Straight talk on health reform

Q: What will health care reform do about the health plans that McDonald’s has for employees?

C, from Atlanta

A:  These limited benefit or ‘’mini-med’’ plans, popular among retailers such as McDonald’s, have tight annual limits on coverage – $2,000 to $10,000 or so. That means employees pay 100 percent of any bill when their health spending exceeds that cap.

Mini-med plans will probably be phased out in 2014 when the health insurance exchanges are operating, unless the health reform law perishes under court rulings or legislative action. “Limited benefit coverages are likely to be replaced by more complete coverage through an exchange,’’ says Bill Custer, a health insurance expert at Georgia State University. Low-wage workers then would buy insurance through the exchanges, receiving subsidies to help them afford more comprehensive coverage.

Reform has required that health plans carry an annual limit of at least $750,000. Recently, though, the Department of Health and Human Services has allowed more than 200 employers and unions to have a waiver from that limit in their health plans. These companies include McDonald’s and Norcross-based Waffle House. The employer or union must certify that such an exemption is needed to prevent a big hike in premiums or a large number of employees dropping coverage entirely.

McDonald’s says these plans are often the only affordable option for many part-time or low-wage employees.

As health reform is rolled out, Custer says, the White House view ‘’is that it’s better to have some coverage than none.’’