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June 14, 2011

No problems with health care waivers, GAO says

Critics of health care reform have attacked the law and the Obama administration for granting too many waivers, which allow certain employers and unions to spend less on benefits than required.

That might seem counterintuitive to the tenor of the long-running debate over reshaping the health care system. Democrats wanted to insure more people with better coverage. Republicans were generally reluctant to make changes at all.

But the waiver has become another front in the Republican attack on the health care reform law. The party’s presidential hopefuls have vowed to repeal it if elected, although Congress would have to go along as well. One of them, former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, has called the waiver program “crony politics.”

House Republicans, meanwhile, recently asked the Government Accountability Office to do an audit. It did, and the results probably what weren’t they expected because the findings support the administration’s defense of the program.

The nonpartisan GAO said that the Department of Health and Human Services received 1,415 applications “for a waiver of restrictions related to annual limits on health benefits.” It approved 1,347, or 95 percent.

HHS “granted waivers mostly for applications that projected the annual limit restriction would result in a significant premium increase of more than 10 percent, in addition to a significant decrease in access to benefits,” according to the GAO report.

In response to the report, Jim R. Esquea, assistant HHS secretary for legislation, said, “Waivers are only available if a plan certifies that a waiver is necessary to prevent either a significant increase in premiums or a significant decrease in access to coverage.”

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