Health Care Reform & ACA

On January 1, 2019, portions of the U.S. Department of Labor’s (DOL) Final Rule expanding the availability of Association Health Plans (AHPs) went into effect. AHPs allow small businesses to band together and negotiate better deals when buying insurance for their members.

The partial government shutdown hasn’t slowed the raging debate over how states are to implement the DOL’s final rule. On December 28, 2018, a federal judge ordered litigation concerning the rule to continue despite the shutdown.

States have reacted to the final rule in dramatically divergent ways. Some states believe that AHPs will make it finally possible for small employers to offer affordable healthcare options for their employees. Other states worry that AHPs will destabilize the individual insurance marketplace. They predict that healthy people will join AHPs because they are less expensive than other insurance options, and this shift will leave sicker people in a smaller pool with higher premiums.  
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The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) recently proposed a rule to allow Medicare Advantage plans to expand telehealth benefit coverage. (See alert for more detail) This proposed rule implements the statutory provisions in section 50323 the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2018. What you might not know, however, is that the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2018 is only one of many legislative vehicles by which advocates for telehealth expansion have been able to move the needle definitively in their favor during this session of Congress.

Over the past two years, Congress has shown its support for the utilization of telehealth by introducing forty-one bills that, if passed, would require Medicare to reimburse providers for their use of telehealth to treat numerous health conditions such as stroke diagnosis, mental health, chronic care management and opioid addiction treatment. Of note, the Creating High-Quality Results and Outcomes Necessary to Improve Chronic (CHRONIC) Care Act of 2017 was the predecessor bill that passed out of the Senate in September of 2017 and became law on February 9, 2018 as a part of the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2018.
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On October 15, 2018, the Centers for Medicare & Medicare Services (“CMS”) in the Department for Health and Human Services proposed a rule to require prescription drug manufacturers to post the Wholesale Acquisition Cost (“WAC”) for drugs and biological products covered by Medicare or Medicaid in direct-to-consumer television advertisements. The WAC reflects the manufacturer’s list price for a drug to direct purchasers, not inclusive of any discounts or rebates. CMS is proposing this rule in the context of broadcast advertisements, an area in which the Supreme Court has recognized that the government may take special steps to help ensure that viewers receive appropriate information.[1]

CMS stated that 47 percent of Americans have high-deductible health plans and that many patients may pay the list price of the drug until they meet their deductible. The proposed rule aims to provide greater transparency into the prices charged by prescription drug manufacturers. The theory is that markets operate more efficiently with greater transparency, and that increased exposure of the list price will also provide a moderating force to discourage price increases. While wholesale prices do not equate to the patient’s out-of-pocket obligation, CMS asserts that benefit designs are impacted by WACs, and patients in high-deductible plans may pay the full list price until meeting their deductible – thus, the WAC may still be relevant to many patient and impact their decisions and market dynamics. The price required to be posted would be for a typical course of treatment for an acute medication like an antibiotic, or a thirty day supply of medication for a chronic condition that is taken every month. The posting would take the form of a legible textual statement at the end of the ad and would not apply where the list price for a thirty day supply or typical course of treatment of a prescription drug was less than $35.
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On October 3rd, the United States Senate passed a bipartisan opioids package with a sweeping vote of 98 to 1, after the U.S. House of Representatives passed the final version of the bill with a vote of 393 to 8. One of its components, the “Fighting the Opioid Epidemic with Sunshine Act,” expands the scope

Iowa has enacted legislation to permit the offering of certain health benefit plans that would not be subject to the restrictions of the Affordable Care Act (ACA).

The bill combined two separate measures, each intended to expand access to association health plans (AHPs) that are exempt from many of the ACA’s protections. First, the new law would allow small employers to band together to form associations that would be eligible to offer members’ employees coverage as if they were a single large employer group, which would be subject to less burdensome regulation under the ACA. Second, a health benefit plan sponsored by a nonprofit agricultural organization domiciled in Iowa (the Iowa Farm Bureau Federation) and covered by a third-party administrator that has administered the organization’s health benefits plan for more than 10 years (Wellmark Blue Cross & Blue Shield) is exempt from the definition of insurance that is subject to regulation by the state insurance department.

Recently, AHPs have been touted by opponents of the ACA as a tool to avoid its effects for larger covered populations. Iowa’s measure follows an executive order by President Trump last fall directing the administration to, among other things, promote the use of AHPs. In response to that order, the Department of Labor proposed a rule that would expand the definition of AHP to allow employers greater access to AHP coverage. As we noted in a previous post, several states have pressed the idea through comments to that proposed rule that expanded access to AHPs would create opportunities for employers to offer more affordable coverage.

The impact of Iowa’s enactment remains to be seen. Critics of the measure have expressed concern that it will water down consumer protections by exempting coverage from ACA requirements that plans cover essential health benefits, such as maternity and mental health care. Although plans could continue to include such benefits, they would not be legally obligated to do so, and could cut costs by eliminating coverage for broad categories of health care.
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The Department of Labor’s proposed rule on association health plans (AHPs), issued in response to an October 12, 2017 Executive Order, has received almost 900 comments, including from several states and the District of Columbia (see, e.g., comments from Alaska, Iowa, Massachusetts, Montana, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin). States emphasized the need for clarity in the rule and affirmation of states’ long-standing authority to regulate insurance including both solvency and consumer protection issues. Iowa, for example, attributed the more than 40-year success of a multiple employer welfare arrangement (MEWA) to both the entity’s interests to serve its members and the Iowa Insurance Division’s authority to ensure that MEWAs are “adequately solvent and following fair trade practices” and argued that continued robust state insurance oversight is critical to successful AHPs.

Last week, the Iowa Senate approved two bills which, if passed by the Iowa House of Representatives, would expand the availability in the state of AHPs, a type of MEWA covered by the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (ERISA). The legislation would allow for Wellmark Blue Cross Blue Shield to administer an AHP for the Iowa Farm Bureau Federation and could threaten the membership of Medica, the only issuer of coverage through Iowa’s exchange.


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On March 8, the White House encouraged Congress to pass stabilization legislation that would not authorize the reimbursement of cost-sharing reductions (CSRs) made by health plans in 2017, as reported by Modern Healthcare. This move comes almost five months after the Trump Administration’s announcement in October that it would discontinue CSR payments effective immediately. The legislation, if passed, would preclude the government from paying CSRs for the 2017 year and would allow CMS to claw back surplus money that plans have received from the federal government and applied towards CSRs.
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On Thursday, March 8, the Trump Administration rejected Idaho’s plan to sell health plans that do not include the consumer protections required by the Affordable Care Act (ACA). The rejection came in the form of a letter touting adherence to current law, though in many ways the letter was written by an apologetic Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) wanting to appease Idaho Republicans.

Earlier this year, Idaho Governor C.L. “Butch” Otter signed an executive order that allowed some Idaho health insurance plans to drop certain ACA requirements. For example, plans would not need to cover maternity care, mental illness, or other essential health benefits; insurers could charge higher premiums to those with preexisting conditions; and insurers could deny people coverage if they had failed to maintain continuous coverage. Insurers who sold such “junk” plans would be required to also sell at least one ACA-compliant option over the exchanges. Gov. Otter’s actions seemed to test just how far Alex Azar, Secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, would go to support the “state experimentation” Mr. Azar himself advocated for under the exchanges, as discussed in our earlier post. The answer, for Idaho, is not far enough.
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Crowell & Moring has issued its Regulatory Forecast 2018: What Corporate Counsel Need to Know for the Coming Year.”

The health care section of the Forecast, “Mergers: Keeping Care Competitive,” outlines how regulators have kept a close eye on the impact of industry consolidation and how the government has been aggressively

Alex Azar assumed office as HHS Secretary on January 29, 2018, and has hit the ground running.  Among discussions on stabilization bills (see blog post discussion here and how these proposals further the Administration’s efforts on Trump’s Inauguration Day Executive Order here), Secretary Azar has been a vocal advocate for, in his own terms, “state experimentation” under both the Medicaid and health insurance exchanges (“Exchanges”).

Secretary Azar has not provided detail as to what type of experimentation he would like to see from states, but in his remarks at HHS headquarters on Tuesday, February 20, he stated that he was working with the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) Administrator, Seema Verma, to give states “a menu of options” to decrease the restrictions under the Affordable Care Act (ACA).  In particular, Secretary Azar noted that he was exploring ways to allow states greater flexibility through federal waivers.


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