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WASHINGTON -- President Donald Trump's administration issued a new rule Tuesday to make it easier for small businesses to band together and set up health insurance plans that skirt many requirements of the Affordable Care Act, offering lower costs but also fewer benefits.

Trump, speaking at a 75th anniversary celebration of the National Federation of Independent Business, said the new rule would allow small businesses to "escape some of the Obamacare's most burdensome mandates" by creating new entities known as association health plans.

"You're going to save massive amounts of money and have much better health care," Trump said to cheers from the audience of small-business owners. "It's going to cost you much less."

As a result, he said, "you're going to save a fortune."

Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta said the rule would give small businesses access to insurance options like those available to large companies, starting as soon as Sept. 1. Millions of people could benefit, he said.

"As the cost of insurance for small businesses has been increasing," Acosta said, "the percentage of small businesses offering health care coverage has been dropping substantially." Today, "the Trump administration helps level the playing field between large companies and small businesses."

The new entities would be exempt from many of the consumer protection mandates in the health care law. They may not have to provide certain "essential health benefits" like mental-health care, emergency services, maternity and newborn care, and prescription drugs.

Under the regulation, to be phased in for coverage sold from September to April, the association health plans may not charge more or refuse to cover pre-existing medical conditions, even though the administration argued in a legal case this month that those protections will soon become unconstitutional.

But the plans will have more freedom to charge different prices depending on a consumer's age, sex and location, which the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act coverage cannot do.

Still, consumer groups and many state officials have opposed the push for association health plans. They say the new plans will draw healthy people out of the Affordable Care Act marketplace, driving up costs for those who need comprehensive insurance.

About 11 million people are covered by the Affordable Care Act (healthcare.gov) and state markets, but the administration's priority is to try to lower premiums for an additional 7 million or so who buy their coverage directly and don't get any help from the government.

Sen. Charles Schumer of New York, the Democratic leader, said Tuesday that the new rule would open the door to "junk health insurance." It is, he said, "the latest act of sabotage of our health care system by the Trump administration."

Trump administration officials said premiums were already soaring because of flaws inherent in the health law, President Barack Obama's signature domestic achievement.

The new final rule carries out an executive order signed by Trump on Oct. 12.

The rule will allow small-business owners, their employees, sole proprietors and other self-employed people to join together to buy or provide insurance in the large-group market through association health plans.

Because they will be exempt from many requirements of the 2010 health law, Trump has said, the association health plans can "provide more affordable health insurance options to many Americans, including hourly wage earners, farmers, and the employees of small businesses and entrepreneurs that fuel economic growth."

The new health plans might, for example, appeal to restaurant workers, real estate agents, dry cleaners, florists, plumbers and painters, officials said.

Under the rule, Acosta said, "business associations from city chambers of commerce to nationwide industry groups can offer health care insurance to the employees of their employer members through the large-group market."

Trump administration officials said that small businesses and self-employed people in the same industry, state or region could band together and obtain health coverage as if they were a single large employer -- even if they had no other connections to one another.

Until now, the Labor Department has required a much greater "commonality of interest" among small businesses that wanted to be treated as a large group when buying insurance. To qualify under previous rules, small businesses generally had to have some purpose "unrelated to the provision of benefits." And the government often looked at the size of each company, rather than the group as a whole, to determine if it was a large or small employer.

The new rule takes a step toward fulfilling Trump's campaign promise to make it easier for companies to sell insurance across state lines.

Republicans in Congress have been trying for two decades to promote association health plans through legislation. Now the Trump administration is using its regulatory authority to accomplish what Congress could not.

Trade groups like the National Restaurant Association, the National Retail Federation and the National Federation of Independent Business have supported association health plans and could potentially sponsor them.

But consumer groups, state officials and Blue Cross and Blue Shield plans have expressed concern. They say association health plans will tend to attract employers with younger, healthier workers, leaving behind sicker people in more comprehensive, more expensive plans that fully comply with the health care law.

People with serious illnesses such as cancer could face "ever-increasing premiums for comprehensive coverage," said Chris Hansen, president of the lobbying arm of the American Cancer Society.

Similar small-business health plans have a history of fraud and abuse that have left employers and employees with hundreds of millions in unpaid medical bills. The problems are described in dozens of court cases and enforcement actions taken over more than a decade by federal and state officials.

In past years, the Labor Department said, it has identified many "unscrupulous promoters who sell the promise of inexpensive health benefit insurance, but default on their obligations."

The Coalition Against Insurance Fraud, representing insurers, consumer groups and law enforcement officials, met with Trump administration officials last month and emphasized the need for states to have a strong role in combating possible fraud by association health plans.

"Tens of thousands of innocent consumers and small businesses were victimized by a surge of fake health insurance plans that swept across the country in the early 2000s," James Quiggle, a spokesman for the coalition, said Tuesday. "We have to avoid a repeat of that sorry history."

In another move this summer, Trump is expected to issue a final rule expanding access to "short-term, limited-duration" insurance, allowing such policies to run for 364 days, instead of the current limit of three months.

These plans -- originally intended for people between jobs -- are cheaper than comprehensive insurance, provide fewer benefits and also would be exempt from many requirements of the health care law.

Information for this article was contributed by Robert Pear of The New York Times; by Amy Goldstein of The Washington Post; and by Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar of The Associated Press.

A Section on 06/20/2018

Print Headline: Rule advances cheaper, skimpier health plans; ‘You’re going to save a fortune,’ president promises small-business owners

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Comments

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  • TimberTopper
    June 20, 2018 at 5:29 a.m.

    Trump says you are going to save millions. He has lied again, as you are putting yourself at risk for millions due to the fact if it doesn't cover all that the ACA does you don't have a major medical policy.

  • RBear
    June 20, 2018 at 6:14 a.m.

    Junk health insurance that doesn't have any reasonable coverage amounts or has very high deductibles. "Similar small-business health plans have a history of fraud and abuse that have left employers and employees with hundreds of millions in unpaid medical bills. The problems are described in dozens of court cases and enforcement actions taken over more than a decade by federal and state officials."
    ...
    That quoted paragraph pretty much sums up this change in health plans. It's a shoot from the hip approach that has not concept of an overall strategy and is designed to garner Trump a gold star for "improving healthcare." Any rational educated adult can see the Ponzi scheme being created by these plans.

  • 23cal
    June 20, 2018 at 8:05 a.m.

    I had one of these plans prior to the ACA. They suck.
    You pay for coverage that doesn't cover what you need covered when you need it covered.....with outrageous deductibles.

  • Whippersnapper
    June 20, 2018 at 9:02 a.m.

    I have had a HDHP/HSA plan since 2006 and I love it. The premiums are lower than the HMO plan I had in 2005 and earlier, and I put the premium savings into the HSA to fund it. I have met out my deductible in 3 of the 13 years I have been on the plan and I had HSA funds available for my expenses those years (and other years). Of course, it requires discipline and self-control to sock away money that you don't immediately need, which is why liberals hate the thought of such plans, but for the adults among us, the plans work beautifully.

  • mrcharles
    June 20, 2018 at 10:43 a.m.

    I see sick and dying children in Children's Hospital, on TV St Judes, Shriners Hospital , and sadly their parents did not have the discipline to have self control. Heck fire, some even had refrigerators and microwaves and allowed their children to have new shoes from wal mart when they could have used , those bread wrappers some woman up north wore.

    Former insurance companies were of course , when they were not paying zillions out to the leaders of their syndicate, concerned about the well being of their clients , somewhere down the line form profit worries and bureaucratic gobley gooooke.

    whooper we missed your take on many subjects. I will say we can expect your take on things just as we can on MM, with usually a concern over all determent that talking primates have to deal with is due to wild spending and lack of concern in a judeo-christian civilized society. I do give you credit for being no moz or GM, with blatant racism not to mention a higher IQ that they have.

  • TimberTopper
    June 20, 2018 at 10:47 a.m.

    Whipper, Just to let you know for sure. Liberals don't hate HSA Plans. They and others close by in name and benefits have been around for years. The good part is that you have an income that is large enough for you to fund the savings portion of the plan, some are not as fortunate, but they can make payments on their deductible charges if necessary. However, the plan Trump is pushing will not be nearly as good, and some are going to fall for the BS, and in the end loose their azz.

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