Obama Administration Grants Health Care Waivers to Big Companies, Unions

McDonalds got a break Thursday -- as did the 351,000 members of the United Federation of Teachers -- when the federal government gave waivers to high-profile companies and organizations letting them opt out of a key mandate in the new health care law.

The one-year waiver to 30 employers, insurers and union plans, covers about 1 million people and allows the groups to maintain minimal coverage below the new law's standards.

Administration officials defend the move as a means to protect lower wage workers wanting coverage. It makes sure a new class of of uninsured Americans is not created before other options are available.

"The waivers are about ensuring and protecting the coverage that people have until there are better options available to them in 2014," said White House spokesman Robert Gibbs. "This is about implementing a bill correctly. This is about ensuring ... we don't put them at the mercy of health insurance companies."

Among those getting the out are several fast-food restaurants, small manufacturing and construction businesses, some farm workers and the New York City school teachers, whose union supported the health care law but also provides supplemental insurance to its members.

Michael Mulgrew, president of the United Federation of Teachers, said his union wants to weight whether it would be too costly to cover its new members.

"We have 13,000 new members because of federal legislation, and rather than automatically raising payments to providers, have asked for a waiver while we see if we have additional costs that would make such payments necessary," he said.

Unions were among the major supporters of the president's push for health care reform. But some experts say less than a month before the Nov. 2 midterm election, the move signals a political concern.

"Democrats are going to have a hard enough time getting their candidates elected to the House and having a bunch of hamburger jockeys losing their health insurance is certainly not a way to endear yourself to the populous," said Joe Antos of the American Enterprise Institute.

Although the waivers are to last one year, groups can apply to extend them until 2014. Critics note that the 30 groups permitted the out are well-organized, and predict many more organizations will seek waivers.