Court Puts Association Health Plans in Limbo

Overview


On March 28, a District of Columbia federal court agreed with a New York-led challenge by a group of 11 states and the District of Columbia and found that the Department of Labor’s (DOL) 2018 association health plan (AHP) rule (the Final Rule):

  1. Is contrary to the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (ERISA)’s text and purpose; and
  2. Circumvents the protections and standards of the Affordable Care Act (ACA).

The decision, penned by Judge Bates, may act to deal a significant blow to the Trump administration’s attempt to expand coverage for small employers. Crafted in response to the October 12, 2017, executive order directing the DOL to promote the availability of AHPs, the Final Rule materially relaxed the standards for qualifying as an AHP under ERISA.

As further described here, the Final Rule sets forth the criteria pursuant to which a “bona fide group or association of employers” may establish a single-employer AHP under ERISA. Under the Final Rule, employers, associations and sole proprietors (referred to as “working owners”) can participate in AHPs provided certain arguably subjective requirements are satisfied. The states challenged the Final Rule, arguing that the DOL unreasonably expanded ERISA’s definition of employer. Applying the Chevron standard, the court agreed with the states to hold that the DOL unlawfully expanded ERISA’s definition of employer by failing to provide a “meaningful limit on the associations that would qualify as ‘bona fide’ ERISA ‘employers.’” The court vacated the bona fide association and working owner provisions of the Final Rule, but also provided some specific critiques and ordered the DOL to determine whether any part of the Final Rule can be salvaged; for now, the Final Rule is in limbo.

In a set of Questions and Answers issued April 2, 2019, the DOL noted that it disagrees with the court’s decision, and is considering all available options in consultation with the Department of Justice (DOJ). The DOJ has until May 28 to file a notice of appeal. The Trump administration could seek a stay of the order pending resolution of any appeal. Unless a court issues a stay, the regulations in effect prior to the Rule would be in effect. Stay tuned for further guidance and developments.