Friday, May 25, 2012





The Feds Stop-Loss Insurance Fishing Expedition

While the push to restrict the ability of smaller employers to obtain  stop-loss insurance continues to play out in California (see two previous blog posts), the feds are taking a closer look at how the availability of stop-loss insurance facilitates the growth of the self-insurance marketplace, and what that means for health care reform implementation.

This focus was confirmed last month when the HHS/DOL/Treasury Department, known collectively as the “Tri-Agencies,” issued a formal Request for Information (RFI) about stop-loss insurance.  The specific questions are largely objective but the preamble clearly states that the RFI has been prompted by concerns that employers may dodge health care reform requirements by self-insuring and obtaining stop-loss insurance with low attachment points.  They also cite the ubiquitous adverse selection criticism.

Nothing new here in terms of the policy debate, but it’s probably useful to put this RFI into some sort of meaningful context and preview potential outcomes.

Flashing back to 2009 as health care reform legislation was being developed in Congress, early drafts included restrictions on the ability of employers to self-insure based on size.   There were enough moderate Democrats, principally in the Senate, however, to block such proposals from being incorporated into the final bill.  But the self-insurance story does not end there.

Congressional critics of self-insurance, presumably prompted by traditional health insurance industry lobbyists, were able to slip in provisions at the eleventh hour requiring federal studies on self-insurance.  This effectively allowed for a second bite at the apple on restricting the self-insurance marketplace through federal action in some form in response to perceived abuses and/or adverse effects on broader health care reform objectives.

Powerful interest groups, vocal consumer protection advocates and influential policy-makers are now pushing regulators to take that second bite for reasons that are largely fictional, but resonate nonetheless.

It’s not yet clear if the current Tri-Agencies’ fishing expedition is simply being done to satisfy health care proponents’ demands that the self-insurance industry be more closely investigated and that the regulators are conducting good faith due diligence without a pre-determined outcome.

The alternative theory is that the Tri-Agencies already have some regulatory action in mind and are using the RFI process to justify new federal rules.   This of course begs the question of what specific action could this be?
 
Let’s explore this.

The ACA clearly distinguishes stop-loss insurance from health insurance.  Moreover, it does not provide federal regulators with explicit statutory authority to impose additional requirement and/or restrictions on self-insured group health plans. 

The conventional understanding of separation of powers dictates that should the regulators conclude that the self-insurance marketplace needs to be regulated differently than what is provided for in the ACA, they should make such recommendation to Congress so that this can addressed through the legislative process.   But that’s not going to happen according to well-placed congressional sources.

The more likely scenario is that the federal agencies with jurisdiction over the Public Health Services Act (PHSA), the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA) and ACA will rely on their general rulemaking authority given to them under these respective laws to justify creative rulemaking that would restrict the availability of stop-loss insurance and/or make other changes to federal law that adversely affect the self-insurance marketplace.

In fact, the Treasury Department breached its statutory authority just six months ago when the IRS proposed a rule that would let people get subsidies to buy health insurance through a federal exchange although the legislative language specified that that the subsidies could only be used for state exchanges.   This happened to be a drafting error, but Treasury decided to take the liberty of asserting congressional intent.

Senator Orrin Hatch (R-UT), ranking member of the Senate Finance Committee cried foul.  In a letter to to Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner and IRS Commissioner Doug Shulman wrote “I am concerned that if finalized these rules would exceed your regulatory authority, violating the Constitution’s separation of powers.”

The rules were promptly finalized.  Sadly, this illustrates the power of the federal bureaucracy even in the face of potential blowback from Congress.

When asked pointedly this week about his view regarding limits to statutory authority as it relates to self-insurance/stop-loss insurance, a key Democratic Senate staffer responded that he believes the regulators have “general authority to prevent abuses.”  He added that such issues are “better addressed in the regulatory process.”

Should the Tri-Agencies correctly conclude that the self-insurance marketplace effectively regulates itself already and therefore no further federal intervention is needed, then perhaps this congressional source had it right. 

Of course in the meantime, the U.S. Supreme Court will have its own say on the separation of powers, which could silence both the bureaucrats and the legislators on health care reform…at least for now.







 

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