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Obama cabinet nominee defends health-care law waiver request

During her Senate confirmation hearing today, Interior Secretary nominee Sally Jewell defended her decision as the CEO of sporting goods company REI to request a waiver from part of President Obama’s health-care law that would have insured part-time employees.

Jewell said that REI requested the waiver in March 2011 because the company already provided optional, limited-benefit health care coverage for its part-time workers with a $10,000 cap – the only way, Jewell said, REI could afford to cover those employees.

The Affordable Care Act bans such annual limits starting in 2014, however, at which time REI’s waiver will expire. In anticipation of that change Jewell said, the company “will be working to replace that plan with the exchange program,” referring to the health-care law’s insurance exchanges.

Jewell’s explanation came after Sen. John Barrasso, a member of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, said he hoped that her “first-hand” knowledge of “how waivers can help businesses avoid the negative impacts of bad policy” would inform her approach to exclusions to laws that would fall under her purview as Interior secretary.

Two years before REI requested the waiver, President Obama lauded the company at a White House event for committing to insuring all its employees. “REI, which has to be fit since they're a fitness company, has been doing work that allows them to provide health care coverage, health insurance, not only to their full-time employees, but also their part-time employees,” Obama said.

Some conservatives seized on REI’s waiver request, which came after Jewell stood beside Obama at the White House event, as an example of the Affordable Care Act’s overly burdensome requirements. “REI snagged a waiver to protect the health benefits of a whopping 1,180 workers from the very tentacles of the big government bureaucrats Jewell embraced at Obama's roundtable,” conservative commentator Michelle Malkin wrote in March 2012.

Jewell noted at the hearing that the 1,180 workers were part-time employees who voluntarily signed up for the, so-called “mini-med” plan.

“Those are the numbers that chose to sign up for a part-time plan," she said, "because these are people that had no possibility of coverage under any other plan that was affordable to them."