Feds finalize ACA essential health benefits

Final rule expands coverage for mental health care

The Obama administration on Wednesday issued a final rule outlining 10 broad categories of essential health benefits that most health insurance plans must offer in 2014 under the Affordable Care Act (ACA).

Under the ACA, health plans in state health insurance exchanges must provide coverage for 10 broad categories of benefits, such as maternity care, prescription drugs and preventive care. HHS in November 2012 released a proposed rule on the minimum benefits.

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The final rule goes beyond what regulators initially proposed and applies to non-grandfathered plans for individual and small group markets inside and outside of the health insurance exchanges.
Most of the rules include benefits that commonly are covered by plans, including:

  • Ambulatory patient services;
  • Chronic disease management; 
  • Emergency care;
  • Hospital services;
  • Laboratory services;
  • Maternity and newborn care;
  • Prescription drugs; and
  • Preventive wellness services.

However, some changes represent an expansion of coverage to include rehabilitative care, pediatric dental care, and pediatric vision care. Further, the rule expanded coverage and federal parity protections for mental health and substance use disorder services, including behavioral health treatment, to both the individual and the small group market.

HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius described the rule as a major expansion of mental health coverage, noting that millions of individuals will gain access to mental health care and an additional 30 million individuals who already have some mental health coverage will see their benefits become more generous.

The final rule also prohibits insurers from discriminating based on an "individual's age, expected length of life, present or predicted disability, degree of medical dependency, quality of life, or other health conditions."

In addition, the rule sets four levels of coverage that new health policies offered on health insurance exchanges must offer. Consumers choosing bronze plans—the least generous policy—will pay an average of 40% of the costs of covered benefits, while insurers will pay the remainder. Those choosing platinum plans—the most generous policy—will pay 10% of the costs, and the insurer will pick up the rest. 

However, the administration did not set a national standard and allowed states to set specific requirements for the minimum benefits to be covered in each essential health benefit category. Under the rule, each state could select a benchmark plan reflecting coverage typically offered by the largest plan by enrollment for employers. 

In addition, insurers in each state typically will be required to cover all benefits required under state laws adopted prior to Dec. 31, 2011. States can require insurers to cover additional benefits, but they will have to cover the extra costs themselves.

Although states will be responsible for ensuring that insurers comply with the rule, the federal government said it will step in if a state is not adequately protecting consumers (Reuters , 2/20; Kennedy, USA Today, 2/20). 

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