A new bipartisan healthcare plan in the House contains potential positives and negatives alike for employers.
The plan could provide much-sought relief to small and medium-sized businesses with respect to the employer mandate, but it could also institutionalize the mandate for larger firms and does little to reduce employer-reporting headaches. Critics say it also fails to endorse other employer-friendly reforms to the Affordable Care Act.
The Problem Solvers Caucus, a group of more than 40 Republicans and Democrats led by Reps. Tom Reed, R-N.Y., and Josh Gottheimer, D-N.J., unveiled their new plan last week to stabilize the individual markets, following the collapse of Senate talks that were focused on efforts to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act last month. The proposal would be separate from an earlier bill that passed the House to overhaul large swaths of the ACA. Congress is now on recess until after Labor Day, but talks around efforts to shore up the individual markets are likely to resume when lawmakers return to Washington this fall.
PaulThe House lawmakers introduced a broad set of bipartisan principles that they hope will guide future legislation, including several key tweaks to the employer mandate. This plan includes raising the threshold for when the mandate kicks in from firms with 50 or more employees to those with at least 500 workers. It also would up the definition of full-time work from those putting in 30 hours to those working 40 hours per week. Among changes focused on the individual markets, the proposal would bring cost-sharing reduction payments under the congressional appropriations process and ensure they have mandatory funding as well as establish a stability fund that states could tap to reduce premiums and other costs for some patients with expensive health needs.
Legislative talks focused on maintaining the Obamacare markets remain in early stages and it’s unclear whether the provisions targeting the employer mandate will gain long-term traction, though lawmakers in support of the plan said that their proposed measure would help unburden smaller companies.
“The current employer mandate places a regulatory burden on smaller employers and acts as a disincentive for many small businesses to grow past 50 employees,” the Problem Solvers Caucus said in their July 31 release.
Observers note that raising the mandate’s threshold would likely have few dramatic effects on coverage rates. But critics argued that while the plan would eliminate coverage requirements for mid-size employers — a boon for smaller companies — it could ultimately make it more difficult to restructure or remove the mandate altogether.
“It would provide relief to some people — however, it will enshrine the employer mandate forever,” says James Gelfand, senior vice president of health policy at the ERISA Industry Committee. “You are exempting the most sympathetic characters and ensuring that large businesses will forever be subject to the mandate and its obscene reporting.”
The real-world impact of the change would likely be limited when it comes to coverage rates, as mid-sized and larger employers tend to use health benefits to help attract and retain their workforce. Nearly all firms with 50 or more full-time employees — about 96% — offered at least one plan that would meet the ACA’s minimum value and affordability requirements, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation/Health Research & Education Trust employer health benefits survey for 2016. Participation was even higher — 99% — among firms with at least 200 workers.
“At the 500 bar, realistically, virtually every employer is offering coverage to at least some employees,” says Matthew Rae, a senior policy analyst with Kaiser Family Foundation.
Gelfand notes that under the proposed measure, big businesses would still have to comply with time-consuming and costly reporting requirements under the ACA and would continue to face restrictions in plan design, because of requirements in place that, for example, mandate plans have an actuarial value of at least 60%.
“Prior to the ACA, big business already offered benefits — and they were good benefits that people liked and that were designed to keep people healthy and to make them productive workers,” he says. “[The ACA] forces us to waste a boatload of time and money proving that we offer the benefits that we offer and it constrains our ability to be flexible in designing those benefits.”
Susan Combs, founder of insurance brokerage Combs & Co., says that changing the definition of full-time employment from 30 to 40 hours per week could have a bigger impact than raising the mandate threshold, because it would free up resources for employers who had laid off workers or cut back their hours when they began having to cover benefits for people working 30 or more hours.
“Some employers had to lay off employees or had they to cut back on different things, because they had to now cover benefits for people that were in essence really part-time people, not full-time people,” she says. “If you shifted from 30 to 40 hours, that might give employers additional remedies so they can expand their companies and employ more people eventually.”
Two percent of firms with 50-plus full-time workers surveyed by Kaiser in 2016 said that they changed or planned to change the job classifications of some employees from full-time to part-time so that the workers would not be eligible for health benefits under the mandate. Another 4% said that they reduced the number of full-time employees they intended to hire because of the cost of providing health benefits.
Gelfand calls the provision to raise the definition from 30 to 40 hours per week “an improvement,” though he said a better solution would be to remove the employer mandate entirely.
He added that he would like to see any market stabilization plan include more items employers had backed as part of the earlier repeal and replace debate. While the House plan would remove a tax on medical devices, it does not address the Cadillac tax on high-cost plans, one of the highest priority items that employer groups have been working to delay or repeal. It also doesn’t include language expanding the use of tax-advantaged health savings accounts detailed in earlier House and Senate proposals.
“There’s not likely to be another healthcare vehicle that’s focused on ACA reform, so if you have a reform vehicle that goes through and it doesn’t do anything to give us tax relief and it doesn’t do anything to improve consumer-driven health options, like HSAs, and it doesn’t do anything to improve healthcare costs — wow, what a missed opportunity,” he says.
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