ActivePaper Archive Cheap health plans pushed by Trump have dark side - Houston Chronicle, 10/22/2017

Cheap health plans pushed by Trump have dark side

Employers, workers have been left with unpaid medical bills

WASHINGTON — In signing a recent executive order, President Donald Trump promised that millions of Americans could soon obtain “great, great health care” through inexpensive plans that offer consumers options they had been denied under the Affordable Care Act.

But these health plans, created for small businesses, have a darker side: They have a long history of fraud and abuse that have left employers and employees with hundreds of millions of dollars in unpaid medical bills.

The problems are described in dozens of court cases and enforcement actions taken over more than a decade by federal and state officials who regulate the type of plans Trump is encouraging, known as association health plans.

‘Unscrupulous promoters’

In many cases, the Labor Department said, it has targeted “unscrupulous promoters who sell the promise of inexpensive health benefit insurance, but default on their obligations.” In several cases, it has found that people managing these health plans diverted premiums to their personal use.

The department filed suit this year against an association health plan for 300 small employers in Washington state, asserting that its officers had mismanaged the plan’s assets and charged employers more than $3 million in excessive “administrative fees.” Operators of the health plan violated their fiduciary duty by using its assets “in their own interest,” rather than for the benefit of workers, the government said.

Marc Machiz, who investigated insurance fraud as a Labor Department lawyer for more than 20 years, said the executive order was “summoning back demons from the deep.”

“Fraudulent association health plans have left hundreds of thousands of people with unpaid claims,” he said. “They operate in a regulatory never-never land between the Department of Labor and state insurance regulators.”

Association health plans, properly operated, can provide a legitimate option to small employers seeking affordable coverage, and Trump and other Republicans see the plans as an important part of any replacement for the Affordable Care Act.

In the executive order, issued Oct. 12, Trump directed the Labor Department to expand access to the plans by making it easier for small businesses to band together and insure themselves or buy insurance as a large group.

Fewer requirements

Large group plans and self-insured plans are subject to fewer federal and state requirements than individual or small group insurance. They are, for example, not required to provide “essential health benefits” like mental health care and prescription drugs.

Trump’s proposals could overturn long-standing interpretations of federal law. In numerous advisory opinions, the Labor Department has set forth an elaborate test for association health plans, saying they can be established only by a “bona fide group or association” of employers who are tied together by genuine economic interests other than just providing insurance to their employees.

But history shows the risks of an expansion of association health plans. If a plan becomes insolvent, the impact on consumers can be devastating.

Robert Loiseau, who represented fraud victims in Texas, recalled their shock when they tried to receive care.

“People bought insurance coverage because it was cheap and seemed to provide them with coverage they needed,” he said. “It had a veneer of legitimacy. But when they went to the doctor, they found out all of a sudden that their insurance company, their perceived insurance company, was in receivership and that they had no coverage.”