Recently, the attorneys general of eleven states and the District of Columbia filed suit to challenge the Department of Labor’s (DOL) new association health plan (AHP) regulations (the “AG Litigation”). Although it is unclear at this time whether the AG Litigation will be successful in invalidating the regulations, it creates a potential impediment for a key aspect of the Trump administration’s effort to change the health insurance marketplace.
The AHP Regulations
An AHP is a group health plan that is sponsored by an association of employers and is treated as a single employee benefit plan for regulatory purposes. According to the DOL, AHPs offer small employers (and now self-employed individuals) the following key advantages over sponsoring a group health plan at the individual employer level (or procuring individual coverage):
- Because AHPs can negotiate with insurers or healthcare providers on behalf of the entire group (instead of each employer negotiating individually), the AHP will theoretically obtain lower premium rates; and
- Because AHPs typically have enough participants to qualify as a “large group” plan, an AHP is not subject to the more stringent Affordable Care Act (ACA) requirements imposed on plans in the “small group” and individual markets.
Although the concept of AHPs predates the DOL’s new regulations, associations had difficulty forming AHPs under prior law. Before the new regulations, an association could form an AHP only if it satisfied stringent “commonality of interest” standards. Those standards require that the association be formed for a purpose unrelated to the provision of benefits, and that it have a common economic or representational interest in a narrow sense. As a practical matter, few employers could satisfy these requirements, and AHPs have not been commonplace.