by Bruce Webb
In the near four months since it passed out of Committee there has been little discussion of the Senate HELP Bill and the reason is clear, Max Baucus made it clear that Senate Finance would write a bill from the ground up. What this has meant is that the basis for comparing and contrasting alternate bills has been HR3200, the House Tri-Committee Bill. There are three main bills that have been presented in opposition to HR3200 with the Senate Finance Committee coming at it from the center-right while Wyden’s Free Choice Act and HR676, Single Payer, coming from the left.
The major critiques of HR3200 have focused around the Public Option, with SFC debating whether it should even be part of the bill, while the Free Choice Act and HR676 arguing that it is too weak. This latter set of arguments seems to me largely driven by a profound misreading of the bill that may in its turn be driven by ideology from the Single Payer Now folk that have combined into a toxic stew that has led both the original HR3200 and his successor to be labeled in the harshest possible ways.
In the eyes of many progressives the problem with the PO is that it is just too cramped and limited to a “small sliver” of the American people, that “200 million people” will find it unavailable, that only people who are currently uninsured can get it, and so on. Well none of that is right, but seeing why will take some lengthy quotation and parsing, which for those interested can be found under the fold.
During the campaign Obama promised people that if they liked their current insurance they could keep it, and the bill does that, but what too many people took away is the idea that if they had current insurance, particularly through their employer that they HAD to keep it, that only those people who didn’t have coverage at all, mostly the young, the self-employed, and workers in small businesses, would be served by the Exchange and the PO. Well lets go to the text, in this case the new House Bill.
SEC. 302. EXCHANGE-ELIGIBLE INDIVIDUALS AND EMPLOYERS.
(a) ACCESS TO COVERAGE.—In accordance with this section, all individuals are eligible to obtain coverage through enrollment in an Exchange-participating health benefits plan offered through the Health Insurance Exchange unless such individuals are enrolled in another qualified health benefits plan or other acceptable coverage. (p.156)
The key word here is “enrolled”. Under the bill if your employer offers you insurance it has to be in the form of a Qualified Health Benefits Plan or QHBP, meaning that it has to meet all the accessibility, affordability and coverage provisions applicable to an Exchange plan which should mean in practice there would be little advantage to getting a QHBP Plan inside or outside the Exchange. So the bill writers and subsequently the CBO built in the assumption that most people who accept employer coverage, to the degree that they added a provision for employers to auto-enroll employees in the lowest cost plan offered by the employer. This process led many people to believe they were then simply locked into the company plan. Well not so fast, NOTHING permently locks you in, instead you have a number of different opt-out options.
Now one not acceptble option is simply not to have insurance at all, there are some religious exceptions but under the Individual Responsibility section there is a requirement for individuals to prove they have ‘Acceptable Coverage’. And what is that?
(2) ACCEPTABLE COVERAGE.—For purposes of
this division, the term ‘‘acceptable coverage’’ means
any of the following:
(A) QUALIFIED HEALTH BENEFITS PLAN COVERAGE.—Coverage under a qualified health benefits plan.
(B) GRANDFATHERED HEALTH INSURANCE COVERAGE; COVERAGE UNDER CURRENT GROUP HEALTH PLAN.—Coverage under a grand- fathered health insurance coverage (as defined in subsection (a) of section 202) or under a current group health plan (described in sub- section (b) of such section).
(C) MEDICARE.—Coverage under part A of title XVIII of the Social Security Act.
(D) MEDICAID.—Coverage for medical assistance under title XIX of the Social Security Act, excluding such coverage that is only available because of the application of subsection (u), (z), or (aa) of section 1902 of such Act.
(E) MEMBERS OF THE ARMED FORCES AND DEPENDENTS (INCLUDING TRICARE).—
Coverage under chapter 55 of title 10, United States Code, including similar coverage furnished under section 1781 of title 38 of such Code.
(F) VA.—Coverage under the veteran’s health care program under chapter 17 of title 10 United States Code.
(G) OTHER COVERAGE.—Such other health benefits coverage, such as a State health benefits risk pool, as the Commissioner, in coordination with the Secretary of the Treasury, recognizes for purposes of this paragraph.
Well that is clear enough, an individual meets his responsibility requirement by showing he is covered under his employer plan, his spouse’s employer plan, perhaps a parent’s family plan or by a range of other public insurance plans. And in any of those latter situations the employee can opt-out of new employer coverage offers. But one of these opt-out possibilities is somewhat hidden here, that is the one that allows any employee to opt-out of employer coverage altogether and get an individual or group plan through the Exchange, including the PO, because in doing so he would meet the requirement of (A), the Public Option is explicitly defined as a QHBP. So where did the idea that the PO was only for the uninsured and was so limited to a fraction of the population arise?
Well a couple of places. First as noted the expectation is that most new employees without health insurance would simply enroll in whatever employer supplied plan level that met their needs, and that those who failed to do so would simply be auto-enrolled by the employer as provided in Sec 412 (c)
(c) AUTOMATIC ENROLLMENT FOR EMPLOYER SPONSORED HEALTH BENEFITS.—
(1) IN GENERAL.—The requirement of this subsection with respect to an employer and an employee is that the employer automatically enroll such employee into the employment-based health benefits plan for individual coverage under the plan option with the lowest applicable employee premium.
(2) OPT-OUT.—In no case may an employer automatically enroll an employee in a plan under paragraph (1) if such employee makes an affirmative election to opt out of such plan or to elect coverage under an employment-based health benefits plan offered by such employer. An employer shall provide an employee with a 30-day period to make such an affirmative election before the employer may automatically enroll the employee in such a plan. (p. 273-4)
If the employee does opt-out during that 30 days he is not “enrolled” and so falls under the definition of “exchange eligible individual” as defined in Sec 302. At which point the provisions of Sec 411 (3) kick in:
(3) CONTRIBUTION IN LIEU OF COVERAGE.—
Beginning with Y2, if an employee declines such offer but otherwise obtains coverage in an Exchange- participating health benefits plan (other than by reason of being covered by family coverage as a spouse or dependent of the primary insured), the employer shall make a timely contribution to the Health Insurance Exchange with respect to each such employee in accordance with section 413.
In short you are ‘exchange eligible’ unless you ACCEPT enrollment or ALLOW yourself to be auto-enrolled. On my reading there is no such thing as a lockout for any given individual, if you want the PO you can get it, though not without taking some positive action.
But what about employers? Why are they locked out of the Exchange and the PO? Well the answer is that they aren’t, at least not permanently, that is simply the result of misunderstanding the language governing ‘transition’. Subject for another post.