Azar touts agency progress on growing insurance options

HHS Secretary Alex Azar praised the agency's work to expand insurance options on Wednesday, noting efforts to grow association health plans (AHPs) and expand subsidies for health reimbursement arrangements (HRAs).

Azar has dedicated much of his recent public appearances to stumping for the Department of Health and Human Services’ work on drug prices—in particular, its plan to eliminate drug rebates in Medicare Part D—but his speech at the National Association of Health Underwriters’ Capitol Conference centered on the agency’s efforts to boost competition and choice, particularly in the Affordable Care Act exchanges. 

For example, the AHP rule led to a new plan run by the Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce that offers coverage with $243 monthly premiums. Before the rule, premiums were $413 a month, a cost savings of 44%. 

Critics of such plans have warned that they offer limited consumer protections and don’t have to meet ACA requirements. 

Azar also touted the agency’s joint rule with the Department of Labor and the Department of the Treasury to expand HRAs. The proposal, he said, could benefit as many as 10 million people. 

Under the proposal, the government would offer the same tax benefits enjoyed in employer-sponsored plans to HRAs in the individual market

“Here, too, we want to be careful to ensure that new options aren’t coming at the expense of destabilizing the insurance market, so we’ve appreciated your input,” Azar said. 

RELATED: AHIP, AHA express concern over lack of consumer protections in association health plan expansion 

The ACA exchanges saw positive trends for the 2019 plan year, with premiums declining for the first time since the launch of the exchanges in 2014Enrollment declined by about 4%, less than some feared following the rollback of the individual mandate.  

As the Trump administration continues to embark on its key health policy agenda items, Azar said that feedback from the front lines—like input from insurance underwriters—is crucial to forging ahead. 

He said that underwriters can help shape the discussion and drive educational and outreach efforts on new policies, like the AHP expansion.

“Work with us to identify affordable ways for Americans to finance their care, and work with us to identify what’s driving up the cost of care in the first place,” he said. “Help shed a light on what’s broken in healthcare, and we’ll go to work on fixing it.”