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Obama grants his own waiver

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Anybody else see this coming? OK, fine, neither did I, but I gotta say my surprise didn’t take long to fade, either.

After months of preparation, speculation and resignation, the Obama Administration — or more specifically, Treasury — backed off the employer mandate, essentially giving mid-to-large employers a year-long reprieve.

So, yeah, what an obsessed House, clueless voters and nine Supreme Court justices couldn’t do, the administration did itself, veering away from the cliff we’ve all been barreling toward for months now. (Which oddly makes me think of Thelma and Louise, and how much worse the ending would’ve been if they’d just pulled over.)

This late-breaking story — on the cusp of a holiday — brought more questions than answers.

What does this mean for the exchanges? Nothing that I can see. Those remain on track. 

What about individuals? Unaffected. That mandate remains as is. Which is also why I fully expect exchange enrollment to move ahead as is. 

Why Treasury? Despite the headlines, from my reading of this — and, admittedly, I’m no attorney — the mandate (or tax, according to Justice Roberts) itself remains intact. It’s the actual enforcement that’s been delayed. Which is why this falls under the jurisdiction of the Treasury department.

Why now? That’s the tricky part. I can’t help but think the holiday week played a part, but it hasn’t stopped the critics from jumping all over this already. Whether the checked-out public bites is another matter entirely.

See also: PPACA critics pounce upon employer mandate delay

And I can see some of you already have pointed out that this pushes enforcement past the mid-term elections. Maybe it’s a factor and maybe it’s not. I’d argue a firm maybe, with two caveats: One, it gives voters too much credit. Had they been that riled up about PPACA, Romney would be in the White House today. And, two, I think Republicans will post midterm gains either way.

I was fortunate enough — probably predictably so — to be out having drinks with a broker right after the news broke. We both agreed this decision most likely had less to do with the administration listening to employer concerns than its own lack of readiness. 

Carriers have been ready for this. And why wouldn’t they be? It means boatloads of new customers forced to buy their products. And I’d wager larger employers were more prepared than the administration — or the pundits — give them credit for. They’ve known this was coming and have known for months whether they would pay or play. This reprieve isn’t changing any employer’s mind. No, it’s the feds who either weren’t ready or willing to follow their own deadline, enacted by their own law. This administration, now pretty well known (or notorious) for granting waivers, seems to have waived itself.

Which brings me to the uncertainty factor. While this feels like Dodd-Frank all over again to me, the broker I spoke with was more than cautiously optimistic.

“I have at least another year of speaking and consulting ahead of me now,” he explained.

That much is probably true. But I’ve argued all along that brokers still have a place in a post-reform world. This 11th-hour delay doesn’t change that. Sure, it will make for a harried few weeks (or more) but at the end of the day, the mandate still looms on the horizon. And now we have another 12 months to worry about it. Let’s just hope this doesn’t turn into another case of being careful what we wish for.

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