On June 19, 2018, the U.S. Department of Labor released its Final Rule regarding Association Health Plans (AHPs). AHPs are not new, but they have not been widely available in the past and, in some cases, they have not been successful. The Final Rule is designed to make AHPs available to a greater number of small businesses as an alternative to standard ACA-compliant small group insurance policies.
This article answers common questions about AHPs under the current rules (which groups can continue to use) and the new rules.
Is group medical insurance the same for small and large employers?
Yes and no. Federal law imposes certain basic requirements on all group medical plans, regardless of the employer’s size. For instance, plans cannot exclude pre-existing conditions nor impose annual or lifetime dollar limits on basic benefits. If the plan is insured, it also is subject to the insurance laws of the state in which the policy is issued.
Small group policies, which are sold to employers with up to 50 or 100 employees, depending on the state, are subject to additional requirements. These policies must cover 10 categories of essential health benefits (EHBs), including hospitalization, maternity care, mental health and substance abuse treatment, and prescription drugs. (Some states allow certain grandfathered or grandmothered policy exceptions.) For most small employers, their options for group medical insurance are limited to small group policies that comply with the full scope of ACA requirements. On the other hand, the policies are subject to guaranteed issue and adjusted community rating rules, so carriers cannot refuse to insure a small employer nor use any past claims experience in setting rates.
Large group policies, which can only be sold to groups with at least 50 or 100 employees, depending on the state, are not required to cover all EHBs. Carriers have more flexibility in designing coverage options and developing premium rates in the large group market. This means larger employers have more options to choose from and may be able to purchase coverage at a lower cost than would apply to a small group policy. Note, however, that there is no guaranteed issue protection, so carriers can accept or reject each employer’s application or use the employer’s past claims experience in setting rates.
Lastly, self-funded plans are subject to the ACA and other federal laws, but generally are exempt from state laws. They typically are not feasible for small employers, however, due to the financial risk of uninsured programs.
What is an Association Health Plan (AHP)?
Group insurance covers the employees of an employer (or an employee organization such as a labor union). An AHP, as the name implies, covers the members of an association. Unrelated employers can obtain coverage for their employees through an AHP provided the employers form a bona fide association. Traditionally, this has meant that the employers had to have a “commonality of interest” and their primary interest had to be something other than an interest in providing benefits. For this reason, AHPs generally have been limited to associations formed by employers in the same trade, industry, or profession.
The Final Rule makes AHPs available to a wider range of businesses by expanding the meaning of “commonality of interest.” Once the Final Rule takes effect, an association may be formed by employers that are:
- In the same trade, industry, or profession, regardless of location; or
- In the same principal place of business; i.e., in the same state or in the same multi-state metropolitan area.
Under the new rules, the employer’s primary interest in associating may be benefits coverage, although they still will need to have at least one other substantial business purpose other than benefits. This is a key difference from the current rules.
When does the new Final Rule take effect?
The Final Rule expanding the definition of an association for purposes of an AHP will take effect on staggered dates:
- For fully insured AHPs: September 1, 2018
- For self-funded AHPs:
- If in existence on or before June 19, 2018: January 1, 2019
- If created after June 19, 2018: April 1, 2019
As noted, the new rules do not replace existing rules. Employers and associations may continue to follow the existing rules (which generally limit AHPs to employers in the same trade, industry, or profession). The new rules merely expand the opportunities for AHPs, such as making them available to employers in the same state or metropolitan area even if they are in different industries.
Are AHPs limited to employers with employees? What about sole proprietors?
Currently, sole proprietors, such as mom-and-pop shops without any W-2 employees, purchase medical insurance in the individual market. Individual policies often cost more than group policies or AHPs. The new rules will expand the availability of AHPs to include sole proprietors who work a minimum number of hours (so-called working owners).
What about state laws? Will AHPs be available nationwide?
Insurance products, including AHPs, are regulated by state law. Under both the existing and new rules, AHPs are multiple employer welfare arrangements (MEWAs). State laws on MEWAs are quite complicated. In some states, MEWAs are prohibited. In others, insured MEWAs are allowed but self-funded plans are prohibited. The laws vary from state to state, so different carriers will make different decisions about whether they want to design and market AHPs in various jurisdictions around the country.
A number of states are very concerned about AHPs and may prohibit them in their states or impose strict requirements to ensure they will provide reliable and effective coverage. Other states will view AHPs as cost-effective alternatives to ACA-compliant policies for small employers and look to encourage their expansion.
There is no clear answer to what’s next. Over the coming months, carriers across the country likely will review the reasons they have or have not offered AHPs in the past, and whether they want to consider new approaches in the future. Along with economic and market issues to consider, carriers also must consider the state insurance laws in different jurisdictions. At the same time, many state legislatures and insurance commissioners will be reviewing their existing rules and whether they want to promote or expand the availability of AHPs in their area.
Oh … and the lawsuits. Yes, that also is what’s next. As of this writing, attorneys general in different states are planning to join together in challenging the federal government’s Final Rule on AHPs. Their stated concern is that effective regulation is required to ensure that plans provide adequate coverage.