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On June 19, 2018, the Trump administration took the first step in a three-part effort to expand affordable health plan options for consumers when the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) finalized a proposed rule designed to make it easier for a group of employers to form and offer association health plans (AHP). A final rule relaxing rules around short-term, limited duration insurance and a proposed rule addressing health reimbursement arrangements are expected in the upcoming months. In cementing proposed changes to its January 2018 proposed rule, “Definition of ‘Employer’ Under Section 3(5) of ERISA — Association Health Plans,” the administration seeks to broaden health options for individuals who are self-employed or employed by smaller businesses. The final rule will be applicable in three phases starting on September 1, 2018.
Under the rule, it will be substantially easier for a group of employers tied by a “commonality of interest” to form a bona fide association capable of offering a single multi-employer benefit plan under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (ERISA). The rule outlines two primary bases for establishing this “commonality of interest”: (1) having a principal place of business in the same region (e.g., a state or metropolitan area), or (2) operating in the same industry, trade, line of business or profession. An association also may establish additional membership criteria enabling entities with a sufficient “commonality of interest” to participate in the AHP, such as being minority-owned or sharing a common moral or religious conviction, so long as the criteria are not a subterfuge for discrimination based on a health factor. Further, the final rule clarifies how the association must be governed and controlled by its employer-members in order to be considered a bona fide association capable of offering a single-employer health benefit plan.
Meeting the criteria for a bona fide group or association of employers in the final rule allows the AHP to be treated as a single-employer ERISA plan. Thus, assuming the association is comprised of employer-members with more than 50 total full-time employees, it will be considered a large group and exempt from key Affordable Care Act (ACA) market reforms, such as the essential health benefits requirements and modified community rating rules, that would otherwise apply to a health plan offered by any of its individual employer-members with less than 50 full-time employees. This is important because the ACA applies certain requirements only to small group (and individual) health insurance products and not to large group plans.