- Until now, only specific groups (“associations”) could create and join association plans – in 2019, almost any group of people can.
- Designed and priced around the needs of a group – like waiters, city-dwellers, or rideshare drivers.
- Plan designs are different than Obamacare – no “metal levels”.
- Another form of mainstream healthcare – AHPs legally count as minimum essential coverage. 1
Association health plans (AHPs) are a type of customized health insurance that some employers love. New rule changes mean that AHPs will get another chance at acceptance.
What Are Association Health Plans (AHPs)?
Association health plans are a type of health insurance that’s offered by, and tailored for, people with a “commonality of interest”.
Plan members must:
- share the same industry or profession, OR
- work in the same state or geographic area.
For instance, if you work in a restaurant, you might want a group of restaurants to create a food industry association health plan. Their plan could make it particularly easy for you to take care of burns and slips.
If you work as a florist, you might get an AHP that has great coverage for, say, venus flytrap attacks. Or if you own a car dealership and provide healthcare to your employees, you could connect with other car dealerships to do the same thing.
AHPs Include Health Insurance Basics
Association health plans work like traditional, major medical health insurance. When you join, you should expect to receive a familiar membership card.
Most association plans partner with a larger health insurer’s network of doctors. You may be familiar with how smaller cell phone companies rent and resell minutes from AT&T. Similarly, your association plan can provide low rates by paying for members’ care in bulk.
AHPs Will Have Price Flexibility
Association health plans will be able to set different monthly prices (known as premiums) based on risk characteristics like age, gender and lifestyle factors.
The Affordable Care Act (ACA) prevented most health plans from using those characteristics to determine premiums. In response to the ACA’s strict guidelines, insurance companies generally charged all their members as if each one spent an enormous amount on medical care.
Association health plans will regain more flexibility to set monthly premiums on an individual basis. As a result, younger and healthier Americans will generally pay less to use an association health plan instead of an Obamacare plan. However, Obamacare plans do include hefty subsidies for those with low incomes.
AHPs will not be allowed to deny membership or charge different prices based on protected characteristics like race or religion. They can’t charge someone more for being sick, or exclude coverage for a pre-existing condition.
AHPs Will Come With New Plan Designs
Association health plans can be designed in a way that appeals to certain groups more than others. Some plans will offer skimpy coverage for prescription drugs, but better coverage for annual checkups.
In this way, AHPs may draw healthy members away from their current coverage. Obamacare plans and employer-based insurance will continue to appeal more to Americans with chronic conditions.
AHPs Will Be Easier To Join
To prevent people from waiting to buy insurance until they’re sick, Affordable Care Act plans are only open to new members during the 6-week Open Enrollment Period. Once Open Enrollment ends, many people have no choice but to buy temporary health insurance. Some even go without coverage at all.
In contrast, association health plans can choose to be easier to access at all times.
AHPs Follow Older Insurance Rules
AHPs will qualify as minimum essential coverage under the Affordable Care Act, so you or your business won’t have to pay a tax penalty for relying on them. Yet unlike most health coverage that you can buy on your own, association health plans are barely regulated by the ACA and the Department of Health and Human Services.
Instead, some rules for association plans are reviewed by the Department of Labor. Since AHPs are funded by employers, they are considered Multiple Employer Welfare Arrangements (MEWAs) under an older federal law known as ERISA. Other AHP rules may fall under state regulation instead of the federal government.
As such, association health plans can offer different (or fewer) benefits than ACA plans. AHPs don’t have to follow as many rules as ACA plans currently do.
AHPs Work Across State Lines
Association plans are regulated in their home state but can market to other states in some instances. So, a state in which other plans must abide by community rating – that is, charging all members the same regardless of age or other characteristics – may not have thought to specify that their rules apply to lower-cost AHPs.
While there are nationwide consumer protection laws that apply to association health plans, many state laws avoid the subject of AHPs. AHPs may not have to meet the stricter financial stability requirements of most other insurance plans, or follow local complaint resolution laws, or follow state guidelines for adequate doctor access.
History of Association Health Plans
Association health plans have been around for years, but fell out of favor in the 1990s. Colorado even banned the creation of new AHPs within its borders, citing scams and false claims coming from the plans themselves.
Association plans that served large groups of people instead of narrow professional organizations used to be called “fake AHPs,” because they served “air breathers” or “weight lifters.”
The 2014 Affordable Care Act was the final straw for many AHPs. They virtually disappeared from public view once individual health insurance became easier to find on the net.
Bringing association plans back is part of the ongoing political struggle over American health insurance. In October 2017, in the wake of an unsuccessful attempt to repeal Obamacare, the White House announced several proposals for national healthcare policy – including the expansion of AHPs.
Those who care about Trumpcare could consider AHPs to be the small business aspect of the Trump health plan. The White House intends to loosen the rules around AHPs until they are more attractive than Obamacare, instead of changing Obamacare itself.
Association Health Plan Executive Order
The Trump administration has sought to make it easier to join AHPs by using an Executive Order. Executive Orders take a long time to finish and put in place.
Among other changes, the Executive Order asked the Department of Labor to expand the legal definition of “employers” and “employees”. Since association health plans are created for employees, this expands the number of people who can join AHPs.
Separately, the same Executive Order would also make it easier to get short-term health insurance.
AHPs Are Common
Very common, actually. Some large employers that actively maintain their own health insurance plans are technically using an AHP. In 2017, over 60 percent of employees were in self-funded plans like association health plans. The Kaiser Family Foundation estimates that 6 percent of small businesses offer association health plans to their employees.
Changes Made In The Final Association Plan Rule
The finalized rule change for association health plans was issued by the Department of Labor on June 19, 2018. It was not as far-reaching as most observers expected. The final rule made a few adjustments to current AHP guidelines, including:
- Allows sole proprietors, freelancers and their families (called “working owners”) to join AHPs.
- Expands the criteria for membership, letting people in the same profession or geographic area form and join AHPs.
- Loosens but does not do away with the definition of “associations”. Previously, an AHP’s sponsoring association could not exist primarily to provide health insurance. Now, the associations behind AHPs can exist to provide health insurance as their main goal. Essentially, if the organizations behind AHPs perform sponsor just a bit of community service along with their plan, they won’t be penalized.
- Prevents health underwriting, or using each member’s medical conditions to determine their monthly premiums. Older AHPs may choose to remain under the old rules so that they can continue this practice.
In the end, new AHP rules maintain some restrictions on who can join a plan. The new rules also don’t give AHPs a free pass from state or federal regulation.
In fact, POLITICO reports that the National Federation of Independent Businesses (NFIB) feels that the expansive new AHP policy isn’t what they wanted. NFIB was a leading advocate of AHPs for two decades. But according to the NFIB’s frustrated spokesperson, they “can’t set up an AHP under the new rules any more than [they] could under the old rules.”
What Are The Advantages of AHPs?👍
✅ AHPs Avoid Expensive Obamacare Requirements
Association health plans don’t have to stick to many of the ACA’s rules.
- AHPs can avoid the fees that individual health insurance has to pay, like:
- subsidizing their ACA competitors (“risk adjustment”)
- extra payment help for some low-income doctor visits (“cost-sharing reductions”, which used to be paid by the federal government, but are now borne by insurers),
- charging younger enrollees the same as older enrollees (“age banding”).
- AHPs don’t have to be based around “metal levels”, which set easy-to-understand but inflexible coinsurance amounts.
- AHPs don’t have to file as much paperwork as plans that are listed on the federal government’s health insurance website.
- In many states, AHPs have fewer regulatory burdens as well.
✅ AHPs Don’t Pay for Unnecessary Care
Association health plans don’t have to cover Obamacare’s essential health benefits. Most health plans have had to cover each of these 10 important types of care – like emergency services and rehabilitation – since 2014.
Opponents of mandatory essential health benefits are dislike that the benefits are one-size-fits-all. For instance, EHBs require men have to pay for unused maternity care. And essential health benefits are not always covered well – they’re simply covered. Much of the cost-sharing burden can still be on the plan member and not the plan, for services that are incompletely covered with few doctors available.
✅ AHPs Work With HSAs and Existing Health Tools
Other parts of the health system are compatible with association plans. If you have a health savings account (HSA), you can use it to pay for AHP medical expenses just as you would with any other insurance plan. Doctors offices don’t care what type of insurance you have. And association plans still have to play by fair rules, like no illegal discrimination or pre-existing condition exclusions.
✅ AHPs Expand Your Range of Healthcare Options
AHPs must have meaningful and “substantive” member representation. Employer members should actively exercise control over the plan’s benefits and governance, even if they don’t administer the day-to-day workings of the plan.
It’s important to have more choice in the unfriendly health insurance market. In theory, making AHPs larger can efficiently distribute risk and bring down costs for everyone. But that’s something we’ve heard in each round of American health reform, with little success.
What Are Some AHP Criticisms? 👎
❌ AHPs Don’t Focus On Consumer Protection
Association health plans don’t have to spend 80 percent or more of their monthly premiums on medical care, but ACA plans do. There’s also no federal cap on what brokers can be paid for referring people to AHPs. This risks creating plans that offer unusually poor medical benefits, or spend excessively on administrative costs.
The new rules explicitly forbid AHPs from tailoring their own rules to deny coverage to specific, high-need individuals. This prevents plans from skipping over a certain ZIP code or rejecting a certain employer just because it’s the known location of someone with a chronic health condition. However, the burden of proving this rule is generally on the affected person or employer.
❌ AHPs Weaken the Obamacare Market
As more people move to Obamacare alternatives and plans from large employers, the Obamacare market becomes less competitive. AHPs will accelerate this trend. Experts believe that the average spending per person who remains on an ACA plan will increase by 1.4 to 4.4 percent, and that their monthly premiums would increase as well.
❌ AHPs Avoid Essential Health Benefits
Due to the way association health plans are funded, they don’t have to cover essential health benefits. Affordable Care Act plans have had to cover each of these 10 important types of care – like emergency services and rehabilitation – since 2014.
Supporters of essential health benefits contend the benefits are necessary so that people don’t encounter unexpected gaps in their health insurance. Advocates say that the existence of these benefits lowers prices for everyone, since health insurance is less expensive overall when it covers everything. The AHP model risks everyone paying more for any of the less common services they’ll eventually need.
Current Events for Association Health Plans
Association health plans are in the news like never before. In June 2018, the Department of Labor under Secretary Alex Acosta published its final rule on AHPs. Plans using the new AHP standards are allowed to begin on April 1, 2019. A handful of existing AHPs began to operate under the new rules as early as August 20, 2018.
A study from the Society of Actuaries says that 3 to 10 percent of people with individual Obamacare plans will join an AHP as a result of the Executive Order. Researchers expect that between 13 to 43 percent of self-employed people will choose to join an AHP. Additionally, up to 60 percent of people on Obamacare’s catastrophic coverage level may move to AHPs.
However, new AHPs may be delayed due to legal challenges. New York and Massachussetts plan to file lawsuits that could pause or block AHP reforms.
How Can I Enroll in an Association Health Plan?
The changes that will make association health plans easier to join have only recently been finalized. Now that the rules are in place, insurance markets will take time to get up and running.
For now, your employer will probably let you know if they offer an AHP. AHPs are not readily available to individual consumers at the moment.
If you’re looking forward to joining an association health plan, it may be easy to get one in the future. In the meantime, you’ll want to compare Affordable Care Act coverage or temporary health insurance options from a trustworthy national site like HealthCare.com.
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Editor’s Note: This article was updated on July 19, 2018 to to reflect the Department of Labor’s final rules on AHPs, instead of the draft rules.
1. Though AHPs count as “minimum essential coverage” for federal purposes, a few states are considering laws that decertify most or all AHPs as minimum essential coverage within their borders. As of writing, only New Jersey has passed this law. ↩