The Summer of Stop-Loss

While this blog took the summer off, we have been keeping a close eye on the numerous developments related to stop-loss attachment point regulation.  Now that most of these developments have slowed down, at least for now, some exclusive reporting and commentary should be useful as those in the self-insurance industry (including those involved with employee benefit captives) take a collective breath.

 Pushed and prodded by a collection of health care reform advocates, federal regulators invited interested parties to submit written comments regarding the smaller insured group health plans facilitated by stop-loss insurance with “low” attachment points.

 About 150 comment letters have been submitted to date and the talking points are largely predictable. 

For the critics of self-insurance, the usual canards are widely repeated.  This request for information (RFI) process signaled a clear focus on self-insurance unlike anything that has been seen in recent years.  But the path forward remains unclear.

 That’s because the Affordable Care Act does not provide any explicit statutory authority for regulators to promulgate new rules relating to stop-loss insurance arrangements…yet that may not preclude action that could achieve the same objective.

 The HHS, DOL and/or Treasury Department (tri-agencies) could potentially rely on their general rule-making authority under ERISA or the Public Health Services Act, to play with definitions or to engage in other revisionist rule-making mischief.   The most likely scenario is that a new definition of a self-insured group health plan is crafted based on risk retention/risk transfer arrangements – thereby allowing the feds to indirectly regulate stop-loss insurance.

 So how serious is this potential threat?   The answer is complicated.

 In a private meeting with self-insurance industry representatives over the summer, a senior DOL official downplayed the prospects that any action is imminent or even likely, explaining that they felt the RFI was necessary for the agencies to get a better understanding of how the self-insurance marketplace operates in the real world.

 But conspicuously absent from the meeting, despite previously confirming their attendance, were senior HHS officials involved with the stop-loss RFI process.  This was notable because it is believed that HHS has the most aggressive regulatory agenda when it comes to self-insurance.  The Treasury Department was represented at the meeting but that agency has remained guarded about its interest and intent. 

 Any of the three agencies could initiate a rule-making process, but it is less likely if there is not a consensus among the three.

 So with that in mind, industry lobbyists have been making the rounds to congressional oversight committees to encourage that they become engaged on this issue and request that the agencies stand down now that the RFI process has been concluded and there is no “smoking gun” which would justify new regulatory action.

The most substantive meeting took place just a few weeks ago with the senior policy advisors for the Senate Finance Committee.  Given that the committee is chaired by Democratic Senator Max Baucus, who has been supportive of self-insurance in the past, it is best positioned to intervene.

The biggest push back by committee staffers was centered on the fact that the ACA does not require that self-insured employers cover essential health benefits (EHBs).   They argued that because of this “loophole” there is incentive for smaller employers to self-insurer, facilitated by stop-loss insurance with low attachment points, in order to be able to offer skimpy health care coverage as a way to save money.

Industry experts at the meeting, including executives from two leading TPAs, explained why this fear is unfounded for practical reasons.  It was then pointed out that while self-insured employers are not required to cover EHBs, they will be subject to “minimum value” requirements, which essentially accomplish the same public policy objective.

 But a final argument seemed to box in the Senate staffers.  Even if you concede the EHB “loophole” (which this blog does not), the fact is that the law was drafted in a very deliberate way to distinguish self-insured group health plans from health insurance carriers.  In this regard, any proposed changes should come back to Congress in the form of legislation as opposed to letting unelected regulators arbitrate substantive policy issues.

 The discussion was concluded with a formal request that Chairman Baucus consider exercising the committee’s oversight authority and communicate to the Treasury Department accordingly.   We understand that the request is still under consideration, so be sure to check back with this blog for updates.

Of course, the focus on self-insured plans with stop-loss insurance extends beyond Washington, DC. 

Many of our friends at the National Association of Insurance Commissioners (NAIC), have been led by the nose over the past year by health care reform advocates to take action on making it more difficult for smaller employers to self-insurer through tighter stop-loss attachment point regulation.

 At the NAIC summer meeting held a few weeks ago in Atlanta, the ERISA (B) Working Group considered a proposal to endorse “guideline amendments” to the current stop-loss insurance model act related to attachment point requirements. 

 Clearly aware of the blowback that would be directed at the NAIC if it took aggressive action that was seen to be disruptive to the health care marketplace, Working Group Chair Christina Goe of Montana tried to diffuse concerns by explaining the proposal is only advisory in nature and that the NAIC does not intend to formally amend the model act for a variety of procedural reasons.  And for good measure, committee members made it clear that they did not overstep their charge and attempt to redefine stop-loss insurance as health insurance.

 Well, it is certainly nice to hear this self-awareness of the limitations to their “charge,” but multiple federal court rulings have already confirmed that stop-loss insurance cannot be defined as health insurance, so no real favor here.

 And as far as considering a guideline amendment versus an amended model act, it’s a distinction without a meaningful difference.

 Of the 26 states that currently regulate stop-loss attachment points, only a few have adopted the model act without variation.  So it is unlikely that an amended model act would take root across the country any time soon.   No matter, as a simple NAIC recommendation on how states should regulate stop-loss attachment points could accomplish the same objective (restricting the ability of smaller employers to self-insure) much quicker.

That is because individual insurance commissioners who are already inclined to push stop-loss legislation in their states will use the NAIC recommendation as justification for action.  Given the technical nature of this issue, it’s easy to understand how this would be enough to persuade most state legislators to go along without asking too many questions.

 The NAIC working group deferred action on the proposal until its winter meeting, which in hindsight was predictable because insurance commissioners, like all political creatures, normally put off major policy decisions when Election Day looms.  Let the dust settle after November 6 and get ready for more action.

This brings us to California.

 As this blog has previously reported, the state’s insurance commissioner, Dave Jones, is a political creature who is interested in beefing up his credentials within the Democratic Party.  So it should not be surprising that he has come out as a major proponent of health care reform, and more specifically the establishment of California’s health insurance exchange, which is expected to come online in 2014.

 Self-insurance therefore became a target for political reasons every bit as much as for misinformed policy reasons in order for Commissioner Jones and his allies in the Legislature to claim credit for protecting the viability of the state’s health insurance marketplace as the exchange begins to be implemented.   A nice populist message for sure.

 One health care broker in California perhaps summed it up best when he referred to SB 1431 as the “California Health Insurance Exchange Protection Act of 2012.”

 Now that it has been confirmed that SB 1431 has been shelved, at least until a special session this December, we can look at the past as prologue.

The same stale arguments are certain to be dredged back up when some version of SB 1431 is brought back for consideration after the November elections, and the political posturing will be predictably crass.

 Equally unfortunate is that many stakeholders who will oppose SB 1431 “2.0” will likely concede the central principle once again of whether stop-loss attachment points should be regulated at all and immediately begin negotiating the numbers and formula.   Yes, political realities often dictate short term lobbying strategies based on compromise, but the longer view should not be ignored in this case.

It’s been a long hot summer for stop-loss insurance indeed, which has ended without much certainty for the future of the self-insurance marketplace.    We will see whether the coming autumn chill cools off the debate or if partisan health care reform advocates continue to overplay their hand.

Share this

Related Posts

Previous
Next Post »