11 Essential Pieces of the Stimulus Bill for Employers

The $900 billion COVID-19 relief bill passed by Congress at the end of 2020 is robust and nuanced. It covers a lot of ground, and can be confusing to navigate. As professionals in the insurance and benefits field, we went ahead and summarized the key points most relevant to our clients and colleagues.

 

  1. FFCRA Paid Leave

The COVID-19 pandemic continues and the vaccine is unlikely to be available on a wide-scale basis in the next several months. In light of this, the refundable payroll tax credits for emergency paid sick leave (EPSL) and extended family and medical leave (E-FMLA), which were enacted pursuant to the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, are extended through March 31, 2021.  Notably, only the tax credits are extended, which means compliance with the EPSL or E-FMLA requirements is voluntary for employers after December 31, 2020.

COVID Relief Bill

 

The policy behind this may have been to incentivize employers to continue allowing employees in the middle of FFCRA leave as of January 1, 2021 to finish out, and be paid for, any remaining leave to which they would have otherwise been entitled.  The tax credit is only available for leave that would otherwise satisfy the FFCRA, had it remained in effect, i.e., if employees for whom the employer provides paid leave would otherwise meet the eligibility requirements under the FFCRA and did not use the full amount of EPSL or E-FMLA leave between April 1, 2020 and December 31, 2020.

  1. FSAs and DCAPs

  • Employers offering a Dependent Care Assistance Program (DCAP) or health FSA may allow participants to carry over all unused DCAP and health FSA contributions or benefits remaining at the end of the 2020 plan year to the 2021 plan year.
  • Employers offering a DCAP or health FSA may extend the grace period for using any benefits or contributions remaining at the end of a plan year ending in 202
    0 or 2021 to 12 months after the end of the applicable plan year.
  • Similar to DCAPs, employers offering a health FSA may allow participants who cease participation during the 2020 or 2021 plan year to continue to be
  • reimbursed from any unused benefits through the end of the plan year (and applicable grace period) in which participation ceased.  This is often referred to as a “spend down” provision when included in a traditional DCAP.
  • Employers offering DCAPs may reimburse employees for dependent care expenses for children who turned 13 during the pandemic.  The relief applies to plan years with open enrollments that ended on or before January 31, 2020 (e.g., calendar year 2020 plans).  It also applies for the subsequent plan year (e.g., calendar year 2021 plans
    ) to the extent the employee has a balance at the end of the 2020 plan year after any relief adopted by the employer, such as an extended grace period or carry over.  The relief allows the employer to substitute “age 14” for “age 13” for purposes of determining eligibility for reimbursement of a child’s expenses.  In general, DCAP eligibility ends at age 13, except in cases of mental or physical incapacity.
  • Employers offering a health FSA or DCAP may allow employees to make prospective election changes (subject to annual limitations) to their 2021 contributions without experiencing a change in status event.
  1. Surprise Billing

A hot topic of late, surprise billing will be banned starting in 2022. This includes a ban on the consideration of reimbursement rates by Medicare, Medicaid, CHIP, or TRICARE, as well as a ban on “usual and customary charges” which should prevent providers from suggesting higher rates.

 

More specifically, healthcare consumers won’t get balance bills when they seek emergency care, are transported by air ambulance, or upon receiving nonemergency care at an in-network facility but from an out-of-network physician or laboratory. Instead, they will pay the deductibles and copays outlines in their in-network plans, and the insurer and the provider will use arbitration to come to an agreement on acceptable payments, leaving the patient out of the process. For those without insurance, the secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services will create a provider-patient bill dispute resolution process.

 

  1. Direct Economic Relief

While not quite as generous as the last wave, this $286 billion portion of the latest stimulus bill allows for:

  • Direct payments of $600 for individuals making up to $75,000 per year, and $1,200 for couples making up to $150,000 per year, as well as a $600 payment for each dependent child
  • An additional $300 per week for all workers receiving unemployment benefits will be provided through March 14, 2021
  • An extension of the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) program, with expanded coverage to the self-employed, gig workers, and others with nontraditional work engagements
  • The Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation (PEUC) program, giving additional weeks of federally-funded unemployment benefits to individuals who exhaust their regular state benefits
  • An increase in the maximum number of weeks an individual can claim benefits through state employment, the PEUC program, or the PUA program, to 50 weeks

 

  1. Small Business Relief

As the Amazons of the world rake in revenue, small businesses have been left in a tough spot throughout the pandemic. The $325 billion piece of the bill includes the following relief for small businesses:

  • Over $284 billion for first and second forgivable Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loans
  • Lending options
  • Expanded PPP eligibility for 501(c(6) nonprofits
  • $20 billion in grants for small businesses in low-income communities
  • $3.5 billion worth of continued small business administration (SBA) relief
  • Enhancements for SBA lending
  • $15 billion allocated toward live venues, independent movie theaters, and cultural institutions

 

  1. COVID-19 Testing, Treatment & Prevention

As the US grapples to keep up with the demand for testing and treatment as cases continue to surge, Congress has set aside $69 billion to address this dire situation. This section includes funding for the procurement of vaccines and therapeutics as well as for vaccine distribution. $300 million of this will be reserved for high risk and/or underserved areas. $22 billion will go to states for testing, tracing and mitigation programs. Mental health, support for healthcare providers, and COVID-19 research are all accounted for within this bucket.

  1. Schools

As schools of all types and levels struggle with remote learning and protection from the virus, the bill includes $82 billion to assist, including allowances for states, K-12 schools, and higher education institutions that have been significantly impacted.

  1. Child Care

Child care has become one of the biggest struggles for working parents throughout COVID-19. How can they mind their children at home while doing their jobs? Or, how can child care centers keep children and their families safe? As such, $10 billion has been allocated for the child care sector through the Child Care and Development Block Grant (CCDBG) program. The funds can be used to provide child care assistance to families, as well as to aid child care businesses with their new challenges. Of this, $250 million will be set aside for the Head Start providers for low-income children and families.

 

  1. Coronavirus Relief Fund Extension

The bill includes a provision that extends the availability of funds provided to states and localities by the Coronavirus Relief Fund in the CARES Act from 12/30/20 to 12/31/21.

 

  1. Employee Retention Tax Credit

The bill extends and expands the refundable Employee Retention Tax Credit (ERTC), part of the CARES Act, helping to keep more employees on payroll and more small businesses and nonprofits afloat.

  1. Student Loans

    The student loan provision of the original bill was been extended, so through the end of 2025, employers can make payments toward employees’ student loans – up to $2,500 annually – and have that amount be excluded from workers’ taxable income.

 

 

In addition, the bill expanded the lifetime learning credit, a tax break worth up to $2,000 per return can be used to offset the cost of undergrad, grad, or professional degrees.

There are also two important, miscellaneous tax issues we wanted to mention:

  • You are able to deduct qualifying expenses that exceed 7.5% of adjusted gross income on your federal income tax return, as long as you itemize your return. This is now permanent.
  • Workers whose payroll taxes have been deferred since September now have until 12/31/21 to pay back the government (extended from 4/30/21).

On top of our abbreviated list of must-knows, the bill also includes sections pertaining to Private Mortgage Insurance (PMI), environmental tax credits, broadband, transportation, farming and agriculture, and more. What the bill does not include is state and local aid funding, liability protection from COVID-19 lawsuits, and relief for the restaurant industry, among other areas.

 

If you have questions about what you’ve read or need help bringing your health, benefits, or leave programs up to speed, please get in touch (insight@springgroup.com).

9 Areas of Focus for HR Right Now – Part 7

Thanks for joining us on this nice little reflective exercise. There has been so much news to keep up with this year, that we thought it would be helpful to put pen to paper on our key COVID takeaways. We hope our numbers 1 through 6 provided some food for thought, and also some helpful advice. We are back this week with number 7, and it’s a big one.

 

  1. Leave & Accommodations

Leave laws are always front and center for us at Spring, but this year we had different considerations. While this topic interplays with many of the other themes on this list, I thought it important to reiterate some key legislative items we’ve been dealt this year.leave management covid

 

Currently there are very few legal parameters for supporting working parents during the pandemic, and no protections for employees worried about exposing people in their household. Any accommodations allowed here are largely based on the discretion of the employer. For working parents, consider flexible hours and different shifts. Further, companies should think about whether teleworking could work more permanently, you are likely to face some employee hesitancy to return to the office. This will be especially important depending on your office location and the case rates in that area.

 

As we think about traditional ADA accommodations processes and try to carry them out in a COVID world, we pose the following questions:

  • If an employee self-identifies themselves as high-risk, should an employer be asking for proof?
  • If an employee states they cannot wear a mask due to a disability, but cannot provide documentation, what does the employer do?
  • If an employee is asking for leave but is not eligible under ADA or FMLA, what other options are available?

I recently presented at DMEC where we suggested implementing short-term accommodations trials, especially when there is difficulty obtaining documentation, which there has been due to closing of medical offices to non-emergency patients and reluctance to visit medical offices out of fear. So if an employee asks for accommodation without documentation, try something that you find reasonable for 3 or 6 months without asking for medical information, and then revisit the trial at that point. Further, exhaust all return to work options (whether in-person or remote) first, and use leaves as a last resort.

With the expiration of the FFCRA, Emergency Paid Sick Leave (EPSL) and Emergency Family and Medical Leave (EFMLA) is no longer required, but the tax credit has been extended. Click here for more details on that. All of these complexities are making the case for federal leave law, in which we could avoid this patchwork of different leaves, but speakers remarked that while the desire is there, there are too many challenges to get it going during this economic climate.

Several states have implemented their own leave policies related to COVID: California, New York, New Jersey, Colorado, Washington D.C., with pending legislation in Massachusetts. Employers in these states will need to weave these into their programs.

Further, while there is no leave currently for those afraid to return to the workplace, employers should be cautious as it is possible for debilitating anxiety to occur in these cases, which could trigger a leave.

 

At the end of the day, while employers often worry about misuse of programs, research shows that less than 5% of individuals taking leave are abusing it. Further, as engrained in our culture, people are generally shamed of needing time of work to take care of themselves or others. To this end, we need to take a caring lens when it comes to leave and accommodations. Lastly, communicate your policies often, be proactive, make it easy for employees to find available resources, check in on  your colleagues, and be sure to have formal Stay and Work and Return to Work programs in place and updated.

 

Don’t miss our series wrap-up, numbers 8 and 9, coming to your inbox next week!

9 Areas of Focus For Employers Right Now: Parts 3 and 4

We are back with more industry food for thought. We hope you caught #s 1 and 2, telework and workplace safety here. We are continuing on with more unique challenges HR, benefits and absence management professionals are still facing in light of the pandemic.

 

  1. Mental and Behavioral Health

Mental and behavioral health has long been a concern for employers, but COVID-19 complicated this area in a myriad of ways. Research shows that by the end of the year, it’s projected that someone will die by suicide every 20 seconds. This could be the next pandemic, in that COVID-19 will lead to PTSD and increased rates of depression. In conjunction with suicide, overdose rates are rising and alcohol sales have skyrocketed. Domestic violence is also of particular concern as many have been stuck at home in unsafe environments, and with children largely out of schools and programs, there are less opportunities to report issues.employee mental health

One DMEC presentation shared that 45% of employees surveyed reported their mental health being negatively impacted in some capacity by COVID-19, and that it is often more difficult for older adults, those working in healthcare, and those with pre-existing conditions. The rapidly changing news on public health and the crisis is further contributing to anxiety.  However, the number one stressor for employees across the board pertains to finances.

Non-job related factors affecting mental health right now include:

  • Childcare
  • Health of family members and self
  • Social disconnectedness
  • Postponing or canceling of events and celebrations
  • Grief/loss

Then, of course, there are job stressors that may come into play, such as career development and relationships at work.

Now that I’ve painted a very grim picture, let’s talk about what employers can do to mitigate these mental and behavioral health complexities. Here are some ideas:

  • Conduct manager sensitivity training
  • Understand what signs of depression might look like, especially in this virtual world. An example might be morning fatigue from lack of sleep
  • Offer flexibility when possible – this could mean scheduled breaks or a switch from full-time to part-time
  • Treat mental health as you would physical health problems
  • Ensure employees understand what resources are available, such as EAPs
  • Offer benefits like 401(k) and retirement planning, HSAs and/or flexible spending accounts, emergency hardship assistance, etc.
  • Offer thoughtful perks like noise-canceling headphones, as those dealing with depression will have a harder time focusing
  • Leverage your disability carrier for help

Confronting and assisting with mental and behavioral health problems is not only a compassionate move, but a sound business decision as well. An employee with a mental health or addiction issue will be about half as productive; a DMEC presenter stated that this level of lost productivity can cost a company with 1,000 employees a minimum of $2.4 million a year.

Essentially, those who were experiencing anxiety, addiction, or depression before are facing magnified conditions now, and we have a larger subset of people who were not struggling in these areas prior to COVID-19 but now are. Your employees could be worried their spouse is going to lose his/her job so they are putting in overtime to secure their own job. Others are dealing with pre-existing conditions, aging parents who need extra care, children at home, a lack of social life, and so on.

As mental and behavioral health problems continue to soar, everyone can benefit from an employer proactively addressing them.

 

  1. Travel

The vast majority of employers have banned non-essential business travel. For personal travel, quarantine policies may come into play. The future of business travel, business travel policythat is, in a post-COVID world, remains unclear. One DMEC presentation cited a poll that showed 28% of employers planning on reducing business travel after the pandemic, and 51% of companies are unsure what they will do. On the other hand, 62% of employees surveyed stated they would prefer to travel less when the pandemic is over than they did before it started.

 

Be sure to check back in for #5 and beyond!

9 Areas of Focus for Employers Right Now: Parts 1 and 2

2020 has been a crazy year, and guess what? It’s not over yet. While we are still dealing with unusual circumstances and different challenges, we have all, to some degree, learned to roll with the punches over the last six month or so.
But as we all devised solutions for issues we did not anticipate facing, questions still remain. As we reflected on DMEC’s annual (virtual conference) and our discussions with our employer clients and vendors, we started jotting those blurry areas, and came up with nine items that are top-of-mind for benefits, HR, and absence management professionals.

HR Lessons 2020

  1. Telework

For the most part, employees that are able to telework are still doing so, a practice largely encouraged or required by employers. This is a safer and, in some ways, easier alternative and we are lucky to have technology to support remote working. Each employee has a different home situation, and their preference for remote working versus office working will depend on things like:

  • Where are their more distractions – at home, or at the office?
  • Do they have children at home that they are also homeschooling?
  • Do they have at-risk individuals in their home?
  • Do they have adequate space for a work setup conducive to productivity?

As teleworking continues for many employers further into 2020 and possibly beyond, companies need to be thinking about:

  • Do employees in remote areas have sufficient internet access?
  • Do employees have the equipment and amenities they need to do their job?
  • How will long-term or permanent teleworking affect corporate culture and camaraderie? What about the impacts on mental health?
  • Rethinking communications and management strategies in a virtual world.
  • Work-life balance issues and difficulties with shutting off work when working from home.

The consensus seems to be that regular communication, check-ins and different types of collaboration are a must. Employers may want to conduct surveys to gauge employee stress levels, the support they feel while teleworking, and family and home situations. One DMEC session reported that employers rated their teleworking experience as better than their employees did. Be sure to stay connected to ensure alignment.

Encourage employees to set boundaries and stick to them. Maybe they need an extended lunch hour to tend to their children’s needs, or they need a hard stop at the end of the day to ensure they disconnect from work, or they need 30 minutes a day to go for a walk to make sure they leave their house that day. Flexibility and compassion are key themes this year.

 

  1. Workplace Safety

To be clear, teleworking is strongly encouraged when possible, but depending on the job itself or the in

dustry of the employer, there are going to be people who cannot do their job remotely. When that’s the case, workplace safety takes on a lot more weight these days. Some of our recommendations are:

  • Creating a social distance plan, which could mean spreading out workspaces and/or designated one-way aisles for walking.
  • Requiring temperature checks each time an employee enters the building (this must be done confidentially and consistently for all employees). This might even include returning from a lunch or coffee break.
  • Installing plexiglass around workspaces.
  • Providing hand sanitizer, masks and thermometers for staff.
  • Installing antimicrobial door handles.
  • Propping doors open when possible so people can avoid high-touch areas.
  • Prohibiting non-employees from entering the office, such as vendors.
  • Implementing visual displays so people understand the proper distance to keep, where they should walk, where the high touch areas are, etc.
  • Assessing air ventilation in the office for possible improvements.

As a note, it is permissible for employers to require personal protective equipment (PPE) in the workplace, as well as to require testing for employees. In some cases, and when possible, some employers are going further and considering things like changing job responsibilities or moving the location of the job to a safer area. For example, perhaps you have a satellite office in a less infected region than headquarters that an employee can report to. Commuting concerns are something metropolitan businesses will need to address.

Some of these changes may be costly and timely, but some are simple. While the wellbeing of employees should always be top of mind for employers, there are other things at stake too. Failing to take preventative safety measures in the workplace could easily lead to workers’ compensation claims and OSHA lawsuits.

 

Stay tuned for #’s 3 and beyond…

DOL Issues Updated FFCRA Regulations In Light Of Recent Federal Court Decision

On September 11, 2020, the U.S. Department of Labor (“DOL”) released a temporary rule updating certain FFCRA regulations.  The temporary rule is scheduled to be published on September 16, 2020, and will be effective immediately through the expiration of the FFCRA’s paid leave provisions on December 31, 2020.

COVID-19 law

The temporary rule updates FFCRA regulations issued in April 2020 in response to a recent federal District Court decision which found four portions of the initial regulations invalid:  provisions related to whether the FFCRA applies if employers do not have work available for employees; the timing for which employees must request the need for leave; the definition of health care provider; and the availability of intermittent leave.

While many anticipated that the DOL would appeal the decision, the DOL elected to reaffirm and clarify its position on some of these issues, while choosing to revise or update others. Thus, while the court’s order was limited to companies operating in New York (or potentially only those in the Southern District of New York), the DOL’s revisions to the regulations apply to all employers subject to the FFCRA (inside and outside New York).

The District Court’s order and the updated regulations are discussed in more detail below.

New York Federal District Court Decision

Soon after the FFCRA regulations were implemented, the State of New York sued the DOL in the United Stated District Court for the Southern District of New York claiming the DOL exceeded its authority when it implemented several provisions of the FFCRA regulations. The District Court agreed in part and, in August, the court issued an order invalidating several portions of the FFCRA regulations.

  • Work Availability Requirement – The original regulations limited the availability of emergency paid sick leave and expanded FMLA leave to certain situations where theemployer’s business is open or the employer has work for the employee, but employee is unable to work due to a COVID-19 qualifying reason.  The court vacated this requirement, making the FFCRA available even if the employer does not have work for the employee, such as situations where the employee is furloughed or the business is closed.
  • Documentation – The FFCRA statute requires employees to notify an employer of the need for leave “after the first workday” during which an employee requires paid sick time; however, the initial FFCRA regulations required documentation to be provided to the employer before any sick time is taken. The court determined this was beyond the scope of the statute and vacated this requirement. The content of the documentation and the need for documentation was not eliminated, just the timing of when it must be provided.
  • Definition of Health Care Provider – The initial FFCRA regulations used an expansive definition of health care provider, which included individuals who work in support of health care operations, such as cleaning staff, food service professionals and cooks, maintenance workers, IT staff, or other administrative support staff who support health care operations.   The district court vacated the definition of health care provider, finding it overbroad.
  • Intermittent Leave – The initial regulations allowed employees to take intermittent leave in certain situations with employer approval/agreement.  The court found this inconsistent with the statute and rejected this aspect of the regulation as an impermissible limitation on the availability of intermittent leave.

Updated Regulations

In the updated regulations, DOL reaffirms its regulations related to the work availability and intermittent leave requirements, but provided further clarification or explanation of its regulations.  The DOL revised regulations related to the definition of “health care provider” and notice requirements.  The rationale and changes are discussed more fully below:

Work Availability

Specifically, for purposes of the work availability requirement, the DOL affirms that neither emergency paid sick leave nor expanded FMLA under the FFCRA may be taken unless the employer has work available for the employee (the “work availability” requirement).  The FFCRA statute provides that leave under the FFCRA is available if an employee is unable to work (or telework) “because of” or “due to” a qualifying reason under the FFCRA.  The DOL cites to U.S. Supreme Court authority that interprets “because of” or “due to” language to create a “but for” test or analysis. Thus, FFCRA leave must be the “but for” cause of the employee’s inability to work.  Furthermore, the DOL reasons that the plain meaning of the word “leave” in this context, and based on longstanding DOL interpretation, means that someone has to be absent from work at a time the employee would otherwise be working. Thus, the DOL stands by its original regulation and provides that an employee cannot take FFCRA leave if there was no work available from the employer for the employee to perform.

Finally, the DOL explains that this requirement was intended to apply for all qualifying reasons under the FFCRA, not just those that were initially listed in the original regulations.

Intermittent Leave

The FFCRA is silent about the availability of intermittent leave, but as the DOL notes in the preamble to the updated regulations, the DOL was given broad authority to develop rules under the law.  Thus, consistent with FMLA regulations, the DOL interpreted the availability of intermittent expanded FMLA leave for employees working onsite similar to how it applies for purposes of FMLA, which may also require employer approval.  For emergency paid sick leave, however, there is opportunity for spreading COVID-19 in the workplace.  Thus, it would be contrary to the purpose of the FFCRA to allow someone to take emergency paid sick leave intermittently (unless caring for a child whose regular day care provider is unavailable due to COVID-19). Therefore, for employees working on-site, the DOL reaffirms its decision to only allow intermittent leave for expanded FMLA leave purposes.  The DOL confirmed, however, as originally provided, that intermittent leave may be available for any FFCRA qualified reason if an employee is teleworking, as there is no risk the employee would spread COVID-19 at a worksite.  In any intermittent leave context, however, permission from the employer is still required.

Health Care Provider Definition

In an effort to ensure the public health system could maintain its necessary function during COVID-19 pandemic, the FFCRA allowed employers to exclude employees who are “health care providers” or “emergency responders” from eligibility for expanded FMLA leave and emergency paid sick leave.

The DOL took an expansive approach in defining “health care provider” in its initial FFCRA regulations to ensure health care operations would not be hampered, such as ensuring maintenance to health care facilities, trash collection, food services for hospital workers, and other similar services.  The District Court found this approach to be overly broad and, therefore, per the District Court’s order, the DOL opted to revise its definition of health care provider.  In the updated regulations, health care providers include employees who are health care providers under existing FMLA regulations and “any other employee who is capable of providing health care services such as diagnostic services, preventive services, treatment services, and other services that are integrated with and necessary to the provision of patient care and, if not provided would adversely impact patient care.”

This could include a variety of health care practitioners other than doctors, including nurses, nurse assistants, medical technicians, and laboratory technicians.  The preamble and rule provide numerous examples of what would constitute diagnostic, preventive or treatment services, and services integrated with these that are necessary for patient care, such as bathing, dressing, or feeding patients, among several others.  Food service professionals, IT professionals, building maintenance workers, HR professionals, or other individuals who do not provide health care services even though their work impacts health care services are no longer included in the definition of health care providers.

Employees falling within the new definition of health care provider can work in a variety of settings including, but not limited to, hospitals, clinics, doctor’s offices, medical schools, local health departments, nursing or retirement facilities, nursing homes, home health providers, laboratories, or pharmacies.

Notice of the Need for Leave

In the updated regulations, the DOL clarifies that notice of the need for emergency paid sick leave must be provided as soon as practicable (instead of before emergency sick leave is taken), which is consistent with the position the plaintiffs took when they challenged the original regulations.

Additionally, the DOL revised the regulations regarding notice of expanded FMLA leave.  For a foreseeable need to expanded FMLA leave, the employee must provide notice as soon as is practicable, which may mean the employee may have to provide advance notice of the need for leave if the facts and circumstances support prior notice.  Prior notice is not required for unforeseeable need for expanded FMLA leave.  Finally, the employer may require an employee to substantiate the need for leave as soon as practicable, which may be at the same time notice is provided.

The DOL also updated its FFCRA FAQ’s consistent with the updated regulations.

Conclusion

As mentioned previously, the DOL’s updated regulations impact all employers subject to the FFCRA, not just those with employees in New York. Thus, all impacted employers should familiarize themselves with the updated regulations and administer them accordingly moving forward.

To the extent an employer has employees impacted by the revised regulations, such as individuals previously included in the DOL’s broad definition of health care provider or employees who were denied emergency paid sick leave for failing to provide advance notice, they should consult directly with counsel to discuss how to address those specific situations.

About the Author.  This alert was prepared by Marathas Barrow Weatherhead Lent LLP, a national law firm with recognized experts on the Affordable Care Act.  Contact Danielle Capilla (danielle.capilla@aleragroup.com) with questions.

The information provided in this alert is not, is not intended to be, and shall not be construed to be, either the provision of legal advice or an offer to provide legal services, nor does it necessarily reflect the opinions of the agency, our lawyers or our clients.  This is not legal advice.  No client-lawyer relationship between you and our lawyers is or may be created by your use of this information.  Rather, the content is intended as a general overview of the subject matter covered.  This agency and Marathas Barrow Weatherhead Lent LLP are not obligated to provide updates on the information presented herein.  Those reading this alert are encouraged to seek direct counsel on legal questions.

© 2020 Marathas Barrow Weatherhead Lent LLP.  All Rights Reserved.

7 Predictions About How COVID-19 Will Change Healthcare

Covid-19 has taken the world by storm, and a myriad of markets are being impacted significantly. Businesses of all sizes are having to implement layoffs, terminations and furloughs to stay afloat, even with the federal relief being offered. At the crux of it all is health care: where we look to save the lives of our friends and loved ones, where we rely on accessibility to care, where we put our hopes for a cure.

Some would argue that health care in the U.S. was broken before the pandemic hit. Whether you agree with that or not, Covid-19 has no doubt highlighted gaps in the health care system and our abilities to handle a catastrophe. Health care providers, insurance carriers, employers and consumers will all be impacted even after the dust settles and the urgency diminishes. Here are seven ways we expect the health care markets to be affected.

1. Telemedicine is here to stay

While early adopters were already utilizing telemedicine, everyone has come to see the real value of it. Covid-19 has instilled in most people a certain degree of germaphobia that isn’t likely to go away any time soon, so many are wondering why they would go to a hospital or clinic to get a diagnosis, consultation or prescription when they don’t need to. That said, there is a demographic divide here: older generations, who often have more medical needs and appointments, are generally less comfortable switching to a digital format.

A great advantage of telemedicine is its ability to even the playing field in terms of access. It doesn’t matter if you live in Manhattan or the rural countryside, you can get the same care at a comparable price. This is extremely important as we see the ways in which Covid-19 has widened the socioeconomic divides in our country.

Telemedicine will rise in popularity for mental and behavioral health issues as well. This at a time when anxiety, depression and hardships are at a recent high. We also anticipate a boost in concierge telemedicine services as well.

An increase in telemedicine utilization may yield cost savings in the long term. In the short term, however, details are blurry in terms of pricing for visits. Further, some people now using telemedicine may not have otherwise seen a doctor at all, which skews utilization rates.

2. Deferred health costs

There are still a lot of unknowns regarding the impact Covid-19 will have on health insurance costs. At a high level, we estimate the net impact on the cost of medical claims over 12 months (April 4, 2020 to March 3, 2021) for an “average employer” to be an increase of 6%-8%, with most simulation results in the range of 2%-14%. Member demographics, location and industry will impact these projections. Further, our proprietary modeling shows that short-term drug spend is up, while short-term medical spend is down.

3. Cost shifting

The April unemployment rate for the U.S. was 14.7%. For comparison’s sake, the average unemployment rate for the year of 2019 was 3.6%. This uptick in unemployment will cause many who were previously covered under employer-sponsored health plans to move to governmental programs, such as Medicaid or Medicaid, if eligible, as these are much less costly than the employer-sponsored plan’s COBRA. In fact, commercial prices are often far more than 50% above Medicare payment rates according to the Medicare Payment Policy report to Congress. As the unemployed struggle with finances and find themselves in different income brackets, this shift will be significant.

As a result, health care facilities, which are already losing revenue due to the lack of elective procedures during the pandemic, will face further financial woes because they make less money from patients who are insured through governmental programs than they do for those insured commercially. Meanwhile, the commercial insurers (i.e., Cigna, Blue Cross Blue Shield), may actually save money amid the crisis due to a lower volume of claims (which goes back to the delay of elective procedures). This point is important for employers to be aware of as a negotiating tactic as they approach their plan renewal.

4. Expansion of coverage

With the government and carriers making exceptions to existing health plan policies through 2020, it is clear that we were dealing with critical coverage gaps, and we anticipate these areas to stay written into health plans. This goes for telemedicine benefits, counseling and mental health, extra prescription refills, relaxed utilization management requirements, specialized treatment, vaccines and changes to flexible spending account (FSA), health savings account (HSA) and health reimbursement arrangement (HRA) eligible purchases. The result will be an overall broader offering of benefits at a higher cost.

5. Push for more government involvement

Throughout the crisis, we have learned that employer-sponsored programs can only get us so far. Especially with election season upon us, we’re predicting a jump in support for programs like Medicare For All, where a public program better suited and funded for “unprecedented circumstances” would already be established. We can see this in the recent grant of additional funding for Medicaid.

6. Greater focus on claims control strategies

We expect employers to take a closer look at how they can minimize volatility and improve population health management. This might involve a stronger emphasis on risk management strategies and programs and advanced data and reporting procedures. More companies will be turning to consultants and actuaries for things like trend analyses, audits, repricing and projections. We anticipate that more businesses will be considering population health management programs as a long-term strategy for a healthier population that will, in turn, lower claims costs and lessen operational risk in the face of a similar catastrophe. More than ever, the key to a business’s success will stem in part from its ability to encourage and facilitate a healthy workforce.

7. Rethinking long-term care

Among the many hardships the world faces today lies the fear instilled in those who have loved ones in nursing homes or like facilities. Based on the observations from the current crisis, they are hubs for exposure and infection among an already high-risk population. We predict the health care system of the future to include an overhaul of home health care programs and assistance, as many will not feel comfortable in larger care facilities, something once commonplace.

In summary, the outlook for the health care industry post Covid-19 will be a mix of positives and negatives. We do expect a hike in plan costs and mentality shifts that move people beyond traditional health care. Further, organizations of all types will be carefully analyzing their health care spend and loss history, gaining a better understanding of where each dollar is going and if it can be spent more strategically. These factors and more will constitute what will gradually become the new normal.

Legal Alert: Carrier Premium Credits and ERISA Fiduciary Obligations

Due to COVID-19 and state and local stay-at-home orders, utilization of group medical and dental insurance benefits is down.  As a result, some carriers recently notified employers that they will be issued premium credits. When asking how these premium credits should be treated by the employer, we often compare then to the ACA’s medical loss ratio (MLR) rebates.  While these premium credits are not MLR rebates, a similar decision must be made to determine whether they, like MLR rebates, are ERISA plan assets.COVID-19 law

Background

As background, the Affordable Care Act’s MLR rule requires health insurers to spend a certain percentage of premium dollars on claims or activities that improve health care quality, otherwise they must provide a rebate to employers. At the same time the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services issued the MLR rule, the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) issued Technical Release 2011-04 (TR 2011-04), which clarifies how rebates should be treated under ERISA.  Under ERISA, anyone who has control over plan assets, such as the plan sponsor, has fiduciary obligations and must act accordingly.

Clearly, the premium credits we are seeing are not subject to the MLR rule; however, a similar analysis applies.   TR 2011-04 clarified that insurers must provide any MLR rebates to the policyholder of an ERISA plan.  However, while the DOL’s analysis was focused on MLR rebates, it recognized that distributions from carriers can take a variety of forms, such as “refunds, dividends, excess surplus distributions, and premium rebates.”  Regardless of the form or how the carrier describes them, to the extent that a carrier credit, rebate, dividend, or distribution is provided to a plan governed by ERISA, then the employer must always consider whether it is a “plan asset” subject to Title I of ERISA.  If it is, then as the party with authority and control over the “plan assets,” the employer is a fiduciary subject to Section 404 of ERISA and bound by the prohibited transactions provisions of Section 406.  In other words, to the extent that a refund is a plan asset, it must be used for the exclusive benefit of plan participants, which may include using it to enhance plan benefits or returning it to employees in the form of a premium reduction or cash refund.

Treatment of Premium Credits to Employers

In situations where an employer uses a trust to hold the insurance policies, the DOL’s position is that the rebates are generally assets of the plan.  However, in situations where the employer is the policyholder, the employer may, under certain circumstances, retain some or all of a rebate, credit, refund, or dividend.  When considering whether a rebate is a plan asset, the terms of the plan should be reviewed.  As discussed below, some employers draft their plan documents in a manner that allows them to retain these types of refunds.  If the terms of the plan are ambiguous, the DOL recommends employers use “ordinary notions of property rights” as a guide.

When determining whether carrier credits, dividends, distributions or rebates are ERISA plan assets, the DOL will look to the terms of the documents governing the plan, including the insurance policy.  If these governing documents are silent on the issue or unclear, then the DOL will take into consideration the source of funding for the insurance premium payments.  In such situations, the amount of a premium credit that is not a plan asset (and that the employer may therefore retain) is generally proportional to the amount that the employer contributed to the cost of insurance coverage.  For example, if an employer and its employees each pay a fixed percentage of the cost, a percentage of the premium credit equal to the percentage of participants’ cost would be attributable to participant contributions.  In the event that there are multiple benefit options, a premium credit attributable to one benefit option cannot be used to benefit enrollees in another benefit option.

The Plan Document

Employers can draft their plans to make it clear that the employer retains all rebates, credits, distributions, etc. if the rebates, credits, distributions, etc. do not exceed the employer’s contribution towards the benefit.  If given this flexibility in the plan, the employer may not have to return a portion of the premium credit to employees or use the credit to provide a premium reduction.  While this gives employers more flexibility, employers should consider that carriers communicate some premium refunds, such as an MLR rebates, to both the policyholder and participants, therefore employees know the employer received money back from the carrier and they may expect something in return.   Therefore, there is the potential for employee relations issues with this approach.

If the plan document does not provide this flexibility to the employer, is silent with regard to the use of such funds, or is unclear about how such funds are allocated, then the employer should treat any premium credits like they are ERISA plan assets (to the extent they’re attributable to employee contributions) and allocate them accordingly.

Allocating the Employees’ Share of a Premium Credit

The portion of the premium credit that is considered a plan asset must be handled according to ERISA’s general standards of fiduciary conduct.  However, as long as the employer adheres to these standards, it has some discretion when allocating the premium credit.

If an ERISA plan is 100 percent employee paid, then the premium credit must be used for the benefit of employees. If the cost of the benefit is shared between the employer and participants, then the premium credit can be shared between the employer and plan participants.

There is some flexibility here.  For example, if the employer finds that the cost of distributing shares of a premium credit to former participants approximates the amount of the proceeds, the employer may decide to distribute the portion of a premium credit attributable to employee contributions to current participants using a “reasonable, fair, and objective” method of allocation.  Similarly, if distributing cash payments to participants is not cost-effective (for example, the payments would be de minimis amounts, or would have tax consequences for participants) the employer may apply the premium credit toward future premium payments or benefit enhancements.  An employer may also vary the premium credit so that employees who paid a larger share of the premium will receive a larger share of the premium credit.

Ultimately, many employers provide the employees’ share of the premium credit in the form of a premium reduction or discount to all employees participating in the plan at the time the premium credit is distributed.  Employers should review all relevant facts and circumstances when determining how such a credit will be distributed.

Regardless, to avoid ERISA’s trust requirement, the portion of a premium credit that is plan assets must be used within three months of receipt by the policyholder.

Conclusion

Employers that would like additional flexibility in how to treat carrier premium credits should work with counsel to update their plan documents. Even for plans with flexibility built into the terms, we encourage consultation with counsel to review the facts and circumstances surrounding any such premium credits to ensure compliance with ERISA.

 

About the Authors.  This alert was prepared for Alera Group by Marathas Barrow Weatherhead Lent LLP, a national law firm with recognized experts on the Affordable Care Act.  Contact Stacy Barrow or Nicole Quinn-Gato at sbarrow@marbarlaw.com or nquinngato@marbarlaw.com.

The information provided in this alert is not, is not intended to be, and shall not be construed to be, either the provision of legal advice or an offer to provide legal services, nor does it necessarily reflect the opinions of the agency, our lawyers or our clients.  This is not legal advice.  No client-lawyer relationship between you and our lawyers is or may be created by your use of this information.  Rather, the content is intended as a general overview of the subject matter covered.  This agency and Marathas Barrow Weatherhead Lent LLP are not obligated to provide updates on the information presented herein.  Those reading this alert are encouraged to seek direct counsel on legal questions.

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