to avoid many of the state and federal mandates imposed on the small group and individual markets, which helped employers keep down the cost of coverage,” he said.

But even Matthews acknowledged that the impact of the proposed policy changes is likely to be limited, as it will only apply to small employers and possibly some self-employed individuals. Since the proposed changes are “unlikely to provide much relief” for those affected by high premiums in the individual market, he said, “Congress still needs to repeal the Affordable Care Act.”

Questions about oversight

Perhaps the biggest issue that Jost saw with the new proposal was the fact that AHPs have had past issues with insolvency, bankruptcy and even fraud.

“There’s just a long history of association health plans being formed that are thinly capitalized, that pay large salaries and expenses for their owners, and disappear when the going gets rough,” he said.

For its part, the DOL said it will “closely monitor these plans to protect consumers.” But Jost pointed out that the agency has experienced staff and budget cuts that might undermine that goal.

Even the DOL itself said in the proposed rule that “the flexibility afforded AHPs under this proposal could introduce more opportunities for mismanagement or abuse, increasing potential oversight demands on the department and state regulators.”

Ultimately, what plays out will largely be decided by how states respond to the new regulations once they are implemented, Jost added.

“In states that try to take an aggressive approach to regulating them, there won’t be that much activity,” he said. “And in states that take a hands-off approach and let anything go, there will be probably quite a bit of activity until [AHPs] start going belly up.”