Thursday, July 4, 2013

ACA Gobbles Up Self-Insurance Marketplace One Bite at a Time

This week’s announcement that the ACA’s employer-mandate provision has been postponed has understandably gotten a lot of attention.  It’s a big deal for sure, but while federal regulators punted on this high profile provision, they demonstrated no such caution with the release of two sets of final rules over the past week that will have the likely effect of eroding the self-insurance marketplace.

So while everyone is talking about the employer-mandate development, it’s important to interject some exclusive reporting and commentary regarding separate finalized ACA rules related to contraceptive coverage and student health plans to demonstrate how self-insurance options are being quietly restricted in certain market segments.

The rule-making process for contraceptive coverage has certainly attracted much attention over the past two years, but this blog is agnostic regarding the ongoing religious liberty debate that dominates the headlines.   We have, however, been very interested in how the final rules will affect self-insured religious organizations, of which there are many.

As some may recall, when the controversy originally erupted over the prospect of religious organizations being forced to provide coverage for contraceptive coverage, Obama’s political operatives quickly hatched a plan: insurance companies would be required to include this coverage at no cost to the religious organizations.

Notwithstanding the fact that this accommodation failed to satisfy religious liberty objections, the White House overlooked the fact that a large percentage of religious organizations operate self-insured group health plans, so the suggested insurance company fix would not apply to these plans.

Faced with this realization, regulators have floated various proposals during the rule-making process on how self-insured religious organizations can comply with the law.  Most of these proposals have been variations on the theme of forcing third party administrators to take responsibility for coordinating such coverage. 

For good measure, regulators offered a closing comment in the proposed rules essentially saying that such organizations can always convert to fully-insured arrangements if self-insurance is no longer viable.  You have to appreciate such bureaucratic thoughtfulness.

Based on the final rules released last week, it appears that the viability of self-insured plans will be significantly compromised.  At issue is that regulators are forcing TPAs to serve as plan fiduciaries solely for the purpose of arranging separate contraceptive coverage for plan participants.

Industry stakeholders have raised numerous concerns that such an approach is legally questionable and would expose TPAs to a variety of legal liability scenarios.  But the regulators flatly rejected these comments, asserting that “the Department of Labor’s view that is has the legal authority to require the third party administrator to become the plan administrator under ERISA section 3(16) for the sole purpose of providing payments for contraceptive services if the third party administrator agrees to enter into or remain in a contractual relationship with the eligible organization to provide administrative services for the plan.”  

Already acutely sensitive to potential fiduciary designations outside of the ACA context, it’s a reasonable conclusion that at least some TPAs will consider the new rules to be a tipping point, forcing them to part ways with their religious organization clients, which in turn will make it more difficult for such organizations to maintain their self-insured plans.

In separate news, CMS published the final rule last week clarifying exemptions to the individual mandate requirement in as provided for in the ACA.  As part of this, the rule also contained the final language on which "non-insurance” programs will be considered minimum essential coverage (MEC) for purposes of satisfying the mandate.

The earlier, proposed version of the rule had included self-funded student health plans in the list of allowable MECs.  Under the final version of the rule, however, self-funded student plans will only be considered MEC for plan years beginning before December 31, 2014.  After that date, such plans will have to apply to CMS to maintain the exemption.

Given the explicit goal of the Administration to steer as many young and healthy individuals into the exchanges as possible, this blog is highly skeptical that such exemptions will be forthcoming.  And of course, the real effect of this rule won’t be felt until after the 2014 elections. 

We’ll concede the fact that student health plans and religious organizations do not represent major segments of the overall self-insurance marketplace, but they are viable segments that are being quietly gobbled up by the bureaucracy.    So while everyone understandably is now talking about the employer-mandate delay, much of the real action continues to be in the details of the highly technical ACA implementation rules that cannot be easily distilled by the media nor understood by most health care reform observers.




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