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30 groups, companies get health waivers

By Drew Armstrong
Bloomberg News / October 6, 2010

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WASHINGTON — The federal government has decided to provide waivers to 30 companies and groups that will allow them to cap insurance costs, leaving almost a million workers exposed to catastrophic costs despite a new protection in the health care law.

The companies and organizations, including McDonald’s Corp., will not be required to raise the minimum annual benefit included in low-cost health plans often used to cover part-time or low-wage employees. The Department of Health and Human Services, which provided a list of exemptions, said it granted waivers late last month so workers with such plans would not lose coverage from employers who might choose instead to drop their health insurance altogether.

Without the waivers, companies would have had to provide a minimum of $750,000 in coverage next year, increasing to $1.25 million in 2012, $2 million in 2013, and unlimited coverage in 2014. Several companies had appealed to the department for the waivers.

The United Agricultural Benefit Trust, the California-based cooperative that offers coverage to farm workers, got to exempt 17,347 people. San Diego-based Jack in the Box’s waiver is for 1,130 workers, while McDonald’s asked to excuse 115,000.

The plans will be exempt from rules intended to keep people from paying for all care once they reach a preset coverage cap. McDonald’s, which offers the programs as a way to cover part-time employees, told the Obama administration it may reevaluate the plans unless it got a waiver.

Executives at McDonald’s, based in Oak Brook, Ill., and Jack in the Box did not respond to requests for comment.

The new regulations also would have hit some of the insurance plans for young adults in the universal coverage program run by Massachusetts. The program, enacted in 2006, has a plan for individuals age 18 to 26 who cannot get coverage through work, covering about 5,000 people.

The waiver obtained by the state “will give us time to implement the transition plan in a manner designed to mitigate premium increases,’’ Dick Powers, a spokesman for the state program, said by phone.

The biggest single waiver, for 351,000 people, was for the United Federation of Teachers Welfare Fund, a New York union that provides coverage for city teachers. The union asked for a waiver for its supplemental drug plan, which offers coverage up to $100,000 to pay for prescriptions, said union president Michael Mulgrew. The city covers hospital and physician care for teachers and their families.

The waiver will buy the union time to decide how to comply with the new limit. “We want to look at these costs and figure out exactly what they should cost us,’’ he said.