The number of waivers the Obama administration has awarded for a provision of the year-old healthcare reform law grew by 128 in March.
With the new waivers, that means 1,168 businesses, insurers, unions and other organizations have received one-year exemptions from a healthcare reform provision requiring at least $750,000 in annual benefits.
The administration says the temporary waivers are granted to help stabilize the insurance market until a fuller package of reforms takes effect in 2014, but the growing number of waivers have exposed the White House to heavy criticism from Republican opponents of the law.
â€œThe fact that over 1,000 waivers have been granted is a tacit admission that the healthcare law is fundamentally flawed,â€ said Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.) last month. Upton is one of three House committee chairmen who has used new oversight powers to investigate the annual limit waivers.
Meanwhile, a group back by Karl Rove is suing the administration for detailed documentation of waiver requests, and conservatives have accused the administration of awarding waivers to allies who supported the healthcare overhaul.
The administration and Democratic lawmakers have rejected the Republican criticism, saying that the law provides Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Kathleen Sebelius with the ability to offer waivers. But Republicans are now questioning whether the law explicity grants that power.
Democrats also deny the charges of favoritism, noting that a large number of businesses have received the exemptions and that unions have received a larger proportion of waiver denials.
The one-year waivers are typically granted to organizations that offer low-value insurance plans, known in the industry as â€œmini-medâ€ plans. But Nobody knows what will happen to the health plans after the one-year waivers expire.
HHS must still bridge the gap until 2014, when the mini-med plans will supposedly be phased out because consumers will be able to shop for affordable and quality coverage on new state-run insurance exchanges. HHS said it is now examining waiversoptions for 2012 and 2013.
The new numbers were posted on an HHS website Friday night without an announcement from the department. The 128 waivers added in March track closely to the 126 HHS awarded in February.
The number of people covered by waivers grew about 300,000 over the past month to 2.93 million. HHS says the waivers represent less than 2 percent of the private insurance market.