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Clearing Up Confusion About Health Reform’s Out-of-Pocket Protections

Recent media coverage may have sown confusion about health reform’s requirement that health insurance plans cap how much consumers can pay out-of-pocket each year for medical care.  The bottom line: for many plans, the protections will take effect as scheduled in 2014.  Some plans will be able to wait an extra year to fully comply.

The health reform law requires that, starting next year, private insurance plans limit how much in cost-sharing charges — deductibles, copayments, and coinsurance — that people enrolled in a plan must pay each year for covered benefits provided by the plan’s network of health care providers.  (This includes plans offered in the individual market or through employers.  The requirement doesn’t apply to “grandfathered” plans.)  In 2014, this “maximum out-of-pocket limit” will be $6,350 for an individual and $12,700 for a family.

Back in February, the Obama Administration provided an additional year to fully comply with this requirement but only for certain plans offered by employers.

Here are some clarifications about the February policy:

Health insurance plans in the individual market: In 2014, the maximum out-of-pocket limit will apply, as scheduled, to the individual (non-group) health insurance market.  Millions of people are expected to gain coverage in this market in 2014, as health reform’s new improvements and federal subsidies significantly increase access to affordable coverage.

Employer-sponsored health insurance plans: The maximum out-of-pocket limit will also continue to generally apply to non-grandfathered plans offered by employers, including small group, large group, and self-insured plans.  Employer plans that have a single insurer or administrator have to fully comply with the limit next year.

Employer plans that have “separately administered” benefits: The Administration provided the exception in February for these plans, in which an employer has one insurer or administrator for its primary package of health benefits and a different insurer or administrator for discrete benefits, such as prescription drugs.  Because employers and insurers have claimed it will be difficult to coordinate an overall maximum out-of-pocket limit across separately administered benefits, they sought and received the ability to avoid full compliance for one year.

Even those employer plans with “separately administered” benefits that qualify for the delay still must apply some out-of-pocket limits in 2014.  As the February guidance explained, these plans must ensure that their primary package of health benefits has an out-of-pocket limit of no more than $6,350 for individuals and $12,700 for families.  A separately administered benefit, such as prescription drugs, that already has an existing limit on out-of-pocket costs must comply with the limits of $6,350 for individuals and $12,700 for families in 2014.

An employer plan wouldn’t have to add a cap to a separate benefit if the separate benefit currently lacks one.  But this exception shouldn’t be misunderstood as broadly waiving the important out-of-pocket protection that health reform will bring in 2014.