To Transform Healthcare, Let’s Prioritize These 6 Areas

A recap of the Boston Business Journal Future of Healthcare Event on April 7th

Spring was proud to sponsor the Boston Business Journal’s breakfast event earlier this month. The title, “The Future of Healthcare,” is a critical point of discussion for our team and our clients day in and day out, and carries more weight now since the pandemic highlighted critical system gaps. Our consultants continuously look for innovative solutions that help organizations mitigate the impacts of rising healthcare costs, attract and retain employees, address behavioral health, and ultimately frame insurance and employee benefits in a more strategic way. Our work closely aligns with the market and what is trending with key players, such as insurance carriers, healthcare providers, technology vendors, and more. As such, we were delighted to get the inside scoop directly from industry partners.Future of Healthcare

The in-person (refreshing!) event provided much food for thought and called upon the sentiments of a range of stakeholders. Michael Dandorph, President and CEO at Tufts Medicine, provided the healthcare provider viewpoint. Andrew Dreyfus, President and CEO of Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts (BCBSMA), an industry veteran, brought the health plan perspective to the table. And Ali Hyatt, General Manager of Provider Commercialization and Marketing at Amwell, a telemedicine company, rounded out the discussion.

While the panelists all brought different points of view, there was a clear consensus as to what areas of healthcare need the most attention, and where the industry should focus in order to shape a more positive “Future of Healthcare.” A common thread was the need to view healthcare through the lens of the consumer (the patient) and find ways to improve that experience. We repeatedly heard the word transformation, meaning we all need to reframe our thinking and our approach to address the following key areas:

  1. Affordability

It’s no surprise that affordability was front and center, as healthcare costs continue to climb. As Dreyfus pointed out, the problem only got worse when COVID-19 necessitated paying higher salaries to staff, and caused premiums to increase. The rise of high-cost specialty drugs, which now represent around 25% of healthcare spending, and the consolidation of healthcare systems add even more fuel to the fire. As a result, employers are increasingly shifting more of the health plan costs to their employees, creating real barriers to care. Dreyfus cited a survey that found that in Massachusetts, half of the public has delayed or avoided necessary care due to costs. And as Hyatt pointed out, access is the most important driver of affordability. It is lack of access that tends to escalate prices for all parties within the healthcare system.

But enough about the problem; we all know it’s grim. When it comes to solutions, the panelists had ideas. Amwell is focused on making things like follow-up treatment, appointment making and care regimens easier to build an infrastructure that yields better outcomes. Tufts Medicine is working to build trust with consumers to help them better manage their health proactively, so that perhaps the patient never has to come to the hospital at all. Dreyfus emphasized the need to move away from the current fee-for-service system, where physicians earn less if they can keep a patient out of the hospital, which is backwards. “We should be paying for health and outcomes,” stated Dreyfus. High costs in a pandemic-stricken environment have pushed people away from engaging with healthcare systems and added to stress, leading to increased issues surrounding…

  1. Mental Health

The speakers came at mental health from multiple angles. There is the obvious problem, which is that COVID-19 took immeasurable tolls on mental health. For as much good that technology has done regarding the flexibility to “work-from-anywhere,” it has also been detrimental. Dandorph pointed out that remote work for many just means logging on earlier and signing off later, with almost no down time. Hyatt added that a recent Microsoft study showed that employees were pulling an additional “third shift” from 9-10PM, feeling the need to log back in at night after tending to family or other obligations. Beyond work pressures, we also have retirees and seniors to consider, who have been isolated, vulnerable and afraid since the onset of the pandemic, and have been exhibiting increasing signs of depression and/or dementia as they struggle with loneliness.

Then there is the more specific problem, which is burnout within the healthcare industry. Dandorph dubbed this the “pandemic before the pandemic,” with suicide rates among physicians more than double that of the general population. COVID-19 amplified things, and staff has been retreating ever since, adding to the labor shortage we are seeing across all sectors. To solve for this crisis, the panelists stressed the need to simplify processes to relieve the burden on healthcare professionals. They are looking at ways to eliminate clinicians spending hours on the phone for pre-authorization processes, or typing up notes, and ultimately remove steps when possible. By integrating automation technologies and digitizing routine tasks, not only will staff get back time, but administrative costs should also go down.

The good news is the stigma around mental health has fallen – maybe not completely, but significantly. For their part, BCBSMA has dramatically expanded their staff in this area, adding around 17,000 social workers, psychologists, psychiatrists and others. In some cases, the health plan is paying mental health practitioners more to bring them back into insurance networks, as they are often separate due to administrative burden. BSBCMA has also committed to pay at parity for mental health visits indefinitely.Employee Burnout

The panelists agreed that all the touchpoints of healthcare are inter-related; you can’t have a strong system if one cog in the wheel is poor. Specifically, the mental health component can be helped in part by…

  1. Digitization

Telehealth was a hot topic at the Boston Business Journal event. While it was even higher during the height of the pandemic, Tufts Medicine is still seeing about 80% of behavioral health visits and  15%-20% of all healthcare visits in a virtual format.

In summary, there’s no going backwards. Telehealth is here to stay, and Hyatt told a memorable story highlighting its value beyond mere convenience. She described a patient treated by Amwell who, at the time did not have a primary care physician (PCP) and was struggling with bronchitis systems. He was a smoker, mid-50’s, with various health issues such as emphysema and high blood pressure. He remembered he had access to Amwell and through his virtual visit, the clinician was able to discern that his nebulizer tubing was cracked, that he was not taking his blood pressure medication, and that his wife’s cuff he had been using wasn’t the right fit. After the visit these problems were resolved and he was enrolled in a care management program through the insurer from which he receives nutrition tips, reminders about appointments, and more. As Hyatt put it, “This was a consumer who would have gotten lost in the system.” Dreyfus agreed that seeing patients in their home environment can be extremely valuable, as the clinician can do things like look into their fridge to get a gauge of their diet, look into their medicine cabinet to understand drug-to-drug interactions, or flag things like rugs that could cause a fall.

Telehealth does not work for every medical issue, and some still prefer in-person care. Importantly, Dreyfus flagged up that someone seeking mental health services, for example, may not be comfortable doing so in their home, which could be the source of their stress. But as Hyatt pointed out, we shouldn’t be viewing it as telehealth versus in-person care, but how it all works together. The panelists think of telehealth as the beginning of a series of services that are more focused on the patient experience with the goal of increasing…

  1. Consumer Engagement

As Dandorph explained, a virtual healthcare visit is one aspect of where the future of healthcare is going, but we need to think about digital more broadly. He pointed out that in the tech industry for example, they have figured out how to engage consumers and be a regular part of their lives without being intrusive. Healthcare isn’t there yet. But if we can engage patients with their health early and often, and make their care needs and system navigation easier to understand, the result will be better outcomes and lower costs across the board. Dandorph introduced the concept of food as medicine and suggested partnerships that could enable all types of populations to eat healthier.

There are myriad ways to achieve such engagement, and one of them pitched by Dreyfus is to make the home the new locus of care. We were able to figure out at-home COVID-19 tests, so why stop there? Are there other tests or treatments that could be out-of-the-box? With the appropriate clinical support, better outcomes may be more likely in a home environment, and could be more comfortable for the patient and convenient for unpaid caretakers. This is especially true for elders, where the panelists agreed that long-term care needs to be a big piece of this puzzle as we move forward.

To bridge the consumer engagement gap, Tufts Medicine is thinking differently regarding hiring and leadership. Dandorph and his team brought in leaders from outside the healthcare realm, more familiar with consumer markets, who could think differently about making those connections and building brand recognition. Hyatt echoed this sentiment. At Amwell, they prioritize having a mix of staff; a balance of those from healthcare who understand the realities and the regulatory environment, and those from outside the industry who can bring fresh ideas and rethink the consumer experience. Hyatt noted that the biggest issue at a health system in New York was around payment and billing, where patients were frustrated with the complexity. We again get back to simplicity.

While all of these innovations are fantastic, we need to remember that they are not all equally accessible, which brings us to…

  1. Inequity

Like mental health, health inequity was another issue unmasked by COVID-19. There is still a digital divide, where technology solutions may not be accessible for some. There are social determinants of health to consider, Dandorph noted, such as food access, safe housing, economics, and education. When we talk about Food as Medicine, as an example, it may not be simple for everyone due to costs or inconvenience. And as Dreyfus pointed out, we are still dealing with underlying racism in care. So, what can we do about it?

recently collected all their member data – race, ethnicity, and other measures – and published it in a transparent way, highlighting where they stand now and where they need to improve equity efforts. They also developed similar reports for healthcare systems and vendors in the region. Then, they committed to using their value-based care programs to eliminate the inequities they found. The health plan made a $25 million grant to the Institute of Healthcare in Improvement in Boston. And starting in 2023 they will be the first plan in the country to pay hospitals more for achieving equity goals, as they have in the past to improve quality of care. Tufts Medicine is focused on developing more culturally competent services, as a start, but Dandorph stressed that health inequity is a societal problem that will require stronger…Improving Healthcare Partnerships

  1. Partnership

Yes, the healthcare system in the U.S. is broken in some ways. But it isn’t just up to hospitals and carriers to fix it. The panelists emphasized that things work better when silos are broken down, admitting even their organizations could work in closer collaboration, as they are aligned on priorities and direction. Dandorph explained the need for more partnership between the private and public sectors. For example, federal regulation is needed in the realm of high cost prescription drugs. Further, the government funds 40% of all healthcare in the U.S. through either Medicare or Medicaid, and many of its members are the ones suffering most from problems related to inequity and mental health. “These are macro societal issues,” said Dandorph, and as a society we need to elevate the economic status of those vulnerable communities and work on building trust between the people and the companies who can help them. This will take more work than any of the panelists’ organizations can do

alone. It will require community leaders. It will require businesses and employers to be more involved. Just like patients need help connecting the dots of their care, we need to connect the dots between each other.

Ultimately, the first 5 focus areas can be solved for only if #6 plays a larger role. Many of the objectives discussed – shifting from a sickcare system to a healthcare system, lowering costs, minimizing complexity, eliminating disparities, driving engagement in healthy behaviors – can only be accomplished through greater and widespread collaboration and connectivity.

Moving With the Market: Defined Contribution Cost Delivery Model

At Spring we pride ourselves on helping employers find creative solutions for all of their insurance and benefits needs. In this market, rising healthcare costs, in tandem with a world in pandemic recovery and evolving workforce expectations, further necessitate innovative strategies. In this guide, we explore Defined Contribution (DC) Cost Delivery Models, outlining the different options, advantages, how to get started and a detailed client case study that exhibits proven results.

Download our guide here to ensure you are Moving With the Market.

Congress Passes the American Rescue Plan Act

Congress has passed, and President Biden has signed, the American Rescue Plan Act, 2021 (ARPA), the third COVID-19 stimulus bill.  This new $1.9 trillion stimulus package includes several health and welfare benefits-related provisions relevant to employers and plan sponsors, as summarized below. COVID-19 law

FFCRA Paid Leave Extended and Enhanced

While COVID-19 vaccines are starting to become more readily available, the pandemic continues. In recognition, Congress extended through September 30, 2021, 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.  As with the extension through March 31, 2021 under the second stimulus package (the Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2021), only the tax credits are extended, which means compliance with the EPSL or E-FMLA requirements is voluntary for employers after December 31, 2020.

The ARPA expands FFCRA leave in several ways for employers who choose to offer it from April 1, 2021 through September 30, 2021:

  • The 10-day limit for EPSL resets as of April 1, 2021. Employees were previously limited to 80 hours from April 1, 2020 through March 31, 2021.
    • Paid leave continues to be limited to $511 per day ($5,110 total) for an employee’s own illness or quarantine (paid at the employee’s regular rate), and $200 per day ($2,000 total) for leave to care for others (paid at two-thirds of the employee’s regular rate).
  • A new “trigger” is added under both the EPSL and E-FMLA provisions.  Employees qualify for leave if they are:
    • seeking or awaiting the results of a diagnostic test for, or a medical diagnosis of, COVID-19, and the employee has been exposed to COVID–19 or the employee’s employer has requested such test or diagnosis;
    • obtaining immunization related to COVID–19; or
    • recovering from any injury, disability, illness, or condition related to such immunization.
    • MBWL Note:  The ability of an employer to receive a tax credit for providing paid time off for an employee to receive the vaccine is a clear indication of the federal government’s desire to facilitate employees receiving a vaccine.
  • Leave under the E-FMLA provision is increased from $10,000 to $12,000, with $12,000 being the maximum an employer may claim for an employee in 2021.
  • Leave under the E-FMLA provision is expanded to be available for any EPSL-qualifying reason, which is when an employee is unable to work or telework because the employee:
    • is subject to a federal, state, or local quarantine or isolation order related to COVID-19;
    • has been advised by a health care provider to self-quarantine due to concerns related to COVID-19;
    • has COVID-19 symptoms and is seeking medical diagnosis;
    • is caring for an individual who is subject to a quarantine or isolation order;
    • is caring for a child if the school or day care center has been closed, or the child-care provider is unavailable, due to COVID-19 precautions; or
    • is experiencing any other substantially similar condition specified by the regulatory agencies.
  • E-FMLA leave taken on or after April 1, 2021 is not subject to the 10-day elimination period that applied previously under FFCRA.
    • An employee’s eligibility for E-FMLA may depend on when they used E-FMLA previously and how the employer establishes its 12-month FMLA period (e.g., calendar year, fixed period, measure-forward, or “rolling” 12 months).
  • For leave taken on or after April 1, 2021, the employers may take a credit against Medicare payroll tax only (1.45%); however, the credit continues to be refundable.
    • ESPL and E-FMLA credits are available for qualified health plan expenses and for the employer’s share of Medicare and Social Security taxes.
  • ARPA clarifies that refundable credits may be received by state and local governments that are tax exempt under Code 501(a).
  • ARPA adds a new nondiscrimination requirement that eliminates the credit for any employer that discriminates in favor of highly compensated employees, full-time employees, or employees based on tenure.

Dependent Care Assistance Program Limit Increase

In February, the IRS released Notice 2021-15, which provides guidance related to the relief for health FSAs and dependent care assistance programs (DCAPs) contained in the second stimulus bill. Unfortunately, the Notice failed to clarify with any certainty whether an employee may be taxed on any DCAP reimbursements in excess of $5,000 for the calendar year.  That issue is now settled by the ARPA, which increases the DCAP exclusion from $5,000 to $10,500 (from $2,500 to $5,250 in the case of a separate return filed by a married individual) for 2021. This relief is only available for calendar year 2021; however, it also implies that an employee could elect to increase their DCAP election to the newly available $10,500 limit for 2021 (based on the relief in Notice 2021-15).  A DCAP must be amended by the end of the 2021 plan year to take advantage of the increased exclusion limit.

Temporary Premium Tax Credit Enhancements

The Affordable Care Act’s premium tax credit program is significantly enhanced for 2021 and 2022. The existing income limit of 400% of the federal poverty level, after which individuals will no longer qualify for a premium tax credit, is lifted for 2021 and 2022. In addition, the applicable percentage of household income that individuals must pay for Marketplace coverage has been reduced at all income levels.  Special rules also apply to those individuals receiving unemployment compensation during 2021.

MBWL Note: The increased eligibility for premium tax credits makes it ever more important for applicable large employers (ALEs) to offer affordable, minimum value coverage to their full-time employees to avoid potential penalty exposure.

Temporary PTC Percentages Under ARPA
In the case of household income (expressed as a % of poverty line) within the following income tier: The initial premium percentage is— The final premium percentage is—
Up to 150.0% 0% 0%
150% to 200% 0% 2%
200% to 250% 2% 4%
250% to 300% 4% 6%
300% to 400% 6% 8.5%
400% and up 8.5% 8.5%

 

2021 PTC Percentages (Pre-ARPA)
In the case of household income (expressed as a % of poverty line) within the following income tier: The initial premium percentage is— The final premium percentage is—
Up to 133.0% 2.07% 2.07%
133% to 150% 3.10% 4.14%
150% to 200% 4.14% 6.52%
200% to 250% 6.52% 8.33%
250% to 300% 8.33% 9.83%
300% to 400% 9.83% 9.83%
400% and up Ineligible for PTC

COBRA Subsidy

The ARPA provides significant assistance to employees and their families who are eligible for COBRA (or state mini-COBRA) due to an involuntary termination of employment or reduction in hours.  The law provides a 100% subsidy for COBRA premiums from April 1, 2021 through September 30, 2021. The subsidy applies to group health plans other than health FSAs.

Employers who are subject to COBRA under ERISA (private employers) or the PHS Act (state and local governmental employers) are responsible for complying with the COBRA subsidy provisions.  Insurance companies are responsible for complying with the COBRA subsidy provisions for insured group health plans that are not subject to federal COBRA (e.g., when state “mini-COBRA” requirements apply to small plans that are not subject to federal COBRA, or to large group plans after federal COBRA is exhausted).  Additional highlights include:

  • The subsidy applies to an “assistance eligible individual” (AEI) who is any COBRA qualified beneficiary who is eligible for, and elects, COBRA during the period of April 1, 2021 through September 30, 2021, due to an involuntary termination of employment or reduction in hours.  (The reduction in hours is not required to be involuntary.)
  • AEIs must be offered at least a 60-day window within which to elect COBRA coverage.
    • The 60-day period begins April 1, 2021 and ends 60 days after the date the notice is provided to the individual.
    • AEIs include individuals in their COBRA election period, and individuals who would be AEIs but whose COBRA coverage lapsed due to non-payment prior to April 1, 2021.
    • MBWL Note: Many AEIs will still be within their COBRA election period as a result of the Department of Labor’s disaster relief (Notice 2021-01).
  • COBRA coverage elected during the subsidy period will be effective April 1, 2021; employees are not required to elect retroactive to the date of their qualifying event or any other date prior to April 1, 2021, nor are they required to pay outstanding premiums for prior periods of coverage in order to secure subsidized coverage.
  • Employers will be entitled to an advanceable, refundable tax credit against Medicare payroll taxes (1.45%) to pay for coverage during the subsidy period. The DOL will provide forms and instructions for employers to apply for the credit.
    • Additional guidance is expected for multiemployer (union) plans and professional employer organizations (PEOs).
  • The subsidy is available until the first to occur of:
    • the qualified beneficiary becoming eligible for other group health plan coverage (other than coverage consisting only of excepted benefits, such as dental or vision, coverage under a health FSA, or coverage under a qualified small employer health reimbursement arrangement (QSEHRA));
    • the qualified beneficiary becoming eligible for Medicare;
    • the end of the qualified beneficiary’s maximum COBRA duration; or
    • September 30, 2021.
  • Qualified beneficiaries who fail to notify the plan that they are no longer assistance-eligible can be liable for a $250 penalty, which may be waived if the failure was due to reasonable cause and not willful neglect. An intentional failure can result in a penalty of $250 or 110% of the amount of premium assistance received, if greater.
  • Employers may allow currently enrolled AEIs to select new plans.  An individual has 90 days from the date they are notified of the enrollment option to elect a different plan.  This option is available only if:
    • the premium for such different coverage does not exceed the premium for coverage in which such individual was enrolled at the time such qualifying event occurred;
    • the different coverage in which the individual elects to enroll is coverage that is also offered to similarly situated active employees; and
    • the different coverage is not coverage consisting only of excepted benefits, such as dental or vision, coverage under a health FSA, or coverage under a QSEHRA.
  • Required Notices to Individuals
    • General Notice / Notice of Subsidy Availability. Individuals who become eligible to elect COBRA during the subsidy period (April 1, 2021 – September 30, 2021) must be provided a notice that describes the availability of the premium assistance. The notice requirement may be satisfied by amending existing notices or by including a separate attachment. The notice must include:
      • the forms necessary for establishing eligibility for premium assistance;
      • the name, address, and telephone number to contact the plan administrator and any other person maintaining relevant information in connection with such premium assistance;
      • a description of the extended election period;
      • a description of the obligation of the qualified beneficiary to notify the plan when they are no longer eligible for a subsidy and the associated penalty for failure to do so;
      • a description, displayed in a prominent manner, of the right to a subsidized premium and any conditions thereon; and
      • a description of the option to enroll in different coverage if the employer so permits.
    • Notice of Extended Election Period. AEIs must be offered at least a 60-day window within which to elect COBRA coverage.
      • The 60-day period begins April 1, 2021 and ends 60 days after the date the notice is provided to the individual.
      • This includes:
        • individuals terminated on or after April 1, 2021;
        • individuals in their COBRA election period on April 1, 2021 (including any COVID-19-related extensions); and
        • individuals who would be AEIs but whose COBRA coverage lapsed due to non-payment prior to April 1, 2021.
    • Notice of Subsidy Expiration. Informs AEIs that the subsidy period is ending.
    • The notice must disclose that:
      • premium assistance for the individual will expire soon and the date of such expiration;
      • the individual may be eligible for coverage without any premium assistance through COBRA or coverage under a group health plan.
    • The subsidy expiration notice is not required if the subsidy is ending due to the individual becoming eligible for another group health plan or Medicare.
    • This notice must be provided not more than 45 days but no less than 15 days before the premium assistance ends.
    • Model Notices. The DOL must issue model notices of subsidy availability and extended election period within 30 days of enactment, and a model notice of subsidy expiration within 45 days of the law’s enactment.

What Does This Mean For Employers?

Employers and plan sponsors should consider whether they will adopt the extended FFCRA leave provisions and/or use them to incentivize employees to receive a COVID-19 vaccine. They should also ensure their COBRA vendors are prepared to assist in identifying and notifying assistance eligible individuals within 60 days of April 1, 2021.  The DOL also plans to provide outreach consisting of public education and enrollment assistance relating to premium assistance. Their outreach will target employers, group health plan administrators, public assistance programs, States, insurers, and other entities as the DOL deems appropriate. The outreach will include an initial focus on those individuals eligible for an extended election period. We also expect the DOL and other agencies to issue guidance on various issues related to the subsidy in the coming weeks.

About the Author.  This alert was prepared for Alera Group by Marathas Barrow Weatherhead Lent LLP, a national law firm with recognized experts on ERISA-governed and non-ERISA-governed retirement and welfare plans, executive compensation and employment law.  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.

© 2021 Marathas Barrow Weatherhead Lent LLP.  All Rights Reserved.

Understanding the Impacts of Massachusetts’ New Healthcare Law

Massachusetts has long been a leader in the provision of quality, affordable and accessible healthcare. At the beginning of this year, Governor Charlie Baker signed off on ‘Laura’s Law’ which addresses a range of healthcare issues highlighted as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.Massachusetts Healthcare Law

  • Telehealth: the law mandates equal coverage for virtual visits, including for behavioral health. It also provides a short-term model for how these services should paid. This should provide Massachusetts residents to expanded access to safe, virtual healthcare.
  • COVID-19: Laura’s Law states that treatment and testing for COVID-19 must be covered by insurance companies, including MassHealth. This applies to all inpatient, emergency and cognitive rehab services as well as necessary outpatient services related to the virus. Testing for the asymptomatic is also covered in this provision.
  • Surprise Billing: the new law states that providers must tell patients in advance of anything out-of-network, and Massachusetts plans to recommend a default rate for out-of-network billing later this year.
  • Expansion of Care for MassHealth Members: Laura’s Law eliminates referral requirements so that MassHealth subscribers can access urgent care facilities more easily.
  • Medicaid: under the new legislation, community hospitals will receive two years of enhanced Medicaid reimbursements, a 5% bump in the average monthly Medicaid payment at a collective cost of up to $35 million per year.
  • Scope of Practice: the pandemic necessitated an increase in scope of service for certain healthcare workers to meet the surging demand for care. Under Laura’s Law, this increase in scope will remain permanent for Advanced Practice Nurses and Optometrists.

Lastly, the state is calling for the undergoing of a study to examine the impact of COVID-19 on the healthcare system, especially in Massachusetts.

Governor Baker referenced a silver lining upon rollout of this law, wherein the pandemic garnered the momentum needed for policymakers to support changes, and the collective healthcare experience of Massachusetts residents in 2020 informed the legislation, so it should be effective in addressing the gaps in healthcare that became obvious. We won’t be surprised if other states being to issue similar policies.

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: Notice Requirements When Making Health Plan Design Changes

This alert was updated on 04/16/20. COVID-19 law

As employers work to stay financially solvent during the COVID-19 pandemic, many are looking to change their health plan designs in order to ensure employees have access to the care they need while balancing the financial impact on the business. For instance, employers may be looking to:

  • Reduce the number of hours to be eligible for benefits to allow employees who are furloughed or working fewer hours to remain enrolled
  • Permit employees to take advantage of the COVID-19 special enrollment period being offered by their carriers

Likewise, the CARES Act, signed into law on March 27, 2020 created changes which may impact an employer’s plan design: 

  • Relaxed the provision for health FSAs, HSAs, HRAs and other accident and health plans to require a doctor’s prescription for over the counter (OTC) medications in order to be considered an eligible medical expense reimbursement and also permits menstrual care products to also qualify as medical care for purposes of reimbursement or tax-free distribution.
  • Permits high deductible health plans (HDHPs) beginning before 1/1/2022 to allow telehealthcare services prior to meeting the deductible without disqualifying their HSA compatibility status. (IRS Notice 2020-15 also allows HDHPs to pay for COVID-19 testing and treatment prior to meeting the deductible.)

The type of plan change contemplated by the employer dictates: 

  1. When notice must be given to employees
  2. Whether approval from their carrier (or stop-loss provider if benefits are self-insured) is needed and;
  3. May require amendments to plan documents.

Note: although a carrier may permit a COVID-19 special enrollment period, currently, because the IRS has not issued additional guidance, employers should continue to follow the law and regulations set-forth in providing Section 125 benefits which require pre-tax premiums to be irrevocable unless the employee experiences a permitted status change event.

It is possible the IRS may be less likely to penalize plan sponsors that allow a special open enrollment given the unprecedented circumstances; however, employers need to be aware that there is still risk and should work with qualified legal or tax advisors if they want to permit employees to enroll on a pretax basis.

The DOL, HHS and IRS announced through a recent Family First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA) Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) that they will not take enforcement action against plans or insurers that adopt modifications to provide greater coverage for COVID-19 diagnosis or treatment. Normally there is a 60-day advance notice to enrollees required for mid-year material modifications to the Summary of Benefits and Coverage (SBC). The agencies have said that distributing a notice is still required but can be made as soon as reasonably practicable, and not required 60-days prior to the change. If the changes will be maintained beyond the federal emergency health declaration period, then the insurance carrier or health plan must comply with all other applicable requirements to updated plan documents or terms of coverage.

The following chart outlines the normal required notice requirements depending on the type of plan change that is being implemented.

Type of Change Notice Requirement Which Plans
Changes to any information found in the Summary of Benefits and Coverage (SBC) which includes deductibles, out of pocket limits, whether or not referrals are needed for specialists, copays, coinsurance, whether or not preauthorization is needed, services the plan does not cover, and what additional services are covered by your plan. Prior to implementing any change that would require an updated SBC, plan participants must be given 60 days advance notice in the form of an updated SBC. This is a firm requirement. This notice requirement is for ALL group health plans, regardless of whether or not they are subject to ERISA.
Modifications to a summary plan description (SPD) that constitute a material reduction in covered services or benefits. For example, a decrease in employer contributions, or a material modification to plan terms. Notice must be provided within 60 days of making the change. Practically speaking, employers should strive to give notice prior to making the change, but under ERISA, they have until 60 days after the change to inform employees. Notice should be provided in the format of a Notice of Material Modification. This notice requirement is only for group health plans subject to ERISA.
All other changes (not a material reduction in benefits and no impact on the SBC) Notice must be provided within 210 days after the end of the plan year, in the format of a Summary of Material Modification (SMM). This notice requirement is only for group health plans subject to ERISA.

Assuming that these changes occur mid-year and that the employer has a Section 125 Plan so that employee contributions are handled on a pre-tax basis, depending on the change being made to the benefits and/or contributions, the employee may be able to:

  • Drop coverage for themselves and any covered dependents.
  • Not change which dependents are being covered, except to delete coverage for themselves and all covered dependents.
  • At the employer’s decision, employees (and covered dependents) could choose a different plan option assuming more than one plan is offered.

Mid-year changes in benefits and/or contributions due to the consistency rulewould not trigger either a full or partial open enrollment.

If an employee’s spouse or dependent child under age 26 was to lose coverage due to a layoff or furlough at their employer, then this would be a change in status event that would allow the employee to add dependents onto their plan.

 

The information contained herein should be understood to be general insurance brokerage information only and does not constitute advice for any particular situation or fact pattern and cannot be relied upon as such.  Statements concerning financial, regulatory or legal matters are based on general observations as an insurance broker and may not be relied upon as financial, regulatory or legal advice. This document is owned by Alera Group, Inc., and its contents may not be reproduced, in whole or in part, without the written permission of Alera Group, Inc.

Legal Alert: What Employers Need to Know About the New Transparency Rules

Proposed Transparency Rule Released

Following President Trump’s Executive Order on Improving Price and Transparency in American Healthcare, one final and one proposed rule was released by HHS and CMS that aim to increase price transparency for hospitals and insurance companies.  These rules would have an impact on employers who sponsor group health plans. Healthcare Reform

It is important for employers to remember that the Transparency in Coverage Proposed Rule is only a proposed rule and will not be finalized until after the public comment period if it all. There is also a possibility it may not become a final rule. It is anticipated that many organizations and entities will provide comments on this rule, and there is a likelihood that if finalized in the future, it could be markedly different from the proposed rule. Furthermore, for rules of this magnitude, additional guidance will be required by federal agencies to assist employers, Third-party administrators, insurance carriers, and hospitals, with the specific implementation processes and policies. Employers should look for updates on this rule but should not make decisions or changes based on these proposed rules at this time.

The final rule for hospitals is the Calendar Year (CY) 2020 Outpatient Prospective Payment System (OPPS) & Ambulatory Surgical Center (ASC) Price Transparency Requirements for Hospitals to Make Standard Charges Public Final Rule. This rule will require hospitals to provide, publicly on the internet, standard charges (gross charges, payer-specific negotiated charges, the amount the hospital will accept in cash from a patient, and the minimum and maximum negotiated charges) for all items and services. This rule will go into effect in 2021. The information must include common billing and/or accounting codes and descriptions of the items or services so consumers can compare standard charges between hospitals.

The rule will also require hospitals to make similar information available for 300 common shoppable services, which include services that consumers can schedule in advance such as x-rays, outpatient visits, and bundled services such as a cesarean delivery including pre- and post-delivery care.

Civil monetary penalties of $300 a day will be imposed on hospitals that do not comply.

The second rule which could impact employers and carriers is the Transparency in Coverage Proposed Rule. This rule is aimed to ensure consumers would be able to get estimates of their cost-sharing liability for health care for different providers, allowing them to both understand how costs for covered health care items and services are determined by their plan, and shop and compare costs for health care before receiving care. The rule is also intended to increase consumerism and provide opportunities for innovation in health care.

The proposed rule would require all non-grandfathered group health plans or health insurance issuer:

  • Make available to participants, beneficiaries and enrollees (or their authorized representative) personalized out-of-pocket cost information for all covered health care items and services through an internet-based self-service tool and in paper form upon request.
  • Make available to the public, including stakeholders such as consumers, researchers, employers, and third-party developers the in-network negotiated rates with their network providers and historical payments of allowed amounts to out-of-network providers through standardized, regularly updated machine-readable files.

In addition to comments on the above items, the rule seeks comments on whether group health plans and insurance issuers should be required to make available through a standards-based application programming interface the cost-sharing information referenced above that is proposed to be disclosed through the internet-based self –service tool and the machine-readable files.

The information provided by the health plan would have to include: 

•    The participant’s estimated cost-sharing liability
•    Accumulated amounts (financial responsibility already incurred w/ respect to the deductible or out of pocket limits)
•    The negotiated rate, reflected as a dollar amount
•    Out-of-network allowed amount (if requested item or service is out of network)
•    Items and services content list
•    Notice of pre-requisites of coverage
•    Disclosure notice

This information would have to be provided in the following manners: 

•    Internet-based self-service tool
•    Paper form at no fee provided via mail no later than 2 business days after it is requested by the participant, beneficiary, or enrollee, with an option to allow participants to select delivery over the phone, via email, by fax, or face to face.

The proposed rule would allow employers and health insurance carriers to contractually agree that the information will be provided by the carrier.

 


Danielle Capilla, JD
Director of Compliance, Employee Benefits
In her role as Director of Compliance, Employee Benefits, Capilla focuses on enhancing  Alera Group’s existing compliance capabilities and building new world-class solutions for Alera Group’s employee benefits clients. Her legal background helps Alera Group clients navigate the complex landscape of healthcare legislation, regulation and reform. Capilla currently serves as an adjunct professor at DePaul University College of Law and is the Federal and State Legislative Chair for the Downtown Chicago Chapter of the National Association of Health Underwriters (NAHU).

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 employee or our clients. This is not legal advice and no client-lawyer relationship between you and Alera Group or any of its employees 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 the Alera Group are not obligated to provide updates on the information presented herein. Those reading this alert are encouraged to seek direct counsel on legal questions.

Legal Alert: IRS Releases Draft 2019 ACA Reporting Forms and Instructions

The IRS has released draft forms and instructions for the 2019 B-Series and C-Series reporting forms (Forms 1094-B, 1095-B, 1094-C and 1095-C) used by employers and coverage providers to report certain information to full-time employees and the Internal Revenue Service (IRS). ACA Reporting

As background, the Affordable Care Act (ACA) added Sections 6055 and 6056 to the Internal Revenue Code. These sections require employers, plans, and health insurance issuers to report health coverage information to the IRS and to participants annually. Section 6055 reporting requirements apply to insurers, employers that sponsor self-insured group health plans, and other entities that provide minimum essential coverage (such as multiemployer plans). Section 6056 reporting requirements apply to “applicable large employers” or “ALEs” (generally, employers with 50 or more full-time employees) and require reporting of health care coverage provided to the employer’s full-time employees.

Reporting under Sections 6055 and 6056 involves two sets of forms:  the “B-Series” (Forms 1094-B and 1095-B); and the “C-Series” (Forms 1094-C and 1095-C).  Each includes a transmittal form (Form 1094-B or 1094-C), which serves as a cover page and provides aggregate information, and an individualized form (Form 1095-B or 1095-C) for each employee for whom the employer is required to report.

The forms for calendar year 2019 are due to employees by January 31, 2020. Forms are due to the IRS by February 28, 2020 if filing by paper and by March 31, 2020 if filing electronically.  The forms that must be filed and distributed depend on whether the employer is an ALE and the type of coverage provided. Employers filing 250 or more of a particular form are required to file with the IRS electronically. The following table summarizes the responsible parties and forms applicable to the ACA’s reporting requirements.

Responsible Entity Fully Insured Plan Self-Funded Plan
Applicable Large Employer (ALE)

50 or more full-time equivalent employees on average in prior calendar year

Forms 1094-C and 1095-C

(Parts I and II of Form 1095-C)

Forms 1094-C and 1095-C

(Parts I, II, and III of Form 1095-C)

Either B-Series or C-Series Forms for covered non-employees

Non-ALE

Fewer than 50 full-time equivalent employees on average in prior calendar year

Not required to file Forms 1094-B and 1095-B
Insurance Carrier Forms 1094-B and 1095-B Not Applicable


2019 Draft Instructions

The draft forms and instructions can be found here:

The draft instructions reflect the newly increased penalty structure (generally leaving the penalty at $270 per return but increasing the penalty cap from $3.275 million to $3.339 million).

Note Regarding 2019 Form 1095-C, Line 15.  The section 4980H “affordability” safe harbor percentage threshold is adjusted to 9.86% for plan years beginning in 2019, up from 9.56%.

Employers should continue to work closely with their insurance broker and other trusted advisors when determining how their organization will address the reporting requirements. Unless extended, 1095-C and 1095-B forms for the 2019 calendar year are due to participants by January 31, 2020. Forms 1094/1095-C and 1094/1095-B are due to the IRS by February 28, 2020 if filing by paper and by March 31, 2020 if filing electronically.  Employers should endeavor to file timely, as the IRS has begun enforcing penalties against employers who have failed to file timely or file electronically when required.

 

 

About the Author.  This alert was prepared for Spring Consulting Group by Stacy Barrow.  Mr. Barrow is a nationally recognized expert on the Affordable Care Act.  His firm, Marathas Barrow Weatherhead Lent LLP, is a premier employee benefits, executive compensation and employment law firm.  He can be reached at sbarrow@marbarlaw.com.
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