Senate Pitchman for Association Health Plans Talks Next Steps

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By Ben Penn

A well-connected Senate champion of the Labor Department’s effort to expand association health plans is optimistic the rule will be out in about a month.

Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) told Bloomberg Law he’s talked to both Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta and White House staff recently about the rulemaking. He said the administration wants to move full speed ahead to implement this rule change, allowing small businesses to join together to offer workers a more reasonable alternative to the Obamacare individual marketplace.

“My understanding is that it will be finalized hopefully in the next month or so and that by fall, individuals will be able to join associations to buy insurance,” Paul said in an April 11 interview.

The senator also said he’s been working with many potential associations to ensure they’re prepared the moment the rule drops to structure their plans in accordance with the regulatory parameters. “We’ve had meetings with dozens of different groups that are very interested,” Paul said.

Once finalized, the rule will expand access to health plans formed by associations by changing the definition of “employer” to allow more small businesses, including self-employed individuals, to form health plans on the basis of industry or geography.

The proposed version wouldn’t require the plans to cover the essential health benefits mandated by the Affordable Care Act, leading to concerns that the new association health plans would provide skimpy coverage.

Leading Voice on Hill

The Kentucky senator, a one-time ophthalmologist, has been perhaps the loudest voice on Capitol Hill supporting this regulation. Paul urged the Trump administration at an early stage to issue an executive order that directed the DOL rule, and he pressed Acosta to get to work on the matter during his Senate confirmation hearing in March 2017.

“They talk about people going up 25 percent a year in premiums” in the individual marketplace, Paul told Bloomberg Law. “We’re going to give those people an exit ramp. They’re going to be able to get group insurance,” he said.

However, some Democrats and health policy gurus have strongly opposed the rule. They say it will lure healthy people away from the Affordable Care Act marketplace, leaving a sicker population that could drive up marketplaces costs or force insurers to exit.

Paul said he thinks the labor secretary shares his optimism that the rule can be released within a month. This would be an accelerated timeline considering the public comment period on the proposed version just ended in March.

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