Republicans vow to keep controversy over health reform law waivers alive

GOP lawmakers want to make sure that health law waivers remain the gift that keeps on giving.
Obama administration officials hope their decision to end controversial exemptions for businesses and unions this past week will mute the barrage of monthly criticism they've been getting for the past year. Don't hold your breath, Republicans say.

"There is no end to the frustration and embarrassment that's going to come their way," said Rep. Michael Burgess (R-Texas). "I don't know that they've stopped the hemorrhaging from the waivers. I suspect that's going to continue to be litigated in legislation on the floor."
The waivers concern a single provision of the healthcare reform law that requires plans to offer a minimum level of benefits per year - $750,000 for FY 2011, and rising gradually after that - before cutting consumers off.  Organizations that offer healthcare plans have been applying for, and often receiving, waivers on that provision.
Republicans have assailed the waivers as proof that the law doesn't work and that administration allies such as unions are getting preferential treatment. The administration denies the latter allegation - and Republicans have offered little proof - while pointing out that the waived plans cover fewer than 2 percent of all Americans with private insurance.
The Department of Health and Human Services had been granting new batches of waivers every month, but changed the rules in June to give businesses and unions a one-time chance to apply for a waiver valid through the end of 2013, when health exchanges and subsidies start and the waivers become moot. The deadline to apply was Sept. 22, this past Thursday.
Burgess told The Hill he's going to recommend that the Energy and Commerce Committee hold a hearing after the department makes public the final list of approved and rejected applications. As of last month, HHS had approved 1,472 one-year waivers and 106 three-year waivers representing about 3.4 million Americans.
The administration has said the new rules make sense because businesses that can't meet the $750,000 limit in 2011 most likely won't be able to meet even higher standards in the future. Officials flatly deny that their decision was guided by a desire to avoid monthly embarrassment as reporters track the latest batch of waivers.
"This was the course that we mapped out a year ago," Steve Larsen, the director of the office overseeing implementation of the new law, said in June when the end of the program was announced.
Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), one of the law's most vocal critics, said he would closely track the last batch of waivers and lambast them on the floor as he pushes his legislation to allow anyone to apply for a waiver going forward - including new businesses created after Thursday's waiver deadline.
"Up until now there's been a monthly outrage about waivers," Barrasso told The Hill. "Now that monthly outrage is going to be replaced by daily outrage by people who create jobs and can't cover their employees because they've missed the deadline."
Administration officials, he predicted, "are going to hear a lot about waivers. This is far from over."