HHS grants 500 new healthcare waivers

A week after Republicans announced plans to investigate waivers granted to organizations for healthcare reform provisions, President Obama’s health department made public new waivers for more than 500 groups. 

The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) is granting temporary waivers to organizations that would not be able to meet the reform law’s new requirement for annual coverage limits.

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As of last week, HHS had granted waivers to 222 organizations covering 1.5 million individuals. Though the number of groups receiving waivers has now more than tripled, the number of individuals covered by the waivers increased just 600,000 to 2.1 million.

The law gives HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius the flexibility to grant waivers to avoid disruption in the insurance market, but Republicans say the waivers are either gifts to Democratic allies or proof that the reform law isn’t working. However, a large number of businesses, in addition to unions, have received waivers.

The waivers have been granted to hundreds of so-called "mini-med" plans that offer limited health coverage to employees. The waivers are designed to preserve stability in the insurance market until new state-run insurance exchanges open in 2014.

The House Energy and Commerce Committee asked HHS last week for details on the waiver process. HHS said Wednesday night that it wants to make the waiver process transparent.

"We are committed to making the waiver process transparent to the public and to make sure workers with mini-med plans are informed about the limited nature of their coverage," Steve Larsen, director of oversght in HHS's Office of Consumer Information and Insurance, said in a statement. "For example, we have required plans that receive waivers to inform their enrollees that their coverage is limited. HHS also helps to ensure transparency by posting a list of the plans that have been granted waivers, so stakeholders understand how they are affected."

HHS said it was anticipating the huge bump in waiver requests because plans were required to file for waivers before their plan year began, which is Jan. 1 for many. The deparment was unable to provide the number of plans denied waiver requests, but an HHS spokesman said, "It's more than a handful, but not a big number."

This story was updated at 7:40 p.m.

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