Thursday, September 8, 2011

Inside Politics in Michigan Demonstrate That Self-Insurance Priorities Are Too Easiliy Dealt Away

Michigan Governor Rick Snyder is poised to sign legislation that would impose a one percent tax on medical claims paid by health plans, including self-insured group health plans. This is big news and is certainly a disturbing development for those concerned about the erosion of ERISA preemption. But there is a more interesting story behind the headlines that is instructive for self-insured employers in other states as well.

In anticipation of this legislative development, I spoke with senior representatives from a leading Michigan employer organization to explore possible response options, including litigation coordination if necessary. When asked specifically what their appetite was for legal action assuming the legislation is signed into law, their answer was pretty clear – “zero.”

Given that this association represents many self-insured employers such strong push back was surprising to say the least. Then the “off the record” discussion began.

It turns out that there had been some significant wheeling and dealing between the Legislature, the governor and the business community in order to craft various budget reform initiatives designed to head off a projected deficit.

My contacts confided in me that their organization is privately opposed to the health plan tax proposal but will not go on record to say so, much less getting involved in possible litigation. They cite two reasons for this seemingly contradictory stance.

First, their membership includes health insurance companies in addition to self-insured employers and they believe an outspoken defense of self-insurers would alienate this other membership constituency. The other rationale is if the boat was rocked on this issue, then some of the other “deals” presumed to be favorable to the employer community could fall apart.

Of course, the big picture was not taken into account. They acknowledge that the immediate negative financial impact for self-insured employers is bad but manageable. Not considered was that if state efforts to tax and/or regulate self-insured health plans are left unchecked, self-insurance may cease to be an attractive option for employers in Michigan and elsewhere, which would effectively trap employers in the traditional health insurance marketplace – a much more ominous situation than being subject to a one percent tax as problematic as that may be.

My contacts appreciated this analysis and agreed that there are, in fact, bigger issues at play. That said, the bottom line is that many within the leadership of their very influential organization would likely applaud an effort to push back against the health plan tax, but this would be private support with no organizational fingerprints.

So there you have it. The very important fight over ERISA preemption has been dealt away in Michigan in favor of other business community priorities that likely are less important to employers from a P&L perspective. It’s uncertain how things will eventually play out in Michigan, but this look behind the curtain on the relationship between state employer organizations and government exemplifies why the self-insurance industry has an ongoing challenge at the state level.

While the ability of employers to self-insure is more significant than most tax and regulatory initiatives (again from a P&L perspective), self-insurance issues simply do not get much attention for state organizations, which tend to have more broad-based legislative agendas. To be fair, this is understandable because these groups generally have diverse membership constituencies and not have the resources to focus on issues that only a single constituency. Moreover, the member representatives do not generally insist that their organization put self-insurance issues front and center.

To the extent that employers can be mobilized to rattle the cages of state business associations to pay more attention to self-insurance issues we may be able to turn “private support” to visible public advocacy on the future threats that are almost certain to arise.

Let the cage rattling begin.


  1. You are correct. I have lobbied at the state-level to protect self-insurance for many years. I always know SIIA's got my back at the federal level, but in the states that do not have such lobbying and political education structures in place (most of them), the default assistance comes from businesses and business groups that may or may not self-insure. They do not rank self-insurance high on their list of priorities when wrangling with their state legislature or Governor, and state-level politicians barely understand how self-insurance works much less how it benefits consumers/constituents.

    Michigan businesses got caught in a state-level, political deal-cutting morass that in no way resembles business deal-cutting. But businesses always fail to recognize that they are easily out-manouvered by the use of emotional and financial threats of the "terrible future" that comes if we don't ...

    The assault on ERISA preemption at the state level is increasing in ferocity. I witness it first hand. Cage rattling - yes. State (and territory) level professional lobbying - yes.

    Mary H. Squires

  2. Thanks for sharing your knowledge this is a very relevant information