- A federal judge on Thursday struck down a Trump administration expansion of association health plans, which aren't bound by the requirements of the Affordable Care Act. U.S. District Judge John Bates said the June rule from the Department of Labor that loosened restrictions on what groups could band together to offer AHPs "is clearly an end-run around the ACA."
- The ruling stems from a lawsuit 11 states and the District of Columbia filed to challenge the DOL rule. It comes the same week the Trump administration stepped up its attacks against the ACA, arguing in a court filing Monday the law should be eliminated in its entirety following a Texas judge's decision the act is unconstitutional without the individual mandate penalty.
- The judge had strong language condemning the administration's attempt to allow for easier creation and use of AHPs, calling the regulatory change a "magic trick" that allowed for "absurd results" undermining the intent of Congress.
The ruling is a blow to the Trump administration's efforts to circumvent the ACA, which ramped up significantly with the administration's filing this week seeking complete repeal of the law. Another hit to those efforts came down Wednesday when a different federal judge struck down Medicaid work requirements in Arkansas and Kentucky.
The renewed fight comes as Democrats lining up for a 2020 presidential run are pushing for more progressive policies than have previously gained public traction. Some Democratic contenders are making Medicare for all and other single-payer models a central part of their platforms as healthcare shapes up to be a major issue for the next presidential election.
Experts have argued extended use of AHPs could siphon away young and healthy people looking for minimum coverage at a lower cost. If they choose AHPs they upset the balance on risk pools for more comprehensive coverage. Also, many consumers don't understand the tradeoff and could be surprised by what isn't covered when they are in need.
But even though the plans aren't required to meet ACA standards, some that have formed have been adamant they provide adequate coverage, including the 10 essential ACA benefits. The plans are less obstructive to the regulatory environment than short-term health plans, which have also been granted more leeway under the Trump administration.
Land O'Lakes, for example, which said it was the first to offer an AHP under the more relaxed rules, said its plan covered essential benefits and pre-existing conditions, as well as "broad network coverage."
The Society of Actuaries has said as many as 10% of people in ACA plans could leave for AHPs, which would also drive up premiums for plans in the individual market. Avalere predicted about 3.2 million people would shift and premiums would rise by 3.5%.
Supporters of AHPs decried the judge's decision Thursday. Kev Coleman, founder of AssocationHealthPlans.com, said in a statement the ruling will hurt small businesses throughout the country.
"Thousands of employees and family members within the small business community have already enrolled in association health plans — which help lower health care costs — since they first became available last fall," he said. "They have provided a means by which broad benefits may be accessed at more economical prices. While I do not believe today's ruling will survive appeal, I believe Judge Bates' decision is an unnecessary detour on small businesses' path toward more affordable health coverage."