Number of healthcare reform law waivers climbs above 1,000

The number of temporary healthcare reform waivers granted by the Obama administration to organizations climbed to more than 1,000, according to new numbers disclosed by the Department of Health and Human Services.

HHS posted 126 new waivers on Friday, bringing the total to 1,040 organizations that have been granted a one-year exemption from a new coverage requirement included in the healthcare reform law enacted almost a year ago. Waivers have become a hot-button issue for Republicans, eager to expose any vulnerabilities in the reform law.

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In order to avoid disruption in the insurance market, the healthcare overhaul gives HHS the power to grant waivers to firms that cannot meet new annual coverage limits in 2011. The waivers have typically been granted to so-called "mini-med" plans that offer limited annual coverage — as low as $2,000 — that would fall short of meeting the new annual coverage floor of $750,000 in 2011.

"We don't want to take away people's health insurance before they have some realistic other choices,” HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said in an interview with The Hill earlier this year.

Republican lawmakers have seized on the waivers as proof that the law they want to see repealed is flawed, and they have accused the administration of giving them waivers as gifts to union allies. The administration has rejected both claims as Republicans on the House Energy and Commerce Committee have asked HHS for in-depth details about every waiver decision and request.

Most requests for waivers have been accepted, but dozens have been denied because they "did not demonstrate that compliance with the minimum annual limits requirements would significantly increase premiums or decrease access to benefits," an HHS spokeswoman told The Hill in January.

The waivers are meant as a stopgap measure until new state-run insurance exchanges open in 2014. Annual dollar limits will also be abolished by then.

About 2.6 million people are covered by the waivers, representing less than 2 percent of privately insured individuals, according to HHS.

The department also said the number of waivers has been steadily decreasing. HHS approved more than 500 in December, which it attributed to most plan years starting Jan. 1. It then approved 200 waivers in January and 126 in February.