Full Health Plan Rules Are Put Off

BOSTON — The board that oversees the state’s landmark health insurance law voted recently to delay key elements by 18 months.

The step was taken to give residents and businesses more time to increase their health care coverage to meet more stringent requirements. Residents would still need some kind of health care coverage by July 1 or face tax penalties next year.

However, hallmarks of the plan, including the requirement that everyone be covered for prescription drugs, would not kick in until January 2009, under the preliminary regulations approved on March 20.

Officials said the extra months are needed to give employers, workers, and insurers more time to adapt to what the state defines as “minimum creditable coverage” — or the most basic health insurance that the state will recognize under law.

The regulations, when given final approval, would make Massachusetts the first state to require a range of insurance features, including drug coverage. All regulations approved Mach 20 now face a public comment period, with a final vote scheduled for June.

The delay to Jan. 1 2009 was praised by Robert Gibbons, interim president and CEO of the Mass. Hospital Assoc. “The delay is a practical adjustment that allows employers and individuals to transition to the new system while staying committed to the basic tenets of reform,” he said. “The Connector’s exemption for insurance products associated with health savings accounts warrants close monitoring. We must ensure that this decision meshes well with the fundamental purpose of health reform.”

Businesses had pushed for the extension, saying they needed more time to comply with the law.

“That gives us more time to educate employers and individuals about what’s being recommended here,” said Richard Lord, a board member and president of the Associated Industries of Mass.

The board also voted on March 20 to require prescription drugs as part of the minimum coverage over the objections of some employers, who said the drug coverage put too much of a financial burden on businesses.