Running 324 pages, plus a six-page summary in its pre-release (easy to read) version this massive annual update will be published officially in the November 26, 2014 Federal Register.  Based on something like March Madness bracketology, we narrowed the large, attention-worthy field to these final four.

No. 1:

As previously threatened, HHS will amend 45 CFR § 156.145 to deny “minimum value” status to plans that don’t cover hospital care.  Here’s the explanation from the proposed rule’s preamble:

Plans that omit critical benefits used disproportionately by individuals in poor health will enroll far fewer of these individuals, effectively driving down employer costs at the expense of those who because of their individual health status are discouraged from enrolling.

That the MV standard may be interpreted to require that employer-sponsored plans cover critical benefits is evident in the structure of the Affordable Care Act, the context in which the grant of the authority to the Secretary to prescribe regulations under section 1302 was enacted, and the policy underlying the legislation. Section 1302(b) authorizes the Secretary of HHS to define the EHB to be offered by individual market and small group health insurance plans, provided that this definition “include at least” 10 specified categories of benefits, and that the benefits be “equal to the scope of benefits provided under a typical employer plan.”  To “inform this determination” as to the scope of a typical employer plan, section 1302(b)(2)(A) provides that “the Secretary of Labor shall conduct a survey of employer sponsored coverage to determine the benefits typically covered by employers, including multiemployer plans, and provide a report on such survey to the Secretary [of HHS].”48 (Emphasis added.)  These provisions suggest that, while detailed requirements for EHB in the individual and small group health insurance markets were deemed necessary, the benefits covered by typical employer plans providing primary coverage at the time the Affordable Care Act was enacted were seen as sufficient to satisfy the Act’s objectives with respect to the breadth of benefits needed for health plan coverage and, in fact, to serve as the basis for determining EHB. They also suggest that any meaningful standard of minimum coverage may require providing certain critical benefits.

Employer-sponsored plans in the large group market and self-insured employers continue to have flexibility in designing their plans. They are not required to cover all EHB. Providing flexibility, however, does not mean that these plans should not be subject to minimum requirements. A plan that excludes substantial coverage for inpatient hospital and physician services is not a health plan in any meaningful sense and is contrary to the purpose of the MV requirement to ensure that an employer-sponsored plan, while not required to cover all EHB, nonetheless must offer coverage with minimum value at least roughly comparable to that of a bronze plan offered on an Exchange.

For these reasons, the Secretary has concluded that the provisions of section 1302(d)(2) of the Affordable Care Act – requiring that the regulations for determining the percentage of the total allowed costs of benefits that apply to plans that must cover all EHB also be applied as a basis for determining minimum value – reflect a statutory design to provide basic minimum standards for health benefits coverage through the MV requirement, without requiring large group market plans and self-insured plans to meet all EHB standards.

[ . . . ]

Accordingly, we propose to amend §156.145 to require that, in order to provide minimum value, an employer-sponsored plan not only must meet the quantitative standard of the actuarial value of benefits, but also must provide a benefit package that meets a minimum standard of benefits. Specifically, we propose to revise §156.145 to provide that, in order to satisfy MV, an employer plan must provide substantial coverage of both inpatient hospital services and physician services.

Legal authority to augment ACA-defined “minimum value” by adding an EHB element is questionable, but there’s no doubt that HHS intends to do it.

No. 2:

The network adequacy standard of 45 CFR § 156.230 will require each QHP issuer to:

publish an up-to-date, accurate, and complete provider directory, including information on which providers are accepting new patients, the provider’s location, contact information, specialty, medical group, and any institutional affiliations, in a manner that is easily accessible to plan enrollees, prospective enrollees, the State, the Exchange, HHS and OPM. As part of this requirement, we propose that a QHP issuer must update the directory information at least once a month, and that a provider directory will be considered easily accessible when the general public is able to view all of the current providers for a plan on the plan’s public website through a clearly identifiable link or tab without having to create or access an account or enter a policy number.

No. 3:

The 2016 maximum annual cost sharing limits (45 CFR § 156.130) will be $6,850 for self-only coverage and $13,700 for family coverage.

No. 4:

Medicare or Medicare-like quality improvement standards (“QIS”) will be imposed on private insurers under 45 CFR § 156.1130, so that, among other things –

[B]eginning in 2016, a QHP issuer participating in the FFE for at least 2 years would submit a QIS implementation plan to HHS and the applicable Exchange for each QHP offered in the Exchange, followed by annual progress updates. We anticipate that the implementation plan for a QHP issuer’s proposed QIS will reflect a payment structure that provides increased reimbursement or other market-based incentives for addressing at least one of the topics specified in section 1311(g)(1) of the Affordable Care Act.

“FFE,” of course, refers to www.healthcare.gov.  Insurers who sold policies through that federal Exchange in 2014 and 2015 should expect HHS in 2016 to be, “requesting information  . . . regarding the percentage of payments to providers that is adjusted based on quality and cost of health care services.”  HHS also expects that, “one year after submitting the QIS implementation plan, the QHP issuer would submit information including, an annual update including a description of progress of QIS implementation activities, analysis of progress using proposed measures and targets, and any modifications to the QIS.”