EBRI Issue Brief

Implications of ERISA for Health Benefits and the Number of Self-Funded ERISA Plans

Jan 1, 1998 28  pages


  • This Issue Brief provides an overview of the issues relating to the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (ERISA) and health benefit plans, the major case law relating to ERISA and health plans, and the implications of the preemption of state regulations for health plan sponsors and participants. It also presents the latest data on the number of health plan participants in self-funded ERISA plans. Finally, it presents a summary of current legislative proposals that would attempt to amend ERISA.
  • Under the framework ERISA established for employee benefit plans, the regulation of employment-based health benefit plans has evolved into a two-tiered system in which both federal and state laws play important roles. The Supreme Court has interpreted ERISA's "savings" and "deemer" clauses to mean that insured plans are subject to regulations directly at the federal level and indirectly at the state level, while self-funded plans are regulated exclusively at the federal level.
  • The ERISA statute and the courts' interpretations of the Act have created a sharp controversy over how employee health benefit plans are provided and administered, with state regulators and consumer advocates on one side of the debate and plan sponsors (e.g., employers and unions) on the other. State regulators and consumer advocates tend to favor more regulation, and in many instances greater regulation at the state level, which they argue would provide more protections for consumers. However, employers and unions (or any plan sponsors) think ERISA preemption is very important to their ability to provide innovative and cost-effective health benefits for their employees, and assert that ERISA's present structure should be preserved.
  • The U.S. General Accounting Office (GAO) found that 44 million individuals (39 percent of those in ERISA plans) were enrolled in self-funded ERISA plans in 1993, up from 39 million (33 percent of those in ERISA plans) in 1989. The Employee Benefit Research Institute (EBRI), using the same methodology as GAO with 1995 data, estimated that 48 million individuals (39 percent of those in ERISA plans) were enrolled in self-funded ERISA plans in 1995.
  • When policymakers look to amend ERISA, they should consider whether the change to ERISA will produce a higher level of quality for consumers than is being provided under the present system and will continue to do so in the future. Policymakers must also decide whether quality of care is better enhanced by health plans' greater exposure to liability or by market forces. If policymakers decide that increased exposure to liability is the route to go, will consumers be able to enjoy any potential improvement in quality or will more individuals end up uninsured because of increased costs and not be able to get any care regardless of the quality?