CMS Opens Door to Waivers that Subsidize Weaker Health Insurance Plans

Section 1332 of the Affordable Care Act gives the HHS and the Department of Treasury authority to review and potentially approve a “State Innovation Waiver” related to Marketplace insurance if a state’s waiver application provides “coverage to a comparable number of residents of the state as would be provided coverage absent the waiver” and “provides coverage that is at least as comprehensive and affordable as would be provided absent the waiver”, and "doesn't increase the Federal deficit".

If a state’s waiver is approved by HHS, a state can get pass-through funding equal to what they would have received without the waiver.  Back in 2015 the Obama Administration issued guidance regarding the requirements to get a 1332 waiver. 

Last week CMS replaced the 2015 guidance with new guidance for 1332 waivers that would (if the guidance stands up to judicial review) allow states to implement what CMS is calling “State Relief Empowerment Waivers”.  It’s a name they invented- not a name that’s outlined in the ACA.  The new guidance will likely have an impact beginning in the 2020 open enrollment period- not the current open enrollment period.

CMS says they will now allow a wider range of insurance coverage levels in waiver requests, including plans that don’t comply with the ACA’s basic coverage requirements. For example, state 1332 waivers will now be able to include Association Health Plans and short-term limited duration insurance. Under the guidance, states could get a federal subsidy to subsidize the purchase of these plans. 

To be honest I don’t think the short-term limited duration insurance part of the guidance will stand up to judicial review because the ACA states that the waivers must provide coverage that is at least as comprehensive and affordable as would be provided absent the waiver. Short term limited duration plans and some association health plans do not.

Association Health Plans and short-term plans don’t necessarily include coverage for essential health benefits, which can leave plan participants with high out-of-pocket costs or discourage individuals from seeking timely treatment. For example, short term plans don’t usually cover pre-existing conditions and generally don’t offer coverage for behavioral health services, prescription drug costs, or maternity care.

Under the new guidance, CMS’ analysis of affordability and coverage will be based on the types of coverage made available to state residents rather than on the coverage that residents buy.  Again, I wonder how they’ll keep this in accord with the statutory ACA requirements of 1332 waivers. 

CMS says their analysis will focus on the aggregate effects of a waiver rather than on the effects on a subgroup of state residents. In other words, CMS will consider the overall improvements in affordability and coverage for state residents- even if there’s a negative effect for a subset of folks. 

Right now, there are only eight 1332 waivers (they were approved under the 2015 guidance).  Those 1332 waivers mostly focused on reinsurance programs to lower premiums in the federal marketplaces.