In the final scene of the Wizard of Oz, the dog Toto pulls back the curtain and Dorothy discovers the man behind the curtain is not the great and powerful Wizard, he’s just a little old man with a megaphone. Sometimes, actions in Washington use the megaphone but there is relatively little “behind the curtain.” That’s how the new rule on Association Health Plans (AHPs), issued by the Department of Labor, feels.
It was with great fanfare that the Administration issued new rules for AHPs. WIPP has supported AHPs since its inception as a necessary tool to allow small businesses to band together to create larger health insurance pools, thus creating more competition and better prices in the small business marketplace. Insurance rules adopted during the Affordable Care Act (aka Obamacare) largely prohibited AHPs from a viable option. Because every insurance plan had to cover 10 “essential health benefits” under the ACA, these plans became mute.
When the Department of Labor announced loosening the regulations to allow AHPs, we applauded. WIPP submitted comments urging better pooling mechanisms, a wider range of health plan options and protections for those with pre-existing conditions. We also urged the Department to include a different “commonality of interest” definition, allowing small businesses to band together beyond a trade, industry, or profession. This would have allowed small business organizations to offer AHP membership to its members, including WIPP.
On June 21, the man behind the curtain showed up. The Department of Labor issued its new AHP rules. By deciding to keep the definition of who can join an AHP to a trade, industry, or profession, business organizations like WIPP, cannot offer an AHP. For example, an accountant in Nevada could join an AHP housed in a national association of accountants, but an organization of women business owners, does not qualify as a trade, industry, or profession, according to the new rules. The AHP can have out-of-state members but must comply with the rules of the state in which it is housed, restricting its ability to be a true “across state lines” option. Important to note is that AHPs are not required to offer the 10 essential benefits, which means education for employers and employees who join AHPs is needed.
News reports suggested that small business associations who have supported AHPs in their policy platforms are not going to take advantage of the new rules. That’s because they can’t—their commonality is business owners, not limited to a specific trade, industry or profession. Giving small business owners more health insurance options continues to be part of our policy platform. As premiums continue to rise, small business exchanges set up by the ACA should not be the only option. The Department of Labor could have done so much more than use their megaphone.