Second House panel investigating waivers from Obama health law

Republicans on a second House panel with oversight power are investigating waivers the Obama administration has awarded to more than a thousand organizations for a provision of the healthcare reform law, The Hill has learned. 

The House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform wants to know why some organizations have been denied requests for waivers for the reform law’s new annual limit on coverage requirements.

As of Friday, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) had granted 1,040 one-year exemptions for groups that would not be able to meet the new annual coverage floor of $750,000 in 2011. In January, HHS told The Hill that the department denied about 50 waiver requests.

The waivers, which are good only for the law’s annual limits provision, have become a hot-button issue, with Republicans saying that the exemptions are either proof of the reform’s flaws or gifts to Democratic allies. The administration has repeatedly rejected both claims, pointing out that the law gives the HHS secretary the ability to offer waivers and that a large chunk of business groups have received them.

The Oversight Committee is accusing HHS of failing to respond to its requests for information about the waiver denials. The committee first asked for an explanation in early February, but a Tuesday letter to HHS says the department has been less than forthcoming.

“The current lack of transparency lends credence to the perception that bureaucrats are picking winners and losers in a politicized environment where the winners are favored constituencies of the administration,” the Oversight panel wrote to HHS on Tuesday. 

Republicans on the House Energy and Commerce Committee were the first to investigate the annual limit waivers, doing so in January. Like the Oversight panel, the Energy and Commerce Republicans asked for a detailed explanation of waiver denials. 

A spokeswoman for HHS said most of the documents requested by the Oversight panel and Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) had already been provided to Energy and Commerce, but that HHS would respond to the request as quickly as possible. 

"As we have said before, the Affordable Care Act requires that we ensure that Americans continue to have access to needed services with a minimal impact on premiums as we implement new protections to ensure health plans provide value for consumers," the spokeswoman said. "We are working to make sure Americans can keep the coverage they have while we transition to a new marketplace in 2014, where more affordable, comprehensive coverage will be available."

The waivers are typically granted to organizations that offer limited health insurance, known as “mini-med plans,” that sometimes provide as little as $2,000 in annual coverage. The waivers are meant as a stopgap measure until new state-run health insurance exchanges open up, when the mini-med waivers will no longer be necessary, HHS says. 

"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.

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

Oversight panel Republicans say they want to continue working with HHS, but they threatened to flex their subpoena power if the department “continues to demonstrate an unwillingness to cooperate.”

This story was posted at 9:01 a.m. and updated at 9:28 a.m.