Interior Dept. nominee defends company's health law waiver

Sally JewellSarah (Sally) Margaret JewellInterior Dept. officials call CNN correspondent 'a f---ing idiot' Zinke and his wife took security detail on vacation to Turkey, Greece: report Zinke: I never took a private jet anywhere MORE, President Obama's nominee to lead the Interior Department, defended waivers her company received from part of Obama's healthcare law as she testified before a Senate panel Thursday.

Sen. John BarrassoJohn Anthony BarrassoOvernight Energy: Watchdogs unveil findings on EPA, Interior controversies | GAO says EPA violated law with soundproof booth | IG says Zinke could have avoided charter flight | GOP chair probes Pruitt's four email addresses GOP chairman probes Pruitt’s four email addresses GAO: EPA violated law with Pruitt's soundproof booth MORE (R-Wyo.) pressed Jewell on healthcare waivers granted to REI, the chain of outdoor apparel stores where she serves as CEO.

During his major healthcare push in 2009, Obama publicly praised Jewell and REI for offering healthcare benefits to the company's part-time employees. But after the healthcare law passed, REI received a waiver from new rules restricting the plan it offered to part-time workers.

"The waiver was for the people you were praised at the White House for covering," Barrasso said.

Barrasso was among the harshest critics of the healthcare waivers while the Health and Human Services Department (HHS) was issuing them. Republicans used the waivers, which were relatively minor as a substantive exemption from the law, to argue that the Affordable Care Act was bad policy and would hurt businesses.

"Many people think REI made a smart business decision by asking for a waiver," Barrasso said during Jewell's nomination hearing Thursday.

Jewell emphasized that the company's waiver was limited to its part-time workers. REI offered coverage to its full-time workers that exceeded the standards in the Affordable Care Act.

Anyone who worked more than 20 hours per week was eligible for the full-time plan, Jewell said, while the healthcare law sets the bar at 30 hours.

The company offered a more bare-bones plan to employees who worked less than 20 hours, who "had no possibility of coverage under any other plan," Jewell said.

REI's healthcare plan for part-time workers would only pay out $10,000 in benefits per year, "which was the only way we could make it affordable," Jewell said.

The healthcare law gradually bans annual benefit limits, but HHS granted roughly 1,500 waivers to companies that couldn't immediately comply with new restrictions on annual limits. All of those waivers, including REI's, will expire at the end of this year.

"We will be working to replace that plan with the exchange plan," Jewell said, referring to the insurance marketplaces created under the healthcare law.