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Jon Greenberg
By Jon Greenberg October 18, 2013

Rep. Mulvaney says Obama gave 1,100 special waivers to Obamacare to his friends

On the last morning of the government shutdown and debt ceiling standoff, the conservative lawmakers who took the hardest line in the showdown stood firm even as they faced defeat. One of them, Rep. Mick Mulvaney, R-S.C., said it was all worthwhile given the principle at stake.

Asked on CBS News what that principle was, Mulvaney said it was about fairness under Obamacare.

"Our question, for the last three weeks, has been, ‘Why is it not evenly applied across all the citizens?’ " Mulvaney said. The president, he said, "has given 1,100 special waivers to his friends. Now he gave it most recently to large corporations. All we have been asking for the last two and a half weeks is that those same exemptions apply to our families."

Here, we’ll examine whether President Barack Obama "has given 1,100 special waivers to his friends."

This is a claim that Mulvaney’s political allies have made several times. Groups such as the Christian Coalition have circulated it, although the exact number sometimes varies. Rep. Jeb Hensarling, R-Texas, said "almost 1,100 waivers." Rep. Steve Scalise, R-La., said it was over 1,200. We reached out to Mulvaney’s office to get the details but didn’t hear back.

Our research took us (as well as our fact checking colleagues at the Washington Post) to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. The waivers in question have to do with private insurance plans that cost very little but cap the total amount they will pay at less than $1.25 million in a single year. The limits can be considerably less. There are plans that don’t pay more than $2,000 and even one that stops at $300.

That threshold matters because one big thing the Affordable Care Act does is set minimum standards for health insurance -- including the elimination of annual caps by 2014. The law says there can be no limits, but it left it to the Secretary of Health and Human Services to set rules for how to transition to that goal. Those rules said that as of 2011, every plan had to pay at least $1.25 million, and as of 2014, with very few exceptions, there could be no annual limits at all.

But even putting the transition on a glide path created a potential dilemma, especially for large firms that hire many low-wage workers. Faced with having to improve their coverage quickly, there was a chance that many employers would instead drop the insurance altogether. To avoid leaving those workers with no insurance at all, HHS set up a way for companies and insurance plans to apply for waivers.

Who got a waiver?

The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services tallies who has been granted a waiver, and who applied but was denied. At last count, the total number of waivers was 1,231. So Mulvaney’s has actually undercounted somewhat.

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However, his use of the term "friends" is more questionable. Here is a sample of some of the recipients: Baptist Retirement Homes of North Carolina. Pepsi. The Wyoming Lodging and Restaurant Association. Goodwill Industries of Kentucky. Wendy’s. McDonald’s.

The common denominator seems to be who these firms hire -- low-wage workers. If "friendship" played a role, it’s hard to discern. And it’s not clear that these are major political allies of the president, either.

On the other hand, some unions -- which usually lean Democratic -- were on the list as well. We found about 450 plans that serve union workers -- roughly a third of the total.

That said, 144 groups were denied a waiver, and union plans were included on that list as well. Plans could reapply and some did. In general, if a plan reapplied, it then got a waiver. Unions show up a lot in this group, but some ultimately were turned down.

We should also note that Mulvaney called these "special waivers." But by and large, whoever applied tended to get approved. That doesn’t seem particularly special to us.

All of these waivers expire as of Jan. 1, 2014.

Our ruling

Mulvaney said that under Obamacare, the president "has given 1,100 special waivers to his friends."

He’s close on the number, but it’s wrong to say that all (or even most) went to his "friends" or political allies. It’s also doubtful that any of these were "special," since the option was widely publicized and mostly granted when applied for.

We rate the claim Mostly False.

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Rep. Mulvaney says Obama gave 1,100 special waivers to Obamacare to his friends

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