The White House is relaxing the employer mandate again

February 10
(Photo by Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images)
(Photo by Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images)

The Treasury Department on Monday rolled out more tweaks to the health-care law's requirement that all large employers--those with 50 or more workers--provide insurance coverage to their workers. This is the part of Obamacare was supposed to take effect at the start of 2014, but was delayed by the White House this past summer as the White House was facing significant push back from employers.

In today's final rule, the Obama administration is essentially relaxing the employer mandate for 2015--in a big way for medium-sized businesses, and a smaller way for the largest employers. Here's a rundown of the key changes.

1. Employers with between 50 to 99 employees get another year of transition. The Obama administration will give medium-sized businesses another year's pass on providing insurance coverage to workers. The Small Business Administration estimates that approximately 7.8 million people (7 percent of all workers in the United States) work at companies of this size. For these companies, the employer mandate does not take effect until 2016.

Employers who want to take advantage of this particular exemption will need to certify with the federal government that they are not cutting back on positions just to fall below the threshold. "It's simply so they don't game the system," one senior administration official told reporters on a phone call this afternoon. "They have to certify they're not doing that and not dropping their coverage."  

2. Employers with 100 or more workers aren't required to cover everyone. Previous regulations had required large employers to offer coverage to 95 percent of full-time employees to be considered in compliance with the employer mandate. Today, Treasury is ratcheting that requirement back: Large companies that offer coverage to 70 percent of their employees will be counted as fulfilling the employer mandate. This is a transitional measure and, by 2016, large employers will need to hit the original, 95 percent target. Treasury estimates large businesses account for a small fraction of all American employers, just 2 percent of all companies. But they also employ majority of American workers; Small Business Association data shows that 113 million people, or 66 percent of all workers, are employed at businesses with 100 or more workers.

3. Volunteers won't be counted as full-time employees. There had been some tussling on Capitol Hill over whether certain volunteers - mostly volunteer firefighters - would count as full-time employees, for purposes of the health care law. Today's rule clarifies that they do not count as employees--which eliminates any incentives to get rid of volunteer positions.

There are other, smaller tweaks in the new Treasury rule that deal mostly with how, exactly, employers are supposed to count how many hours employees work (for seasonal workers, for example, or teachers, this can actually be a pretty difficult task.) It's hard to to know how many people will be affected by these changes since there isn't great data on how many people work for the different-sized employers.


In general though, the employer mandate is not an especially important policy lever in the Affordable Care Act. The vast majority of large employers - somewhere around 95 percent - already offer health insurance. They did so before the Affordable Care Act ever contemplated requiring them to do so because, for one reason or another, they thought it was a good investment and way to compensate their workers.  Kaiser Family Foundation finds that 99 percent of businesses with 200 or more workers offered insurance coverage in 2013. For businesses between 50 and 199 workers, the offer rate is 91 percent. 

Massachusetts' universal coverage law has an employer mandate--and, since it passed seven years ago, employer-sponsored coverage has been pretty much stagnant.

Delays to the employer mandate can matter politically. But as for what they mean for who Obamacare covers, this delay will likely amount to a relatively small, if non-existent, change.

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