Small-business panel wants in on waiver wars

Republicans on the House Small Business panel Tuesday demanded to know how federal officials went about approving more than 1,000 healthcare reform waivers.

The panel is a little late to the party — their colleagues on the Energy and Commerce and oversight committees have already held hearings on the issue. Still, this week, panel chairman Sam Graves (R-Mo.) and Health subcommittee chairwoman Renee Ellmers (R-N.C.) wrote to Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius to ask her to answer 13 questions about the waiver process — including how it was developed, what legal authority the department has to grant the waivers and what outreach federal officials have conducted to "apprise small business owners of the opportunity to apply."

"With the increased pressure on employers to offer insurance, and the continued sharp rate of premium increases, small businesses are under even greater financial and competitive constraints," Graves and Ellmers wrote. "We want to ensure that all entities, particularly small businesses, have been treated fairly and equitably in the waiver process."

The waivers are temporary exemptions from a single provision of the 2,700-page healthcare reform bill: the $750,000 minimum annual cap on benefits for 2011. Republicans have been eager to make political hay of the process, however, saying the waivers are being used to reward political allies or are proof the law is fatally flawed.