Employee Benefits Relief in the Year-End COVID-19 Stimulus Legislation

The Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2021 (H.R. 133) (the “Act”) was passed by both houses of Congress on December 21, 2020, and signed into law by the President on December 27, 2020. The Act is an incredible 5,593 pages long and contains both an omnibus spending bill to fund the government through September 30, 2021 and a COVID-19 stimulus package that provides approximately $900 billion in emergency relief to individuals and businesses.

The Act contains numerous provisions that impact employee benefit plans. The principal takeaways from the Act that plan sponsors must consider are summarized below. In contrast to the length of the Act itself, this alert is intended to provide a high level summary. Please reach out to us if you have specific questions about the Act.

Health and Welfare Plan Related Provisions

This is the largest health care legislative package since the Affordable Care Act and the Act includes almost a dozen new patient protections with quickly approaching effective dates, which will result in significant new regulation being issued in 2021.

FSA Flexibility

The Act provides for significant additional flexibility for both health care flexible spending arrangements (“FSA”) and dependent care FSAs. These provisions are optional, not required, and employers will need to amend their plans to provide the new rights, if they choose to offer them.

Carryover. Any unused funds in FSAs from a plan year ending in 2020 or 2021 may be carried over and used at any time in the next plan year. These carryovers will be allowed under rules similar to the existing carryover rules for health FSAs (but without the dollar limit on carryovers).

Grace Periods. FSAs with grace periods may extend those grace periods to up 12 months for plan years ending in 2020 or 2021. Normally, grace periods have a maximum 2 ½-month period.

Post-Termination Reimbursement. If an employee terminates participation during calendar year 2020 or 2021, FSAs may also reimburse for otherwise eligible expenses incurred through the end of that year (plus any grace period).

Dependent Care Post-Age 13 Coverage. For dependent care FSAs, if a dependent became too old to have their care expenses reimbursed (age 13) due to the pandemic, any unused funds may be used for the remainder of the plan year in which they aged out. Further, if any funds remain unused at that time, those funds can be used until the child turns 14.

Prospective Changes Permitted. For plan years ending in 2021, employees may prospectively change their FSA contributions without incurring a permitted election change event.

“No Surprise” Medical Billing Provisions

Under a section titled the “No Surprises Act,” the Act includes several provisions to regulate surprise medical billing from certain non network providers, air ambulances and for emergency services. These provisions concern bills from out-of-network providers requiring more money from the patient after the health plan has paid its part. This can happen in an emergency setting or where a patient goes into an in-network hospital, but is treated there by an out-of-network provider.

Generally, the Act provides that individuals covered by a group health plan or individual/group health insurance receiving non-emergency services at a network facility cannot be balance billed by a non-network provider, unless the non-network provider provides notice to the individual and the individual consents. An exception exists for “ancillary services”, such as anesthesiology, pathology, and radiology, and the Act also fleshes out associated details, such as payment timelines and dispute resolution processes.

The agencies are required to begin finalizing implementing regulations regarding the methodology for making payments by July 1, 2021, with the rest to come by December 31, 2021. These provisions become effective January 1, 2022.

These rules replace the current Affordable Care Act rules governing the payment of emergency services and apply to both grandfathered and non-grandfathered plans.

Additional Health Plan Provisions

ID Card Information. ID cards for group health plans (physical or electronic) must include, in clear writing, the deductible, out-of-pocket limits, and consumer assistance information.

Continuity of Care. Patients undergoing treatment for a serious and complex condition, who are pregnant, receiving inpatient care, scheduled for non-elective surgery or terminally ill must be notified if their provider leaves the network and given the opportunity to continue care (at an in-network rate) for 90 days.

Cost Comparison Tools. Plans and carriers will be required to offer cost comparison tools (via phone or the internet) starting with plan years beginning on or after January 1, 2022.

Gag Clauses Prohibited. “Gag” clauses will be prohibited. These clauses prevent health plans from sharing provider-specific reimbursements and information. Prohibiting these clauses facilitates the creation of the cost-comparison tools.

Provider Directories. Group health plans must update provider directories at least every 90 days and establish a system to respond to inquiries about the network status of a provider within one business day.

Mental Health Parity. Plans will be required to analyze the nonquantitative treatment limitations that they apply to mental health and substance use disorder benefits to show that the limitations are comparable to those that are used for medical/surgical benefits.

Retirement Plan Related Provisions

Partial Plan Terminations. The Act provides for temporary relief from the 100% vesting requirement for partial plan terminations caused by employee turnover under Code section 411(d)(3) if the turnover is due to COVID-19. A qualified plan will not incur a partial termination during any plan year which includes the period beginning on March 13, 2020, and ending on March 31, 2021, if the number of active participants covered by the plan on March 31, 2021, is at least 80% of the number of active participants covered by the plan on March 13, 2020.

Coronavirus-Related Distributions. The Act extends the COVID-19 in-service distribution relief under the CARES Act to money purchase pension plans.

Disaster Relief (Not Including COVID). The Act provides special disaster related distribution and loan rules (similar to prior natural disaster relief, including a distribution right, increase in loan limits, loan suspensions, etc.) for FEMA declared disasters (other than COVID-19) from January 1, 2020 through 60 days after enactment of the Act. 

Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2021

Webinar: The Must-Do’s and Common Mistakes of Employee Benefit Planning

Lisa Dursey joins Stephanie Rising of The Rising Effect in a 15-minute webinar discussing the must-do’s and common mistakes of administering employee benefit plans. This webinar provides a concise primer on how to structure and correctly administer your plans.

Stephanie starts the webinar by explaining the importance of your new-hire process, and then dives more deeply into traditional and lifestyle benefits that attract and retain talented employees. Lisa then outlines the common mistakes that are made in administering those benefits, and how to correct them.

Contact ERISA Benefits Law to discuss your benefit plan administration or for help resolving any plan errors. Please note that in addition to general benefits advice, ERISA Benefits Law attorneys are well versed in designing sick leave policies for COVID-19.

IRS Announces COLA Adjusted Retirement Plan Limitations for 2021

The Internal Revenue Service today released Notice 2020-79 announcing cost of living adjustments affecting dollar limitations for pension plans and other retirement-related items for tax year 2021.

Highlights Affecting Plan Sponsors of Qualified Plans for 2021

  • The contribution limit for employees who participate in 401(k), 403(b), most 457 plans, and the federal government’s Thrift Savings Plan remains unchanged at $19,500.
  • The catch-up contribution limit for employees aged 50 and over who participate in 401(k), 403(b), most 457 plans and the federal government’s Thrift Savings Plan remains unchanged at $6,500.
  • The limitation under Section 408(p)(2)(E) regarding SIMPLE retirement accounts remains unchanged at $13,500.
  • The limit on annual contributions to an IRA remains unchanged at $6,000. The additional catch-up contribution limit for individuals aged 50 and over is not subject to an annual cost-of-living adjustment and remains $1,000.
  • The limitation on the annual benefit under a defined benefit plan under Section 415(b)(1)(A) remains unchanged at $230,000.
  • The limitation for defined contribution plans under Section 415(c)(1)(A) is increased for 2021 from $57,000 to $58,000.
  • The annual compensation limit under Sections 401(a)(17), 404(l), 408(k)(3)(C), and 408(k)(6)(D)(ii) is increased from $285,000 to $290,000.
  • The dollar limitation under Section 416(i)(1)(A)(i) concerning the definition of “key employee” in a top-heavy plan remains unchanged at $185,000.
  • The dollar amount under Section 409(o)(1)(C)(ii) for determining the maximum account balance in an employee stock ownership plan subject to a five year distribution period is increased from $1,150,000 to $1,165,000, while the dollar amount used to determine the lengthening of the five year distribution period remains unchanged at $230,000.
  • The limitation used in the definition of highly compensated employee under Section 414(q)(1)(B) remains unchanged at $130,000.

The IRS previously updated Health Savings Account limits for 2021. See our post here.

The following chart summarizes various significant benefit Plan limits for 2019 through 2021:

Type of Limitation202120202019
415 Defined Benefit Plans$230,000$230,000$225,000
415 Defined Contribution Plans$58,000$57,000$56,000
Defined Contribution Elective Deferrals$19,500$19,500$19,000
Defined Contribution Catch-Up Deferrals$6,500$6,500$6,000
SIMPLE Employee Deferrals$13,500$13,500$13,000
SIMPLE Catch-Up Deferrals$3,000$3,000$3,000
Annual Compensation Limit$290,000$285,000$280,000
SEP Minimum Compensation$650$600$600
SEP Annual Compensation Limit$290,000$285,000$280,000
Highly Compensated$130,000$130,000$125,000
Key Employee (Officer)$185,000$185,000$180,000
Income Subject To Social Security Tax  (FICA)$142,800$137,700$132,900
Social Security (FICA) Tax For ER & EE (each pays)6.20%6.20%6.20%
Social Security (Med. HI) Tax For ERs & EEs (each pays)1.45%1.45%1.45%
SECA (FICA Portion) for Self-Employed12.40%12.40%12.40%
SECA (Med. HI Portion) For Self-Employed2.90%2.90%2.90%
IRA Contribution$6,000$6,000$6,000
IRA Catch-Up Contribution$1,000$1,000$1,000
HSA Max. Contributions Single/Family Coverage$3,600/
$7,200
$3,550/ $7,100$3,500/ $7,00
HSA Catchup Contributions$1,000$1,000$1,000
HSA Min. Annual Deductible Single/Family$1,400/ $2,800$1,400/ $2,800$1,350/ $2,700
HSA Max. Out Of Pocket Single/Family$7,000/
$14,000
$6,900/ $13,800$6,750/ $13,500

IRS Announces 2021 HSA Contribution Limits, HDHP Minimum Deductibles and HDHP Maximum Out-of-Pocket Amounts

The IRS has announced 2021 HSA and HDHP limits as follows:

Annual HSA contribution limitation. For calendar year 2021, the annual limitation on deductions for HSA contributions under § 223(b)(2)(A) for an individual with self-only coverage under a high deductible health plan is $3,600 (up from $3,550 in 2020), and the annual limitation on deductions for HSA contributions under § 223(b)(2)(B) for an individual with family coverage under a high deductible health plan is $7,200 (up from $7,100 in 2020).

High deductible health plans. For calendar year 2021, a “high deductible health plan” is defined under § 223(c)(2)(A) as a health plan with an annual deductible that is not less than $1,400 for self-only coverage or $2,800 for family coverage (unchanged from 2020), and with respect to which the annual out-of-pocket expenses (deductibles, co-payments, and other amounts, but not premiums) do not exceed $7,000 for self-only coverage or $14,000 for family coverage (up from $6,900 and $13,800 in 2020).

Rev. Proc 2020-32

DOL and IRS Extend Certain Timeframes for Employee Benefit Plans, Participants, and Beneficiaries Affected by the COVID-19 Outbreak

On May 4, 2020, the Employee Benefits Security Administration (EBSA, which is part of the U.S. Department of Labor) and the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) issued joint guidance extending certain timeframes otherwise applicable to group health plans, disability and other welfare plans, pension plans, and their participants and beneficiaries under ERISA and the Code.

This guidance will require Plan Sponsors to temporarily revise their administrative practices and their form notices used in connection with COBRA, HIPAA’s Special Enrollment rights, and ERISA Claim Procedures.

I. Background

HIPAA requires group health plans to provide special enrollment rights for certain people upon the loss of eligibility for other coverage, or upon the addition of a dependents due to birth, adoption, etc. Generally, group health plans must allow such individuals to enroll in the group health plan if they are otherwise eligible and if enrollment is requested within 30 days of the occurrence of the event.

COBRA permits qualified beneficiaries who lose coverage under a group health plan to elect continuation health coverage. COBRA generally provides a qualified beneficiary a period of at least 60 days to elect COBRA continuation coverage under a group health plan. Plans are required to allow payment of premiums in monthly installments, and plans cannot require payment of premiums before 45 days after the day of the initial COBRA election. COBRA continuation coverage may be terminated for failure to pay premiums timely.

Under the COBRA rules, a premium is considered paid timely if it is made not later than 30 days after the first day of the period for which payment is being made. Notice requirements prescribe time periods for employers to notify the plan of certain qualifying events and for individuals to notify the plan of certain qualifying events or a determination of disability. Notice requirements also prescribe a time period for plans to notify qualified beneficiaries of their rights to elect COBRA continuation coverage.

ERISA requires plans to establish and maintain reasonable claims procedures and imposes additional rights and obligations with respect to internal claims and appeals and external review for non-grandfathered group health plans.

II. Temporary Extensions Under the Guidance

All of the foregoing provisions include timing requirements for certain acts in connection with employee benefit plans, some of which have been temporarily modified by the new guidance. These changes, and the implications for Plan Sponsors, are summarized below.

A. Relief for Plan Participants, Beneficiaries, Qualified Beneficiaries, and Claimants

Subject to a one year statutory duration limitation, all group health plans, disability and other employee welfare benefit plans, and employee pension benefit plans subject to ERISA or the Code must disregard the period from March 1, 2020 until sixty (60) days after the announced end of the National Emergency (the “Outbreak Period”) for all plan participants, beneficiaries, qualified beneficiaries, or claimants wherever located in determining the following periods and dates—

(1) The 30-day period (or 60-day period, if applicable) to request special enrollment under ERISA section 701(f) and Code section 9801(f)

Implications for employers:

  • Work with your third-party administrator and insurance carriers to ensure the extended special enrollment period is implemented for the duration of the Outbreak Period, which could require retroactive coverage as far back as March 1.
  • Determine whether and how to communicate the extension to employees.

(2) The 60-day election period for COBRA continuation coverage under ERISA section 605 and Code section 4980B(f)(5)

(3) The date for making COBRA premium payments pursuant to ERISA section 602(2)(C) and (3) and Code section 4980B(f)(2)(B)(iii) and (C)

(4) The date for individuals to notify the plan of a qualifying event or determination of disability under ERISA section 606(a)(3) and Code section 4980B(f)(6)(C)

Implications for Employers:

  • This exacerbates the adverse selection issue inherent in COBRA because Plans may have to provide retroactive coverage for many months.
  • The problem is made worse by the fact that, even though qualified beneficiaries theoretically have to pay for the retroactive coverage, if they elect COBRA right after the qualifying event, they do not have to pay until after the Outbreak Period ends. This means a qualified beneficiary could elect COBRA and receive the coverage) and then subsequently decide not to pay for it. Plan Sponsors and insurers will then have the option of retroactively terminating the coverage and trying to adjust the claims already paid.
  • Work with your third-party administrator and insurance carriers to ensure they have implemented the extended COBRA periods.
  • Either temporarily revise your COBRA notices and forms or ensure a temporary cover is added to all COBRA communications as necessary to inform employees and qualified beneficiaries of the extended timeframes.

(5) The date within which individuals may file a benefit claim under the plan’s claims procedure pursuant to 29 CFR 2560.503-1

(6) The date within which claimants may file an appeal of an adverse benefit determination under the plan’s claims procedure pursuant to 29 CFR 2560.503-1(h)

Implications for Employers:

  • Work with your third-party administrator and insurance carriers to ensure they have implemented the extended claims periods.
  • Either temporarily revise your claims notices and forms or ensure a temporary cover is added to all claims communications as necessary to inform employees and qualified beneficiaries of the extended timeframes.
  • This will impact health flexible spending accounts (“FSAs”) and health reimbursement arrangements (“HRAs”) that have run-out periods that extended beyond March 1, 2020. Because the Outbreak Period began on March 1, 2020, any health FSAs and HRAs that have March or April deadlines for submitting prior-year expenses for reimbursement, will need to extend the deadline until 60 days after the Outbreak Period ends to submit expenses for reimbursement for the 2019 plan year.

(7) The date within which claimants may file a request for an external review after receipt of an adverse benefit determination or final internal adverse benefit determination pursuant to 29 CFR 2590.715-2719(d)(2)(i) and 26 CFR 54.9815-2719(d)(2)(i), and

(8) The date within which a claimant may file information to perfect a request for external review upon a finding that the request was not complete pursuant to 29 CFR 2590.715-2719(d)(2)(ii) and 26 CFR 54.9815-2719(d)(2)(ii)

Implications for employers:

  • Work with your third-party administrator and insurance carriers to ensure they have implemented the extended claim review periods.
  • Either temporarily revise your claims notices and forms or ensure a temporary cover is added to all claims communications as necessary to inform employees and qualified beneficiaries of the extended timeframes.

B. Relief for Group Health Plans

With respect to group health plans, and their sponsors and administrators, the Outbreak Period shall be disregarded when determining the date for providing a COBRA election notice under ERISA section 606(c) and Code section 4980B(f)(6)(D).

Implication for Employers:

  • Plan administrators are not required to provide the COBRA election notice during the Outbreak Period. As a practical matter, however, plan administrators likely will want to timely provide election notices to encourage qualified beneficiaries to timely elect and pay for COBRA coverage.

Corinavirus Impact on Arizona Paid Sick Time; Vacation Pay; and WARN Act Compliance

This post addresses the paid sick time, vacation pay, and WARN Act issues that employers should keep in mind as the Coronavirus causes escalating business disruptions, including both voluntary and government-ordered business closures.

We stand ready to assist employers with WARN Act notice, Arizona paid sick time, vacation/PTO and severance compliance issues raised by the business disruptions Arizona businesses are experiencing due to the Coronavirus. In addition, we will continue to update our clients as legislation affecting employee benefits is enacted in response to the Coronavirus outbreak. Together we will weather this storm, like we did in 2001 and in 2009.

Arizona Paid Sick Time

Arizona’s paid sick time law permits employees to use paid sick time for the following circumstances that may apply to the coronavirus outbreak:

  • Closure of the employee’s place of business by order of a public official due to a public health emergency 

Therefore, if the local, state or federal government orders the closure of an Arizona business, you will need to permit employees to receive paid sick time under Arizona law for the time of the closure, up to the amount of paid sick time they have available.

  • An employee’s need to care for a child whose school or place of care has been closed by order of a public official due to a public health emergency

Therefore, most Arizona businesses already need to provide paid sick time leave to parents who need to stay home to care for children whose school or daycare center has been closed by order of the state.

  • Care for oneself or a family member when it has been determined by the health authorities having jurisdiction or by a health care provider that the employee’s or family member’s presence in the community may jeopardize the health of others because of his or her exposure to a communicable disease, whether or not the employee or family member has actually contracted the communicable disease. 

This provision could arguably be construed to cover employees who are staying home and self-quarantining in the current circumstances. Therefore, if an Arizona business voluntarily closes (without being ordered by the state, local or federal authorities to close), it should evaluate whether to permit employees to use paid sick time under Arizona law for the time of the closure, up to the amount of paid sick time the employee has available.

Arizona Employers can Require Employees to Use their Paid Sick Time in Certain Circumstances

While Arizona law does not explicitly provide that an employer can designate leave time as earned paid sick time when an employee has not requested to use earned paid sick time, the Arizona Industrial Commission FAQs explain that the Industrial Commission will not pursue enforcement when an employer designates an employee’s time off from work as earned paid sick time, provided that the employer has a good faith belief that the absence meets the requirements of earned paid sick time usage.  

Therefore, we recommend that if a local, state or federal authority orders your Arizona business to close, you notify all of your employees that you will treat the closure time as paid sick time under Arizona law to the extent employees have paid sick time available.  
Further, if you voluntarily close, without being ordered to, you should give serious consideration to treating the closure time as paid sick time under Arizona law to the extent employees have paid sick time available, and further letting your employees know that if they do not want to take the time off as paid sick time they should let you know (within a short time period, and definitely before your next payroll deadline) that they do not want to use the time as paid sick time.

Paid Vacation or Paid Time Off

Most employers will also allow their employees to use paid time off or vacation to offset earnings losses the employees would otherwise incur during a business shutdown. However, that may not be required – i.e. it may be possible to not permit employees to take the time off as paid leave under the employer’s policy. This is entirely dependent on the provisions of your policy. If you have any questions about this, give us a call.

The WARN Act

The Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification Act (WARN) protects workers, their families, and communities by requiring employers with 100 or more employees (generally not counting those who have worked less than six months in the last 12 months and those who work an average of less than 20 hours a week) to provide 60 calendar days advance written notice of a plant closing and mass layoff affecting 50 or more employees at a single site of employment. 

WARN requires employers who are planning a plant closing or a mass layoff to give affected employees at least 60 days’ notice of such an employment action. Damages and civil penalties can be assessed against employers who violate the Act.

Fortunately, WARN makes certain exceptions to the requirement of giving employees prior notice when the business closure or layoff occurs due to unforeseeable business circumstances, faltering companies, and natural disasters.  specifically, a government-ordered closure of an employment site that occurs without prior notice may be an unforeseeable business circumstance. Notice to employees and to the Arizona State rapid Response Coordinator is still required.

Pending Legislation Will Add Complexity

Legislation currently pending in Congress may provide emergency paid leave benefits for people dealing with the coronavirus outbreak (paid by the Social Security Administration), amendments to FMLA, and a new federal paid sick leave law. This legislation is in flux. When it becomes law, we will update our clients as to how to deal with it.

HHS Proposes to Revise ACA Section 1557 Nondiscrimination Rules

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) is issuing a proposed rule to revise regulations implementing and enforcing Section 1557 of the Affordable Care Act (ACA). Section 1557 prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, national origin, sex, age, or disability in certain health programs or activities.

PURPOSE OF THE PROPOSED RULE

The proposed rule would maintain vigorous civil rights enforcement of existing laws and regulations prohibiting discrimination on the basis of race, color, national origin, disability, age, and sex, while revising certain provisions of the current Section 1557 regulation that a federal court has said are likely unlawful. The proposal also would relieve the American people of $3.6 billion in unnecessary regulatory costs over five years, mainly by eliminating the mandate for entities to send patients and customers “notice and tagline” inserts in 15 foreign languages that have not proven effective at accomplishing their intended purpose. Covered entities report that they send billions of these notices by mail each year.

BACKGROUND

Section 1557 is a civil rights provision in the ACA that prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, national origin, sex, age, or disability in certain health programs or activities. Congress prohibited discrimination under Section 1557 by referencing four longstanding federal civil rights laws:

1. Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Title VI) (prohibiting discrimination on the basis of race, color, and national origin).

2. Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 (Title IX) (prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sex).

3. Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (Section 504) (prohibiting discrimination on the basis of disability).

4. Age Discrimination Act of 1975 (Age Act) (prohibiting discrimination on the basis of age).

HHS proposes to ensure the scope of the regulation matches the text of Section 1557 with respect to:

(1) Any health program or activity, any part of which is receiving federal financial assistance (including credits, subsidies, or contracts of insurance) provided by HHS;

(2) Any program or activity administered by HHS under Title I of the ACA; and

(3) Any program or activity administered by any entity established under that Title.

Thus, for example, the rule would apply to federally facilitated and state-based health insurance Exchanges created under the ACA, and the qualified health plans offered by issuers on those Exchanges.

Section 1557 has been in effect since its enactment in 2010, and Congress directed the HHS Office for Civil Rights (OCR) to enforce the provision.

Although Congress prohibited discrimination on the basis of sex in 1972 (Title IX), and Section 1557 applied that law to healthcare and the Exchanges established under the ACA, HHS’s 2016 Section 1557 regulation redefined discrimination “on the basis of sex” to include gender identity and termination of pregnancy and defined gender identity as one’s internal sense of being “male, female, neither, or a combination of male and female.” As a result, several states and healthcare entities filed federal lawsuits against HHS. On December 31, 2016, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Texas issued an opinion in Franciscan Alliance, Inc. et al. v. Burwell, preliminarily enjoining HHS’s attempt to prohibit discrimination on the basis of gender identity and termination of pregnancy as sex discrimination in the Section 1557 regulation. This federal court concluded the provisions are likely contrary to applicable civil rights law, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, and the Administrative Procedure Act. The preliminary injunction applies on a nationwide basis. A separate federal court in North Dakota agreed with the reasoning of the Franciscan Alliance decision, and stayed the rule’s effect on the plaintiffs before it.

Consequently, HHS has concluded that it does not have legal authority to implement the provisions on gender identity and termination of pregnancy in light of the court’s injunction which remains in full force and effect.

SUMMARY OF THE PROPOSED RULE

WHAT THE PROPOSED RULE KEEPS IN PLACE

  • HHS Would Continue to Vigorously Enforce Civil Rights in Healthcare: Under the proposed rule, HHS would continue to vigorously enforce all applicable existing laws and regulations that prohibit discrimination on the basis of race, color, national origin, disability, age, and sex based on HHS’s longstanding underlying civil rights regulations.
  • Protections for Individuals with Disabilities: The proposed rule would retain protections in the current Section 1557 regulation that ensure physical access for individuals with disabilities to healthcare facilities, and appropriate communication technology to assist persons who are visually or hearing-impaired.
  • Protections for Individuals with Limited English Proficiency: HHS proposes to retain the current Section 1557 regulation’s qualifications for foreign language translators and interpreters for non-English speakers, and its limitations on the use of minors and family members as translators or interpreters. HHS also proposes to include standards from longstanding LEP guidance in the regulation to ensure meaningful access to health programs and activities for LEP individuals and flexibility in meeting such obligation.
  • Assurances of Compliance: Under the proposed rule, regulated entities would still be required to submit to HHS a binding assurance of compliance with Section 1557.

PROPOSED RULE REVISIONS

HHS proposes to revise various provisions that are not statutorily supported, are unnecessary, or are duplicative of existing regulations. HHS also proposes to remove costly and unjustified regulatory burdens, to conform the scope of the regulation to HHS’s own implementation of the statutory limits set by Congress, and to implement the regulation consistent with all applicable federal civil rights laws.

Revise Provisions Preliminarily Enjoined Nationwide in Federal Court

Under the proposed rule, HHS would apply Congress’s words using their plain meaning when they were written, instead of attempting to redefine sex discrimination to include gender identity and termination of pregnancy. These redefinitions were preliminarily enjoined because a federal court found they were unlawful and exceeded Congress’s mandate. The proposed rule would not create a new definition of discrimination “on the basis of sex.” Instead HHS would enforce Section 1557 by returning to the government’s longstanding interpretation of “sex” under the ordinary meaning of the word Congress used. HHS also proposes to amend ten other regulations, issued by the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, implementing the prohibition on discrimination on the basis of sex, to make them consistent with the approach taken in the proposed Section 1557 rule.

HHS proposes to ensure its Section 1557 and Title IX regulations include language Congress enacted that protects religious entities, and that prevents Title IX from requiring performance of, or payment for, abortions.

Remove Costly and Unnecessary Regulatory Burdens

The proposed rule would eliminate burdens imposed by the 2016 regulation’s requirement that regulated health companies distribute non-discrimination notices and “tagline” translation notices in at least fifteen languages in “significant communications” to patients and customers. These notices have cost the healthcare industry billions of dollars (a cost which is ultimately passed on to consumers and patients), and data does not show that the notices have yielded the intended benefit for individuals with limited English proficiency.

Revise an Enforcement Structure That Created Legal Confusion

Section 1557 applies multiple civil rights statutes to healthcare settings. As Congress explicitly recognized in Section 1557, HHS has regulations in place for each of those statutes. HHS intends to enforce all those pre-existing statutes and regulations. The 2016 regulation, however, imposed a new single enforcement structure for every type of discrimination claim. Multiple federal courts have rejected various legal theories amalgamated into the 2016 regulation, such as the assertion of private rights of action for Title VI disparate impact claims. HHS proposes to return to the enforcement structure for each underlying civil right statute as provided by Congress and also proposes to remove portions of the 2016 regulation that are duplicative of, or inconsistent with, its longstanding regulations implementing Title VI, Title IX, Section 504, and the Age Act.

Revise the Scope of HHS’s Enforcement of Section 1557

HHS proposes to revise the 2016 regulation’s interpretation of Section 1557 as applying to all operations of an entity, even if it is not principally engaged in healthcare. The proposed rule would, instead, apply Section 1557 to the healthcare activities of entities not principally engaged in healthcare only to the extent they are funded by HHS. For example, the proposed rule would generally not apply to short-term limited duration insurance, because providers of those plans are not principally engaged in the business of healthcare, and those specific plans do not receive federal financial assistance.

Comply with All Applicable Federal Civil Rights Laws, Including Conscience and Religious Freedom Protections

In addition to ensuring consistent enforcement of longstanding regulations for Title VI, Title IX, Section 504, and the Age Act as passed by Congress and implemented by their HHS regulations, HHS proposes to add a regulatory provision stating that Section 1557 shall be enforced consistent with the ACA’s healthcare conscience protections (Section 1303 concerning abortion and Section 1553 concerning assisted suicide); healthcare conscience laws set forth in the Church, Coats-Snowe, Weldon, Hyde, and Helms Amendments; the Religious Freedom Restoration Act; and the First Amendment to the Constitution.

The Proposed Rule

IRS Announces 2020 HSA Contribution Limits, HDHP Minimum Deductibles and HDHP Maximum Out-of-Pocket Amounts

IRS has set 2020 inflation adjusted amounts for Health Savings Accounts (HSAs) as determined under § 223 of the Internal Revenue Code

The IRS has announced 2020 HSA and HDHP limits as follows:

Annual HSA contribution limitation. For calendar year 2020, the annual limitation on deductions for HSA contributions under § 223(b)(2)(A) for an individual with self-only coverage under a high deductible health plan is $3,550 (up from $3,500 in 2019), and the annual limitation on deductions for HSA contributions under § 223(b)(2)(B) for an individual with family coverage under a high deductible health plan is $7,100 (up from $7,000 in 2019).

High deductible health plans. For calendar year 2020, a “high deductible health plan” is defined under § 223(c)(2)(A) as a health plan with an annual deductible that is not less than $1,400 for self-only coverage or $2,800 for family coverage (up from $1,350 and $2,700 in 2019), and with respect to which the annual out-of-pocket expenses (deductibles, co-payments, and other amounts, but not premiums) do not exceed $6,900 for self-only coverage or $13,800 for family coverage (up from $6,750 and $13,500 in 2019).

Rev. Proc. 2019-25

DC Circuit Court Invalidates Significant Provisions of the DOL Association Health Plan Rules

On March 28, 2019, the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia found significant provisions of the Department of Labor’s (DOL’s) final rule expanding the availability of association health plans (AHPs) to be unlawful. In State of New York et. al. v. United States Department of Labor, the Court held that the rule’s interpretation of “employer” to include working owners and groups without a true commonality of interest was unreasonable and, “clearly an end-run around the [Affordable Care Act]” with the purpose of “avoid[ing] the most stringent requirements of the [Affordable Care Act].” The court set aside those parts of the regulation and remanded the rule to the DOL to determine how the rule’s severability provision affects the remaining part of the rule.

The DOL is reviewing the decision and could decide to revoke the rule, revise it in a way that complies with the court’s ruling, or appeal the decision to the Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit.

Background
Trade associations often offer health insurance to their members. Historically, these associations identified themselves as employers or employee organizations under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (ERISA) to claim ERISA preemption from state insurance regulation. Then, in 1983, Congress amended ERISA to give states regulatory authority over self-insured multiple employer welfare arrangements (MEWAs) and some regulatory authority over fully insured MEWAs. AHPs are one type of MEWA.

The Affordable Care Act (ACA) added reporting requirements for MEWAs, imposed criminal penalties on MEWA fraud, and authorized the DOL to take immediate action to address fraudulent MEWAs. It also dropped an exception from the “guaranteed availability” provision of the Public Health Service Act that had previously existed for bona fide association plans. As a result, an insurer that offers coverage through an association must offer the same plan to non-members who want it (and are aware of it). Associations themselves are not subject to guaranteed availability requirements.

The ACA also defined large group, small group, and individual plans, without reference to how they were offered (i.e. whether as an AHP or otherwise). Prior to the new rule, AHPs continued to exist, but largely subject to the ACA rules. This “look through” doctrine considers only whether the participating individual or employer is obtaining individual, small group, or large group coverage – it does not “look” at the AHP as a whole to determine whether the small group or large group rules apply. This means that small group coverage obtained through an AHP was regulated under the same standards that applied to the small group market. This includes many of the ACA’s most significant small group rules, such as coverage of preexisting conditions, rating rules, and the essential health benefits requirements.

However, if an association could be treated as an employer who is sponsoring a single health plan for its members, the AHP would be regulated as a group health plan under ERISA. Group health plans are subject to various reporting, disclosure, fiduciary and other requirements imposed by ERISA, the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA), COBRA, and some, but not all, of the Affordable Care Act’s market reforms. Group health plans are also exempt from most state regulation. Although insurers that insure group health plans are subject to state laws and regulations with respect to the insurance policies, states cannot regulate the underlying employer-health plan. As a large group health plan, an AHP would not have to comply with many of the ACA’s most significant consumer protections (such as coverage of essential health benefits or rating rules) that apply in the individual and small group markets, or many state requirements.

Prior to the new rule, the DOL had interpreted this AHP exception narrowly to apply only when a “bona fide” group of employers is bound together by a commonality of interest (other than simply providing a health plan) with vested control of the association so that they effectively operate as a single employer. Thus, eligible association members had to share a common interest, join together for purposes other than providing health insurance, exercise control over the AHP, and have one or more employees in addition to the business owner and spouse. AHPs offered by general business groups or that include individual members do not qualify, a position the DOL reaffirmed as recently as 2017.

The Final Rule
This exception—where an AHP can be treated as a group health plan under ERISA—was the target of the DOL’s final rule on AHPs, which was issued in June 2018. The DOL’s final rule made it much easier for an association to be considered a single multi-employer plan under ERISA. The final rule relaxed a long-standing “commonality of interest” requirement that associations must exist for a reason other than offering health insurance and allowed self-employed “working owners” to enroll in AHP coverage. The rule also included nondiscrimination protections that prohibit associations from conditioning membership based on a health factor (although not other factors such as gender, age, geography, and industry). The rule did not disturb state regulatory authority over AHPs but left open the possibility that the DOL would grant exemptions for AHPs from state requirements in the future.

The final rule also included a severability provision, which provides that the rest of the rule would remain operative even if parts of the rule were found to be invalid or unenforceable. The preamble cited an example regarding working owners: if a federal court rules that the working owners provision is void, this provision should be severed from the rest of the regulation and thus would not impact, for example, the ability of an association to meet the final rule’s updated commonality of interest test.

In July 2018, 12 states— California, Delaware, the District of Columbia, Kentucky, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Washington —filed a lawsuit challenging the final rule for violating the Administrative Procedure Act. The states argued that the DOL’s new interpretation of “employer” was inconsistent with the text and purpose of ERISA, that the goal of the final rule was to undermine the ACA, and that the DOL was changing long-standing interpretations of ERISA to do so. The states argued that by picking and choosing the circumstances under which an association meets the definition of an “employer” under ERISA, the rule disregards the intent of Congress when adopting the ACA to establish three distinct sets of rules for three distinct markets (the individual, small group, and large group markets). The states also alleged that the rule increased the risk of fraud and harm to consumers, required states to devote significant resources to preventing that risk, and jeopardized the ability of states to adopt stronger protections.

The lawsuit asked the court to hold the AHP rule invalid, to vacate and set it aside, and to enjoin the DOL from implementing or enforcing the rule.

The Decision
Judge Bates held that the DOL failed to reasonably interpret ERISA and that significant provisions of the final rule—on bona fide associations and working owners—must be set aside. The bona fide association standard failed to meaningfully limit the types of associations that qualify to sponsor an ERISA plan. This violates Congress’s intent that only an employer association acting “in the interest of” its members falls under ERISA. The working owner provision is inconsistent with the text and purpose of ERISA, which is to regulate benefit plans that arise from employment relationships. By extending the rule to include working owners, the DOL impermissibly extended ERISA to plans outside of an employment relationship.

Judge Bates held that the states were challenging only parts of the new rule—i.e., the new standards for bona fide associations, commonality of interest, and working owners under 29 C.F.R. 2510.3-5(b), (c), and (e). Because the states did not challenge the rule’s other changes related to nondiscrimination and organizational structure, the court did not address those requirements, holding that they are “collateral” to the rule’s three main requirements. Instead of invalidating the entire rule, Judge Bates therefore remanded the rule to DOL to consider how the rule’s severability provision affects the remaining portions.

The Decision Regarding “Bona Fide Association”
Historically, the DOL wanted to ensure that an association had a “sufficiently close economic or representational nexus to the employers and employees that participate in the plan.” This analysis centered on 1) whether the association is a bona fide organization that has purposes and functions unrelated to providing benefits; 2) whether the employers share some commonality and genuine organizational relationship unrelated to providing benefits; and 3) whether the employers that participate in a benefit program exercise control over the program.

In the final rule, the DOL maintained the same three criteria—primarily purpose, commonality of interest, and control—for determining whether an association acts in the interest of an employer and is thus a bona fide employer under ERISA. However, the final rule reinterprets these criteria in a way that the Court found too significantly departs from the DOL’s prior guidance and in a way that fails to limit ERISA’s exemptions to only associations that act “in the interest of” employers. This unlawfully expands ERISA’s scope and conflicts with the statutory text. Judge Bates discussed each of these three criteria individually and then considers them together.

First, the final rule relaxed the requirement that associations exist for a reason other than offering health insurance. Under the final rule, an association’s principal purpose could be to provide benefits so long as the group or association had at least one “substantial business purpose” unrelated to providing benefits. DOL’s examples of a “substantial business purpose” range from resource-intensive activities (e.g., setting business standards or practices) to de minimis activities (e.g., publishing a newsletter).

This new interpretation of the “primary purpose” test fails to set meaningful limits on the character and activities of an association that qualifies as an “employer” under ERISA. Under the final rule, sponsoring an AHP may be the association’s only purpose so long as the association does de minimis activities that qualify as a “substantial business purpose.” Judge Bates concludes that this is “such a low bar that virtually no association could fail to meet it.” As such, the standards are too broad fail to identify defining characteristics of a subset of organizations that would fall under ERISA’s scope.

Second, employers must show a “commonality of interest” to form an association sponsoring an AHP. Under the final rule, an association can show commonality of interest among its members if they are either 1) in the same trade, industry, profession, or line of business; or 2) in the same principal place of business within the same state or a common metropolitan area even if the metro area extends across state lines. This change significantly relaxed the prior “commonality of interest” standard, making it easier for employers—tied only by being in the same line of business or geographic area—to band together and form an association for the sole purpose of offering health coverage.

Judge Bates explained, “ERISA imposes a common interest requirement, not merely a something-in-common requirement.” The geography test “effectively eviscerates” the commonality of interest required under ERISA and impermissibly exceeds the scope of the statute.

Third, the final rule required a group or association to have an organizational structure and be functionally controlled by its members, in both form and substance, either directly or by electing a board or other representatives. The control test does limit the types of associations that qualify as employers by ensuring that employer members direct the actions and decisions of the association with respect to the AHP. However, this prong fails too because it cannot overcome concerns about the lack of common interest among employers. The control test is only meaningful if employers’ interests are already aligned. If employer members have opposed interests, the control test—through, say election of officers—would only further the interests of some, but not all, employers within the association.

Collectively, these three criteria fail to limit “bona fide associations” to those acting “in the interest of” their employer members under ERISA. Under the final rule, groups of employers with no common characteristic other than presence in the same state could qualify as a single employer under ERISA so long as that group had an election-based officer structure and some incidental business-related project. This, in Judge Bates’ view, is not enough to show that an association and its members are connected by a true employment nexus. In addition, the rule would impermissibly enable groups that resemble commercial insurance providers to qualify as an “employer” for purposes of offering an AHP under ERISA, which has long been forbidden.

The DOL argued that the final rule’s nondiscrimination requirements balance its less stringent standards for commonality of interest and purpose. Judge Bates disagrees. The nondiscrimination provision governs how qualifying associations can structure their AHP premiums but does nothing to limit which associations qualify under the final rule. Because of this, the nondiscrimination provision does not impact the court’s analysis.

The Decision Regarding “Working Owners”
Historically, AHP enrollment has been limited to the association members’ employees, former employees, and their families or beneficiaries. This has meant that individuals—including sole proprietors with no common law employees—generally have not been able to enroll in group health AHPs.

The final rule expanded the availability of AHP group coverage to self-employed individuals referred to as “working owners.” Under the rule, a working owner without common law employees can qualify as both an employer and an employee for purposes of enrollment in a group health AHP. This “dual treatment” would allow a self-employed individual to be an employer (to participate in the AHP and offer group coverage) and an employee (of their own business to qualify for the health coverage offered by the AHP). Because of this, two sole proprietors without employees could band together to form an association and then offer an ERISA plan to themselves.

Judge Bates found this to be absurd. Rather than “interpreting” ERISA, the DOL rewrote the statute, ignoring the law’s definitions and structure, caselaw, and ERISA’s 40-year history of excluding employers without employees. A working owner’s membership in an association does not bring him under ERISA: joining an association cannot transform a sole proprietor into an “employer” or “employee” under the statute. Further, Congress did not intend for working owners without employees to be included under ERISA because ERISA’s focus is on benefits arising from employment relationships. Working owners employ no one: one does not have an employment relationship with oneself.

Implications
The most immediate impact of the decision is that it prevents the formation of self-insured AHPs under the new rule. The rule would have gone into effect for new self-insured AHPs beginning on April 1.
Another question is what happens to the existing AHPs that have been formed under the rule already. For example, AHPs formed on the basis of the expanded commonality of interest under the final rule will need to consider whether they can comply with the historical bona fide association requirements. In addition, because the final rule has been vacated, those AHPs offering coverage to working owners and small employers no longer qualify as ERISA plans under the rule. Since they no longer qualify as ERISA plans, they are governed under the ACA’s rules in the individual and small group market and subject to state regulation. Given this, these AHPs may need to come into compliance with the ACA’s individual and small group market protections.

Finally, States, and the DOL, may want to take enforcement action against AHPs presumably could, relying on state law or the prior “look through” doctrine. It is not yet clear what (if any) guidance the DOL, or potentially the Department of Health and Human Services, might give or whether they will announce an enforcement stance for AHPs currently offering non-ACA-compliant coverage.

In the meantime, DOL is reviewing the decision and could decide to revoke the rule altogether, revise it in a way that complies with the decision, or appeal the decision to the Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit.

Prior Post regarding the Final Rule

DOL Issues Final Rules Expanding Association Health Plans: New Opportunities for Small Employers to Reduce Costs?

The Department of Labor’s Employee Benefits Security Administration (EBSA) has issued a final rule under Title I of the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA) that creates new opportunities for groups of employers to band together and be treated as a single “employer” sponsor of a group health plan. The final rule adopts a new regulation at 29 CFR 2510.3-5. This post summarizes the major provisions of the rule.

The general purpose of the rule is to clarify which persons may act as an “employer” within the meaning of ERISA section 3(5) in sponsoring a multiple employer “employee welfare benefit plan” and “group health plan,” as those terms are defined in Title I of ERISA. The essence of the final rule is to set forth the criteria for a “bona fide group or association” of employers that may establish a group health plan that is an employee welfare benefit plan under ERISA. The rule sets forth 8 broad criteria that must be satisfied.

 1) The final rule establishes a general legal standard that requires that a group or association of employers have at least one substantial business purpose unrelated to offering and providing health coverage or other employee benefits to its employer members and their employees, even if the primary purpose of the group or association is to offer such coverage to its members.

Although the final rule does not define the term “substantial business purpose,” the rule contains an explicit safe harbor under which a substantial business purpose is considered to exist in cases where the group or association would be a viable entity even in the absence of sponsoring an employee benefit plan. The final rule also states that a business purposes is not required to be a for-profit purpose. For example, a bona fide group or association could offer other services to its members, such as convening conferences or offering classes or educational materials on business issues of interest to the association members.

2) Each employer member of the group or association participating in the group health plan (the “Association Health Plan” or “AHP”) must be a person acting directly as an employer of at least one employee who is a participant covered under the plan.

3) A group must have “a formal organizational structure with a governing body” as well as “by-laws or other similar indications of formality” appropriate for the legal form in which the group operates in order to qualify as bona fide.

4) The functions and activities of the group must be controlled by its employer members, and the group’s employer members that participate in the AHP must control the plan. Basically – act like an employer sponsored group health plan, not like an insurance company.

5) The group must have a commonality of interest. Employer members of a group will be treated as having a commonality of interest if they satisfy one of the following:

  • the employers are in the same trade, industry, line of business or profession; or
  • each employer has a principal place of business in the same region that does not exceed the boundaries of a single State or a metropolitan area (even if the metropolitan area includes more than one State)

6) The group cannot offer coverage under the AHP to anyone other than employees, former employees and beneficiaries of the members of the group. Again, act like an employer sponsored group health plan, not like an insurance company.

 7) The health coverage must satisfy certain nondiscrimination requirements under ERISA. For example, an AHP:

  • cannot condition employer membership in the group or association on any health factor of any individual who is or may become eligible to participate in plan;
  • must comply with the HIPAA nondiscrimination rules prohibiting discrimination in eligibility for benefits based on an individual health factor;
  • must comply with the HIPAA nondiscrimination rules prohibiting discrimination in premiums or contributions required by any participant or beneficiary for coverage under the plan based on an individual health factor; and
  • may not treat the employees of different employer members of the group or association as distinct groups of similarly-situated individuals based on a health factor of one or more individuals.

8) The group cannot be a health insurer.

 The final rule also describes the types of working owners without common law employees (i.e. partners in a partnership) who can qualify as employer members and also be treated as employees for purposes of being covered by the bona fide employer group or association’s health plan.

Implications of the final rule will take some time to play out. The administration has stated that its intention behind the final rule is to allow “small employers – many of whom are facing much higher premiums and fewer coverage options as a result of Obamacare – a greater ability to join together and gain many of the regulatory advantages enjoyed by large employers.” The Congressional Budget Office estimated that 400,000 previously uninsured people will gain coverage under AHPs and that millions of people will switch their coverage to more affordable and more flexible AHP plans and save thousands of dollars in premiums.

For our part, we are evaluating the potential to assist smaller employers to save costs and improve the benefits in their health plans by establishing groups and associations to provide AHPs, and we will update our clients as those opportunities mature.

More from EBSA on Association Health Plans:

Final Rule

Fact Sheet

Frequently Asked Questions

News Release