A key policy goal of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (the “Act”) is the expansion of health insurance coverage to all Americans. The concepts of “minimum value” and its correlate “actuarial value” speak to the generosity of that coverage. What constitutes minimum value is important both for employers that sponsor group health plans and for low-income individuals seeking government subsidies to help pay for coverage through newly established public insurance exchanges. Recently issued proposed regulations provide important clarifications on how employers determine minimum value, and how those determinations impact their compliance with the Act. The proposed rule also clarifies the relationships among minimum value and affordability, on the one hand, and wellness programs, Health Reimbursement Accounts and Health Savings Accounts, on the other. This advisory explains these and other features of the proposed regulations.


Beginning in 2014, the Act requires most U.S. citizens and green card holders to maintain health insurance coverage, which the Act refers to as “minimum essential coverage.” The phrase minimum essential coverage refers not to the content but to the source of coverage, which can include Medicare, Medicaid, or an “eligible employer-sponsored plan,” among others. Low income individuals may qualify for premium tax credits and cost sharing reductions (collectively, “premium assistance”) to assist with the purchase of coverage through public insurance exchanges. Where an individual is eligible for coverage under an eligible employer-sponsored group health plan that is both affordable and provides minimum value, however, that individual is ineligible for premium assistance.

Beginning in 2014, the Act also imposes certain obligations on “applicable large employers” — i.e., employers with 50 or more full-time and full-time equivalent employees — under which these employers must either offer group health plan coverage or face the prospect of a penalty. These “employer shared responsibility” (or “pay-or-play”) rules include two options:

  • The “no-coverage” prong:

The employer fails to offer to at least 95% of its full-time employees (and their dependents) the opportunity to enroll in a group health plan of the employer, and any full-time employee qualifies for premium assistance, or

  • The “coverage” prong

The employer offers to at least 95% of its full-time employees (and their dependents) the opportunity to enroll in a group health plan of the employer that is either unaffordable or fails to provide minimum value, and one or more full-time employees qualifies for premium assistance.

These rules are set out in new Internal Revenue Code section 4980H. The no-coverage prong is referred to more formally in proposed regulations as the “4980H(a) penalty,” and the coverage prong, the “4908H(b) penalty.” Both penalties are determined monthly, but they are easiest to understand when expressed as an annual amount. The no-coverage penalty is determined by multiplying the number of the employer’s full-time employees (excluding the first 30) by $2,000. In contrast, the coverage penalty (i.e., the penalty for offering coverage that is either unaffordable or fails to provide minimum value) is determined by multiplying the number of the employer’s full-time employees who qualify for premium assistance by $3,000. This latter penalty can never exceed the 4980H(a) penalty. Where an employer makes an offer of coverage that is both affordable and provides minimum value, there is no penalty.

Coverage is affordable if the employee premium for self-only coverage does not exceed 9.5% of an employee’s household income. Recognizing the difficulty with obtaining household income data, proposed regulations under Code section 4980H provide three proxies or safe harbors for determining affordability: W-2 income, rate-of-pay, and (lowest) Federal Poverty Limit.

Minimum value

A plan fails to provide minimum value if the plan’s “share of the total allowed costs of benefits provided under the plan is less than 60 percent of the costs.” A plan with a minimum value of 100% would cover all benefit costs with no cost-sharing. Anything below 100% simply means that the covered employee or family member will pay a portion of the costs for covered services. The lower the value, the more the employee will need to pay by way of co-pays, deductibles, co-insurance and other cost sharing requirements.

The terms “minimum value” and “actuarial value” both describe the percentage of expected health care costs a health plan will cover for a “standard population.” In the case of minimum value, it’s a population that reflects typical self-insured group health plans. In the case of actuarial value, the standard population is a population that reflects the average health risk of the individual and/or small group health markets.

When determining actuarial value for individual and small group coverage, the services that must be covered include “essential health benefits.”1 For minimum value determinations involving large and self-funded groups, the standards are less clear. Should minimum value be based on the plan’s share of the cost of coverage for all essential health benefits? Or should it be based on the plan’s share of the costs of only those benefits that the plan actually covers? Both prior guidance (i.e., IRS Notice 2012-31) and the proposed regulations concede that there is no support under the Act for the former approach, and both reject the latter. In Notice 2012-31, the Treasury Department and the IRS charted a middle path, noting that the Act directs that the statutory phrase “percentage of the total allowed costs of benefits provided under a group health plan” is determined under rules contained in the regulations to be promulgated by HHS relating to actuarial value, and that the determination of whether an employer-sponsored plan provides minimum value “will be based on the actuarial value rules with appropriate modifications.” Notice 2012-31 proposed that, for an employer-sponsored plan to provide minimum value, it would be required to cover four core categories of benefits: physician and mid-level practitioner care, hospital and emergency room services, pharmacy benefits, and laboratory and imaging services.

HHS has since published a final rule defining the “percentage of the total allowed costs of benefits provided under a group health plan” as

  1. The anticipated covered medical spending for essential health benefits (EHB) coverage … paid by a health plan for a standard population,
  2. Computed in accordance with the plan’s cost-sharing, and
  3. Divided by the total anticipated allowed charges for EHB coverage provided to a standard population.

HHS provided employers with three ways to determine actuarial and minimum value:

  • AV and MV calculators. Employer-sponsored plans may determine their actuarial or minimum value by entering information about the cost-sharing features of the plan for different categories of benefits into an online calculator made available by HHS.
  • Design-based safe harbor checklists. Employers will be able to use safe harbor checklists. If the employer-sponsored plan’s terms are consistent with or more generous than any one of the safe harbor checklists, the plan would be treated as providing minimum value.
  • Actuarial certification. For plans with nonstandard features that preclude the use of the AV calculator, or the MV calculator, actuarial value or minimum value is determined based on the AV or MV calculator with adjustments as certified to an actuary.

The proposed regulations include a fourth option: For small groups, plans that satisfy any of the metal tiers (platinum, gold, silver, and bronze) specified for coverage under a public insurance exchange are deemed to provide minimum value.

The minimum value proposed regulation coordinates with and builds on the HHS final regulation. The proposed regulations refer to the proportion of the total allowed costs of benefits provided to an employee that are paid by the plan as the plan’s “MV percentage.” According to the proposed regulation,

“The MV percentage is determined by dividing the cost of certain benefits the plan would pay for a standard population by the total cost of certain benefits for the standard population, including amounts the plan pays and amounts the employee pays through cost-sharing, and then converting the result to a percentage.” (Emphasis added).

A plan with an MV percentage of 60% or more is deemed to provide minimum value. Anything less, and a plan fails to provide minimum value.

The proposed regulations do not require an employer to provide coverage for all EHB categories. Instead, minimum value is measured with reference to “benefits covered by the employer that also are covered in any one of the EHB benchmark plans.” Or, put another way, a plan’s anticipated spending for benefits provided under any particular EHB-benchmark plan for any state “counts towards” that plan’s MV. Thus, while large groups are not required to offer EHBs, their minimum value percentage is tested against an EHB benchmark plan. The categories of EHB provided in the IRS/HHS calculator include:

  • Emergency Room Services
  • All Inpatient Hospital Services (including mental health and substance use disorder services)
  • Primary Care Visit to Treat an Injury or Illness (except Preventive Well Baby, Preventive, and X-rays) Specialist Visit
  • Mental/Behavioral Health and Substance Abuse Disorder Outpatient Services
  • Imaging (CT/PET Scans, MRIs)
  • Rehabilitative Speech Therapy
  • Rehabilitative Occupational and Rehabilitative Physical Therapy
  • Preventive Care/Screening/Immunization
  • Laboratory Outpatient and Professional Services
  • X-rays and Diagnostic Imaging
  • Skilled Nursing Facility
  • Outpatient Facility Fee (e.g., Ambulatory Surgery Center)
  • Outpatient Surgery Physician/Surgical Services
  • Drug Categories
    • Generics
    • Preferred Brand Drugs
    • Non-Preferred Brand Drugs
    • Specialty Drugs

Safe harbor minimum value plans

The proposed regulations establish the following safe harbor plan designs for plans that cover all of the benefits included in the minimum value calculator:

  • A plan with a $3,500 integrated medical and drug deductible, 80% plan cost sharing, and a $6,000 maximum out-of-pocket limit for employee cost-sharing;
  • A plan with a $4,500 integrated medical and drug deductible, 70% plan cost sharing, a $6,400 maximum out-of-pocket limit, and a $500 employer contribution to an HSA; and
  • A plan with a $3,500 medical deductible, $0 drug deductible, 60% plan medical expense cost-sharing, 75% plan drug cost-sharing, a $6,400 maximum out-of-pocket limit, and drug co-pays of $10/$20/$50 for the first, second and third prescription drug tiers, with 75% coinsurance for specialty drugs.

HSAs, HRAs, and wellness programs — Impact on minimum value

The proposed regulations provide that current year employer contributions to a health savings account (HSA) and amounts newly made available under a health reimbursement arrangement (HRA) that is integrated with an eligible employer-sponsored plan and that are limited to the payment or reimbursement of medical expenses count toward the plan’s share of costs included in calculating minimum value. But if the HRA can be applied toward both the reimbursement of medical expenses and the payment of premiums, employer HRA credits may not be used in the minimum value determination. An integrated HRA is an HRA that coordinates with an employer’s group health plan.

The proposed regulations also provide that a plan’s share of costs for minimum value purposes is generally determined without regard to reduced cost-sharing available under a nondiscriminatory wellness program. But in the case of nondiscriminatory wellness programs designed to prevent or reduce tobacco use, minimum value may be calculated assuming that every eligible individual satisfies the terms of the program. These rules apply to wellness program incentives that affect deductibles, co-payments, or other cost-sharing.

HSAs, HRAs, and wellness programs — Impact on minimum value

Because HSAs cannot be used to pay premiums, they don’t affect affordability.

Amounts newly made available under an integrated HRA for the current plan year are taken into account in determining affordability if the employee may use the amounts only for premiums or if he or she may choose to use the amounts for either premiums or cost-sharing. According to the preamble to the proposed regulation, treating amounts that may be used either for premiums or cost-sharing towards affordability prevents double counting the HRA amounts when assessing minimum value.

Tracking the rules for determining minimum value, after 2014, wellness incentives may not be included as either additions to, or deletions from, an individual’s plan premium for purposes of calculating affordability unless the incentive is related to a tobacco cessation program. Thus, the affordability of a plan that charges a higher initial premium for tobacco users will be determined based on the premium that is charged to non-tobacco users, or tobacco users who complete the related wellness program, such as attending smoking cessation classes.

2014 Transition Rule

For purposes of applying the employer shared responsibility rules, for plan years beginning before January 1, 2015, an employer will not incur a penalty under the coverage prong where an employee qualifies for premium assistance if the offer of coverage would have been affordable or would have satisfied minimum value based on the required employee premium and cost-sharing determined as if the employee satisfied the requirements of any such wellness program (including a wellness program relating to tobacco use). This rule applies only to wellness plan terms and incentives in effect as of May 3, 2013, and only to employees who are in a category of employees eligible for the program as of that date.

The following table summarizes the rules governing wellness programs, HSAs and HRAs:

Click here to see table.

Modified Rule for Retirees

The proposed regulations provide that a pre-Medicare retiree who declines to enroll in available retiree coverage may qualify for premium assistance. This is similar to the rule adopted in final regulations under Code section 36B, under which an individual who may enroll in continuation coverage required under federal law or a state law is eligible for minimum essential coverage only for months that the individual is enrolled in the coverage. Under this proposed rule, a low-income retiree who declines to enroll in an employer’s retiree health plan may still qualify for premium assistance despite that employer’s coverage is both affordable and provides minimum value.