Earlier this month, the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) issued a proposed rule to expand the opportunity of unrelated employers of all sizes (but particularly small employers) to offer employment-based health insurance through Association Health Plans (AHPs). This rulemaking follows President Trump's October 12, 2017 Executive Order 13813, "Promoting Healthcare Choice and Competition Across the United States," which stated the Administration's intention to prioritize the expansion of access to AHPs.
If adopted, the proposed rule would expand the definition of "employer" within the meaning of ERISA section 3(5) to broaden the criteria for determining when unrelated employers, including sole proprietors and self-employed individuals, may join together in a "bona fide group or association of employers" that is treated as the "employer" sponsor of a single multiple employer "employee welfare benefit plan" and "group health plan."
By treating the association itself as the "employer" sponsor of a single plan, the regulation would facilitate the adoption and administration of such arrangements. The proposed rule does not appear to limit the size of employers who may participate in an AHP.
Significantly, the proposed rule would apply "large group" coverage rules under the Affordable Care Act (ACA) to qualifying AHPs. AHPs that buy insurance would not be subject to the insurance "look-through" doctrine (i.e., the concept that the size of each individual employer participating in the association determines whether that employer's coverage is subject to the small group market or the large group market rules). Instead, because an AHP would constitute a single plan, whether the plan would be buying insurance as a large or small group plan would be determined by reference to the number of employees in the entire AHP. This would offer a key advantage to participating sole proprietors and small employers as it would exempt them from rules that apply to individual and small groups under the ACA, such as those related to the coverage of essential health benefits and to certain rating rules.