Dish Network, Darden Get Health-Law Waivers to Continue Employee Coverage

Dish Network Corp. and Darden Restaurants Inc. are among dozens of companies and organizations the Obama administration has exempted from the U.S. health-care law mandating minimum benefits for workers.

The Health and Human Services Department posted on its website today a list of the latest businesses that can avoid raising the minimum amount of insurance coverage to $750,000 starting next year. The requirements apply to so-called mini-med or limited benefit plans that employers use for low-wage or part-time workers.

Companies and unions say plans offer some coverage for workers whose pay is too low to afford traditional, more comprehensive health insurance. Regulators under President Barack Obama say the waivers will allow companies to keep offering plans, minimizing disruptions to the market and letting workers maintain their coverage.

“What we’re finding is that the regulators are balancing these points of view in a way that’s resulting in an attempt to make certain people can keep what they have, but that at the same time the law is implemented fairly and effectively,” Aetna Inc. Chief Executive Officer Ron Williams said on a Nov. 3 conference call discussing the health insurer’s earnings.

The waivers let companies avoid choosing among dropping worker coverage, spending far more on benefits or making employees pay out of pocket for the more expensive insurance. While avoiding market disruptions, the exemptions leave workers with coverage below the minimum standards the law provides.

Second Round

Aetna, based in Hartford, Connecticut, was part of a first round of waivers in September for 209,423 beneficiaries in plans that don’t comply with the new requirement. Oak Brook, Illinois- based McDonald’s Corp., the world’s largest restaurant chain, Jack in the Box Inc., based in San Diego, and the United Federation of Teachers also were among the waiver recipients.

About 200,000 people were included in the new round of exemptions, bringing the total to almost 1.2 million people, HHS said on its website. Also on the list for exemptions are Manor Care Inc., a nursing-home company owned by Washington-based private equity firm Carlyle Group, and Universal Forest Products Inc., a lumber company based in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Spokesmen for Manor and Universal Forest didn’t immediately respond to messages seeking comment.

Workers Covered

Dish Network, the Englewood, Colorado-based No. 2 U.S. satellite-television provider, will be given a waiver for 3,597 employees, and Orlando, Florida-based Darden Restaurants, owner of the Olive Garden and Red Lobster chains, will get a waiver for 34,000 workers, according to the HHS list. Darden spokesman Rich Jeffers didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment. Dish Network spokesman Marc Lumpkin declined to comment.

The waivers, which last for a year and can then be renewed, let workers keep coverage until new options are available in four years under the law, said Jessica Santillo, a spokeswoman for the agency.

“This process keeps people covered now as we move to 2014, where higher-quality coverage will be offered at an affordable price,” she said in an e-mail. Her department is in charge of implementing the law, signed in March, and approving applications for waivers.

--Alex Nussbaum in New York contributed to this report. Editors: Steve Walsh, Andrew Pollack

To contact the reporter on this story: Drew Armstrong in Washington at darmstrong17@bloomberg.net;

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Adriel Bettelheim at abettelheim@bloomberg.net.

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