Thursday, May 26, 2011

Treasury Department Gets Schooled on Stop-Loss Insurance

Earlier this year, I wrote about how the Treasury Department/IRS had taken a keen interest in stop-loss insurance as evidenced by a request for comment notice regarding PPACA code section 162 m. At issue is how stop-loss insurance figures into new tax rules mandated by the health care reform law restricting the tax deduction health insurance companies can take for compensation paid to certain employees.

More precisely, Treasury/IRS is suspicious that self-insured health plans with low attachment point stop-loss policies are really fully-insured plans in disguise. This was made clear in a meeting this week with senior Treasury Department and IRS officials when Treasury’s point person on the issue commented that “obviously products that look, smell and breathe like health insurance have our attention.”

While the audience was new the line of interrogation was not.

In meetings with HHS and DOL officials late last year in connection with the preparation of PPACA-mandated reports on self-insured group health plans, pointed questions were raised about “sham self-insurance,” which has become a popular catch phrase among the regulator class.

Of course, this suspicion did not materialize immaculately. The HHS/DOL team volunteered that they had been lead to believe that sham self-insurance is commonplace. While they did not disclose their sources, it is reasonable to believe that our friends from AHIP were among those whispering in their ears.

Getting back to the meeting this week, Treasury/IRS picked up where HHS and DOL left off although without any obvious bias. Stop-loss was clearly a new animal to them and my sense was that they were truly interested to understand it better.

Joining me was the “Seal Team Six” of stop-loss insurance experts who deftly responded to questions about low attachment point stop-loss polices by pointing out that this does fit the business model of carriers which control the vast majority of the marketplace.

As part of this discussion it was pointed out that contrary to the hype that small employers are moving to self-insurance in big numbers (and buying low attachment point policies) to avoid PPACA regulatory requirements, the facts don’t bear this out. In fact, the carrier representatives noted that that the lack of claims data is a major hurdle for companies with fewer than 100 employees for making the switch to self-insurance. They reported that the real growth in the stop-loss marketplace is actually coming from larger employers who may have not utilized stop-loss insurance in the past but are buying it now in response to unlimited lifetime limits.

Oh and by the way, the contention that there is a motivation among smaller employers to self-insure to avoid new regulatory requirements is specious because for non-grandfathered self-insured plans there really are no significant regulatory advantages.

We also highlighted the fact that states regulate stop-loss insurance separately than health insurance, PPACA regulatory guidance has acknowledged the difference, and legal precedent supports this position. All in all we made a pretty compelling case why stop-loss insurance should not be construed as health insurance.

While a contrary interpretation would create tax complications for stop-loss carriers, the broader concern is that if the IRS comes out with a new definition of stop-loss insurance this could completely disrupt the current regulatory environment.

Our audience maintained poker faces throughout the meeting (which I suppose is typical of tax people) so it was tough to get a read on how they were digesting our input. We’ll know for sure when the proposed rule comes out, but that won’t like be published for a while because the new compensation rules are not scheduled to take effect until 2013.

In the meantime, it should be instructive to those in the self-insurance industry that federal regulators are watching what is going in the marketplace. For companies pushing the envelope with “innovative” stop-loss products beware that you may be inviting negative attention.