Labor leaders have complained for months that without the subsidies, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act would drive up the cost of some union plans, leading employers to drop coverage and jeopardizing health coverage for millions of union members.
The White House cited a Treasury Department letter saying there is no legal way for union members in multiemployer group health plans to receive subsidies. In a statement, the White House said it would work with unions and encourage them to offer their multiemployer plans "through the marketplace, on an equal footing, to create new, high-quality, affordable options for all Americans."
That alternative is not ideal for unions. They would have to turn their private plans into public, competitive plans that are open to all workers, not just union members. And they would have to meet a host of complex new requirements under federal and state laws. It would take months to work out the details, and the plans would have to be approved by federal and state regulators before being deemed qualified health plans that could offer health insurance to the public.
The AFL-CIO declined to comment on the White House decision.
Earlier Friday, shortly after meeting with Obama, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka told reporters outside the White House that he hoped the administration would act soon to address labor's concerns over the new healthcare law. He called the meeting a "problem-solving session."
"We'll try to get it done in the next week," Trumka said. "It may take a little longer to enact everything."
Unions were among the most ardent supporters of the health law when it passed in 2010. Union officials say they still support the law's goal of reducing health costs and providing coverage to millions of uninsured Americans. But some union leaders have complained for months that it is not being implemented fairly. Those concerns spilled out this week at the AFL-CIO convention in Los Angeles as the labor federation passed a resolution calling the impact of the law "highly disruptive" to union healthcare plans.
Unions claim the new law will increase costs for health plans that are jointly administered by unions and smaller employers in the construction, retail and transportation industries. That could encourage employers to hire fewer union workers or abandon the health plans altogether and force union members to seek lower-quality coverage on the new health exchanges.
Associated Press writer Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar contributed to this report.