Obamacare tweaked for consumers, businesses

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Now that Obamacare’s HealthCare.gov online exchange is operating correctly, health care reform administrators are apparently fine-tuning the initial open enrollment rules for consumers to more closely align with the granddaddy of all public health programs, Medicare.

They also have given some businesses more time to comply with the law’s requirement that larger employers must provide health insurance for their workers.

Buyer’s remorse

The Washington Post obtained a 14-page memo last week that indicates the government is giving consumers more freedom, including the option to switch health plans through the end of open enrollment on March 31.

The undisclosed adjustments apparently address complaints from some Americans who discovered that the new health insurance plan they purchased through the exchange did not include their old doctors or allow them to add spouses or newborns to their policy.

The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, which assumed the reins of HealthCare.gov in January, will reportedly enable consumers to change their minds and switch plans through March, so long as they retain the same insurer and general level of coverage.

Newbies to Medicare are allowed the same extended flexibility. Rather than be confined to the traditional Medicare open enrollment period of Oct. 15 to Dec. 7, first-timers are given seven months to join and switch between Medicare, Medigap and Medicare Advantage plans.

Additional consumer-friendly changes are apparently in the works for Obamacare as well. According to the memo, consumers will be given additional time to choose a plan if the online exchange displayed inaccurate information about the health plan benefits they chose. They’ll also be able to end their health coverage with two weeks’ notice and add family members to their chosen plan with the new “Report a Life Change” button on HealthCare.gov.

‘Employer mandate’ tweaked again

Meanwhile, a joint announcement from the Treasury Department and the Internal Revenue Service makes some additional tweaks to the “employer mandate,” the insurance coverage requirement on employers with 50 or more workers.

The administration previously delayed that part of the law for one year, until 2015. The “final regulations” issued Monday effectively postpone the mandate for an additional year — until 2016 — for midsized businesses with between 50 and 99 employees. The Treasury and the IRS say this category represents about 2 percent of employers.

Larger companies with 100 or more workers — comprising another 2 percent of employers — have been given some leeway to phase in health coverage for their workforces. They must provide insurance for just 70 percent of their employees in 2015 and then 95 percent in 2016 and beyond. “The overwhelming majority of these companies with 100 or more employees already offer quality coverage,” the agencies note in a news release.

Republicans say consumers should be given a similar break, from the law’s “individual mandate” requiring most Americans to carry health insurance. “If the administration doesn’t believe employers can manage the burden of the law, how can struggling families be expected to?” asks House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, in a statement.

Rethinking ‘full time’

In an unrelated Obamacare development on Capitol Hill, the House Ways and Means Committee last week voted 23-14 to approve legislation that would redefine “full-time employee” under the Affordable Care Act as one who works a 40-hour week instead of one who works a 30-hour week, as defined under health care reform.

Opponents to Obamacare’s 30-hour rule argue that requiring large employers to offer health coverage to employees working 30 hours places an onerous burden on those companies.

But the committee’s top Democrat, Rep. Sander Levin of Michigan, called the proposed reset of the “employer mandate” to 40 hours “a tremendous step backward” that would “place two to five times as many workers at risk of having their hours reduced, and therefore, at risk of losing benefits.”

The reset is now included within the proposed “Save American Workers Act of 2014.” The bill, which is expected but not yet scheduled to move to the House floor, is considered unlikely to be taken up by the Senate.

Follow me on Twitter: @omnisaurus.

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