Congressional investigators are demanding to know what criteria the Obama administration used to grant 733 healthcare-reform waivers on insurance plans covering more than 2 million Americans. The inquiry comes amidst allegations that waivers are being granted to reward political supporters, such as unions, or to avoid the spectacle of large
numbers of Americans losing coverage.
The House Committee on Energy and Commerce ordered the newly created Center for Consumer Information and Insurance Oversight to turn over documents dealing with the waivers and explain how they are granted. The office, which is part of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), is in charge of implementing provisions of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act that deal with private health insurance. The waivers deal with so-called mini-med plans, or plans that place annual dollar limits on benefits.
Under Obamacare, mini-meds will end in 2014, but healthcare plans can impose an annual limit this year on benefits of no less than $750,000. Those that cannot meet the goal can apply for a one-year waiver, the HHS website says, “if the plan certifies that a waiver is necessary to prevent either a large increase in premiums or a significant decrease in access to coverage. In addition, enrollees must be informed that their plan does not meet the requirements of the Affordable Care Act.”
The waivers have been granted to a wide array of employers, including cities; school districts; law firms; banks; and charitable groups such as the Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Albany, N.Y., with 200 people in its health plan, and the Heritage Christian Services, with 4,600. Waivers also have been granted to dozens of small and large labor unions, including the Social Service Employees Union Local 371, which counts 34,000 people in its health plan.
More than 500 waivers have been granted since the November elections, raising the prospect that politics is involved.
However, HHS maintains that the large number granted toward the end of 2010 is “because December 1 was the final day to apply for a waiver for a plan or policy year that begins on January 1 — as many plans do.”
In a letter to Jay Angoff, the director of the consumer office, Rep. Fred Upton, R-Mich, chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee, and Rep. Cliff Stearns, R-Fla., chair of the Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, note they are “examining the operations and programs of the Center for Consumer Information and Insurance Oversight.”
“Most troubling is that your office is currently responsible for deciding who does not have to comply with the massive new regulations imposed by the PPACA . . . We would appreciate if your office would explain how a decision is made on whether compliance with the PPACA is necessary.”
Among other things, the letter demands the office turn over, within two weeks, lists of those who have requested, been granted or denied a waiver and all documents, e-mails, and communications dealing with granting or denying waivers.
The administration is apparently feeling the heat. Steve Larsen, oversight director in HHS’ Office of Consumer Information and Insurance Oversight, issued a statement defending the exceptions, noting that the 733 waivers covering 2.1 million people represents “only about 1 percent of all Americans who have private health insurance today,” adding that the administration is “committed to making the waiver process transparent to the public.”
“HHS also helps to ensure transparency by posting a list of the plans that have been granted waivers, so stakeholders understand how they are affected,” he said. “Annual limits waivers are a stop gap measure to 2014 when annual dollar limits will be prohibited, mini-med plans will no longer be necessary and consumers will have new affordable health care choices.”
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