What Do the DOL's New AHP Rules Actually Mean?

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Employee Health & Benefits National Compliance Leader
+1 972 770 7153
August 7, 2018

President Trump signed an Executive Order on October 12, 2017 directing the U.S. Department of Labor to consider ways to make it easier to form an Association Health Plan by expanding existing membership rules. After issuing proposed regulations in early 2018 and considering public comments, the DOL issued a set of final regulations intended to make it easier to form AHPs on June 18, 2018.

The final regulations do not replace the existing AHP rules. Instead, they create a three-tier AHP system referred to in this article as the:

Narrow Standard AHP: These AHPs are available under the existing rules, but they can be difficult to form.

Relaxed Standard AHP: These AHPs are created by the new regulations. They are easier to form than a Narrow Standard AHP and can allow self-employed individuals to participate, but they do not allow as much flexibility in terms of plan design and underwriting (discussed in the chart below under “Plan Design and Underwriting”).

Non-Conforming AHPs: These are AHPs that do not meet either the Narrow or Relaxed Standards. We’ll touch on these briefly at the end of this article.

What are the Pros and Cons for Narrow and Relaxed Standard AHPs?

Pros:

  • The combined membership of the member employers may enable the AHP to self-insure
  • Qualify as single employer group health plans for ERISA and other purposes, enabling many fully-insured AHPs to qualify as a large group insured plan based upon the number of covered lives· Self-insured and large group insured AHPs are able to avoid certain requirements applicable to small group and individual plans under federal and state law, including:
  • The requirement to offer all essential health benefits (EHB) mandated by a state’s EHB package (the AHP will still have establish a reasonable definition for EHBs such as selecting a benchmark plan); and
  • Community rating requirements. This may enable AHPs to offer less expensive coverage alternatives to member employers as well as greater flexibility when setting premiums (but see “Plan Design and Underwriting” in the chart below)
  • Greater buying power than individual member employers may have on their own
  • The AHP’s risk pool may be more favorable for smaller employers than the community rating in their applicable small group market(s)

Cons:

  • Not appropriate for many potential member employers and should be carefully evaluated on a case-by-case basis
  • Do not avoid state regulation, even if self-insured
  • Require a strong ongoing commitment to participate from member employers as turnover can cause AHPs to quickly fail
  • Insurance carriers may be reluctant to insure AHPs that do not meet certain criteria established by the carrier (e.g. The insurance carrier may require a closer relationship between the member employers than the AHP rules require)

AHP odds and ends

AHPs are generally subject to the reporting and disclosure requirements applicable to the underlying benefits, which may include providing summary plan descriptions, summaries of benefits and coverage, and Form 5500 filings. The DOL is still working out how certain other requirements may apply to AHPs. For example, the DOL indicated that existing HIPAA wellness rules apply to AHPs and the Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act will apply if the member employers of the association have at least 50 employees in the aggregate, but the DOL is still considering how COBRA may apply and intends to issue additional guidance addressing this.

Many AHPs will not qualify as Narrow Standard or Relaxed Standard AHPs, typically because the association fails to meet the formation requirements described above. These Non-Conforming AHPs can still provide the advantages of greater purchasing power and the ability to separately experience-rate member employers like Narrow Standard AHPs, but Non-Conforming AHPs do not qualify for single employer plan treatment and are instead viewed as a separate plan maintained by each member employer. As a result, many member employers will still be subject to the small group and individual plan requirements that Narrow Standard and Relaxed Standard AHPs can avoid.

Effective dates

There are three phase-in effective dates under the final regulations:

  • Sept. 1, 2018: New or existing associations may establish a fully-insured Relaxed Standard AHP
  • Jan. 1, 2019: AHPs in existence on or before June 18, 2018 may establish a self-insured Relaxed Standard AHP.
  • April 1, 2019: All other new or existing associations may establish a self-insured Relaxed Standard AHP.

There are no effective dates specific to Narrow Standard or Non-Conforming AHPs as these existed before the final regulations and are not directly affected by them.