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Why McDonald’s Won’t Cancel Insurance For 30,000 Workers

McDonald’s is denying reports that it plans to cancel health insurance for almost 30,000 workers unless federal regulators loosen requirements for plans to spend 80 to 85 percent of premium dollars on health care costs. “Media reports stating that we plan to drop health care coverage for our employees are completely false,” a McDonald’s spokesperson told Politico’s Pulse. “These reports are purely speculative and misleading.”

But according to the Wall Street Journal, a senior McDonald’s official informed “the Department of Health and Human Services that the restaurant chain’s insurer” won’t meet the new requirements, called medical-loss ratios (MLR), since they are “unrealistic” for the kind of mini-med plans the company provides to many of its hourly restaurant workers. The plans, which often restrict the number of covered doctor visits or impose a relatively low maximum on insurance payouts in a year, have “high administrative costs owing to frequent worker turnover, combined with relatively low spending on claims”:

McDonald’s, in a memo to federal officials, said “it would be economically prohibitive for our carrier to continue offering” the mini-med plan unless it got an exemption from the requirement to spend 80% to 85% of premiums on benefits. Officials said McDonald’s would probably have to hit the 85% figure, which applies to larger group plans. Its insurer, BCS Insurance Group of Oak Brook Terrace, Ill., declined to comment. […]

“Having to drop our current mini-med offering would represent a huge disruption to our 29,500 participants,” said McDonald’s memo, which was reviewed by The Wall Street Journal. “It would deny our people this current benefit that positively impacts their lives and protects their health — and would leave many without an affordable, comparably designed alternative until 2014.”

The law allows companies to apply for exemptions from the MLR requirements — which are still being drafted — and HHS “says it has already given the carrier for McDonald’s and others the chance to seek exemption from new annual limits on benefit payouts.” “This story is wrong,” HHS spokeswoman Jessica Santillo told Pulse. “The new law provides significant flexibility to maintain coverage for workers. Additionally, this story is premature as guidance on the new medical loss ratio rules has not even been issued. The Administration is working closely with businesses like McDonald’s that are committed to providing health benefits to protect health coverage for their employees.”

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Indeed, insurance commissioners met with President Obama last week to request that certain plans in the individual market be allowed several years to comply with the MLR standard and at least two states Maine and Iowa, have also “asked for a waiver from the rules until 2014 to give health insurers more time to adapt.” Exempting mini-med plans in order to protect the (limited) benefits of some 30,000 employees may make sense, particularly since these policies will probably end by 2014. Then, workers could enroll in more comprehensive health coverage through the Exchanges since mini-med plans would not meet the actuarial value of creditable coverage.

And as Aaron Carroll points out, that’s probably a good thing. After all, mini-med plans only work for healthy individuals and usually don’t provide enough coverage for anyone with a serious medical condition. “One of the things the ACA does is try and eliminate under-insurance. It tries to regulate the insurance companies so that you can’t get sold a plan that provides too little coverage when you need that. That costs money,” Carroll concludes.

Update:

Jonathan Cohn adds:

In the long run, McDonald’s employees need policies that protect them in case of serious medical problems. And they need policies they can afford. They’ll get those policies thanks to the Affordable Care Act — but not until 2014, because the administration and Congress couldn’t come up with enough money to implement the full scheme sooner.

For now, some fast-food workers can take advantage of the law’s early benefits, like the temporary insurance plans for people with pre-existing conditions that the administration and the states have been starting. But for the most part these people will have to wait.

Update:

,John McCormack reports: “The Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius says a report in the Wall Street Journal that McDonald’s may drop its limited benefits health insurance plans for 30,000 workers is ‘flat out wrong.’”