On March 23, 2010, President Obama signed into law a comprehensive health care reform bill, the Affordable Care Act (ACA). The ACA includes numerous reforms aimed at improving the U.S. health care delivery system, controlling health care costs and expanding health coverage. The ACA’s reforms have staggered effective dates; some provisions are effective now, while others take effect in 2014 and later.
The ACA is a federal law, which means that federal agencies, namely the Departments of Labor, Health and Human Services and the Treasury, are primarily responsible for the law’s overall enforcement. However, the ACA also creates significant responsibilities for state governments. A number of the ACA’s key health care reforms will be carried out at the state level.
This Employment Law Summary provides a high-level overview of selected ACA reforms to be implemented by state governments and highlights the progress being made in Alaska.
HEALTH INSURANCE EXCHANGES
The ACA requires each state to have a health insurance exchange (Exchange) to provide a competitive marketplace where individuals and small businesses will be able to purchase affordable private health insurance coverage, effective Jan. 1, 2014. According to the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), the Exchanges will make it easier for individuals and small businesses to compare health plan options, receive answers to health coverage questions, determine eligibility for tax credits for private insurance or public health programs and enroll in suitable health coverage.
Individuals and small employers with up to 100 employees will be eligible to participate in the Exchanges. However, states may limit employers’ participation in the Exchanges to businesses with up to 50 employees until 2016. Beginning in 2017, states may allow businesses with more than 100 employees to participate in the Exchanges. Enrollment in the Exchanges is expected to begin on Oct. 1, 2013.
States have three options with respect to their Exchanges. A state may:
- Establish its own state-based Exchange;
- Have HHS operate a federally facilitated Exchange (FFE) for its residents; or
- Partner with HHS so that some FFE Exchange functions can be performed by the state.
States that are pursuing a state-based Exchange or a state partnership Exchange must have submitted a blueprint to HHS containing a declaration letter signed by the state’s governor and an application describing readiness to perform Exchange activities and functions. If a state did not move forward with its Exchange or select the partnership model, HHS will operate the FFE in the state.
On July 17, 2012, Alaska Governor Sean Parnell (R) announced that Alaska will not create its own Exchange, but will let HHS operate the FFE for its residents.
INSURANCE RATE REVIEW
To help hold insurance companies accountable for their proposed rate hikes, the ACA required HHS to establish a process to review the reasonableness of certain premium increases.
Effective Sept. 1, 2011, insurers seeking rate increases of 10 percent or more for non-grandfathered plans in the individual and small group markets must publicly disclose the proposed increases, along with justification for the increases. After 2011, states may work with HHS to set state-specific thresholds for disclosure of rate increases, using data and trends that reflect cost trends particular to a state.
The proposed increases must be reviewed by either state or federal experts to determine whether they are reasonable. States with effective rate review systems will conduct their own reviews, but if a state does not have the resources or authority to conduct rate reviews, HHS will conduct them.
According to HHS, as of Jan. 1, 2012, Alaska has rate review authority in both the individual and small group markets. In Alaska, the Division of Insurance conducts reviews in these markets.
ESSENTIAL HEALTH BENEFITS
Beginning in 2014, the ACA requires non-grandfathered plans in the individual and small group markets, both inside and outside of the Exchanges, to offer a core package of items and services. This core package is known as essential health benefits (EHBs).
Under the ACA, EHBs include items and services in 10 general benefit categories, including hospitalization, maternity and newborn care, mental health and substance use disorder services and prescription drugs.
The ACA also directs that EHBs should be equal in scope to benefits offered by a typical employer health plan. To meet this requirement in every state, HHS further defines EHBs based on a state-specific benchmark plan. States can select a benchmark plan from among the following options:
- The largest plan by enrollment in any of the three largest products by enrollment in the state’s small group market;
- Any of the largest three state employee health benefit plans options by enrollment;
- Any of the largest three national Federal Employees Health Benefits Program (FEHBP) plan options by enrollment; or
- The HMO plan with the largest insured commercial non-Medicaid enrollment in the state.
If a state does not select a benchmark, HHS will select the largest plan by enrollment in the largest product by enrollment in the state’s small group market as the default benchmark plan.
The selected benchmark plans have been finalized for benefit year 2014. Since Alaska did not select a benchmark plan, the state’s EHB benchmark plan will default to the largest small group plan in the state—Premera Blue Cross Blue Shield of Alaska, Heritage Select Envoy. More information on Alaska’s default benchmark plan is available on The Center for Consumer Information & Insurance Oversight (CCIIO) website.
HEALTH INSURANCE REFORMS
The ACA requires sponsors of self-funded and insured group health plans to make changes to their plans’ design and administration. For example, effective for plan years beginning on or after Sept. 23, 2010, the ACA requires:
- Group health plans to extend dependent coverage up to age 26; and
- Non-grandfathered group health plans to follow minimum requirements for external review of claims appeals.
Dependent Coverage Requirements
Although the ACA creates federal standards, the health insurance market is primarily regulated at the state level. Some states may have laws that go beyond the federal minimums established by the ACA. For example, some states extend dependent coverage beyond age 26. Alaska law does not require insured health plans to maintain dependent coverage past the federal minimum.
In addition, the ACA amended the federal tax code so that the value of the coverage provided by an employer to an employee’s child is excluded from income for federal tax purposes through the end of the year in which the child turns age 26. Alaska has no state individual income tax. Thus, dependent coverage of adult children will be tax-free at the state level.
External Review Requirements
In addition, the ACA requires insured plans to comply with their state’s external review process if it includes certain minimum consumer protections. If a state’s external review process does not include the required minimum consumer protections, health insurers in the state must comply with a federal process for conducting external reviews, effective Jan. 1, 2012.
HHS has concluded that the Alaska external review process does not include the minimum consumer protections. Unless Alaska makes changes to its external review process, insured health plans in Alaska must conduct external appeals in accordance with a federal external review process.