EEOC Wellness Regulations Sent to EEOC For Review (AARP v US EEOC)

The United States District Court for the District of DC has concluded in the case of AARP v. United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, that the EEOC’s final wellness regulations are arbitrary and capricious, and has therefore sent them back to the EEOC for review. The regulations address the impact of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act (GINA) on employer-sponsored wellness programs.

The Plaintiff in the case, the AARP, argued that permitting incentives of up to 30% of the cost of coverage is an unreasonable interpretation of the term “voluntary” because the incentive is too high to give employees a meaningful choice whether to participate in programs requiring disclosure of ADA-protected information. It further argued that the EEOC’s reversal of its prior position on the meaning of “voluntary”, which precluded incentives, was unsupported, inadequately explained, and thus, arbitrary and capricious.

The court ruled that the EEOC has not justified its conclusion that the 30% incentive level is a reasonable interpretation of voluntariness. Rejecting the EEOC’s argument that 30% is appropriate because it harmonizes the EEOC regulations with HIPAA as amended by the ACA, the court explained that HIPAA’s 30% incentive cap is not intended to serve as an interpretation of the term “voluntary” since voluntariness of participation is not an issue under HIPAA. Moreover, the court pointed out, the EEOC regulations are inconsistent with the HIPAA regulations in other respects. For instance, the EEOC regulations extend the 30% cap to participatory wellness programs to which the HIPAA cap does not apply. While holding that the EEOC made its decision arbitrarily, the court did not vacate the regulations, noting that they have been applicable for eight months. Instead, the court remanded the regulations to the EEOC for reconsideration.  For now, the EEOC’s final wellness regulations will remain in effect, pending the EEOC’s review of the regulations.

Background

Wellness programs are regulated in part by the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), as amended by the Affordable Care Act (ACA), as well as by HIPAA’s implementing regulations.

HIPAA prevents health plans and insurers from discriminating on the basis of “any health status related factor,” but allows covered entities to offer “premium discounts or rebates” on a plan participant’s copayments or deductibles in return for that individual’s compliance with a wellness program. A “reward” or incentive may include a discount on insurance costs or a penalty that increases the plan participant’s costs because of non-participation in the wellness program. See 26 C.F.R. § 54.9802-1(f)(1)(i).

The ACA’s amendments to HIPAA, and the accompanying implementing regulations, allow plans and insurers to offer incentives of up to 30% of the cost of coverage in exchange for an employee’s participation in a health-contingent wellness program, a kind of wellness program in which the reward is based on an insured individual’s satisfaction of a particular health-related factor. See Incentives for Nondiscriminatory Wellness Programs in Group Health Plans (“the 2013 HIPAA regulations” or “2013 HIPAA rule”), 78 Fed. Reg. 33,158, 33,180. Neither the ACA nor the 2013 HIPAA regulations impose a cap on incentives that may be offered in connection with participatory wellness programs, which are programs that do not condition receipt of the incentive on satisfaction of a health factor. Id. at 33,167.

However, because employer-sponsored wellness programs often involve the collection of sensitive medical information from employees, including information about disabilities or genetic information, these programs often implicate the ADA and GINA as well. As both the ADA and GINA are administered by EEOC, this brings wellness programs within EEOC’s purview.

The ADA prohibits employers from requiring medical examinations or inquiring whether an individual has a disability unless the inquiry is both job-related and “consistent with business necessity.” 42 U.S.C. § 12112(d)(4)(A). But the ADA makes some allowances for wellness programs: it provides that an employer may conduct medical examinations and collect employee medical history as part of an “employee health program,” as long as the employee’s participation in the program is “voluntary”. Id. § 12112(d)(4)(B). The term “voluntary” is not defined in the statute.

Similarly, GINA prohibits employers from requesting, requiring, or purchasing “genetic information” from employees or their family members.  The definition of genetic information includes an individual’s genetic tests, the genetic tests of family members such as children and spouses, and the manifestation of a disease or disorder of a family member. Like the ADA, GINA contains an exception that permits employers to collect this information as part of a wellness program, as long as the employee’s provision of the information is voluntary. Again, the meaning of “voluntary” is not defined in the statute.

Thus, while HIPAA and its implementing regulations expressly permit the use of incentives in wellness programs, uncertainty existed as to whether the “voluntary” provisions of the ADA and GINA permit the use of incentives in those wellness programs that implicate ADA- or GINA-protected information.

The EEOC previously took the position that in order for a wellness program to be “voluntary,” employers could not condition the receipt of incentives on the employee’s disclosure of ADA- or GINA-protected information. However, in 2016 the EEOC promulgated new rules reversing this position. Those are the rules at issue in this case. The new ADA rule provides that the use of a penalty or incentive of up to 30% of the cost of self-only coverage will not render “involuntary” a wellness program that seeks the disclosure of ADA-protected information. See ADA Rule, 81 Fed. Reg. at 31,133–34. Likewise, the new GINA rule permits employers to offer incentives of up to 30% of the cost of self-only coverage for disclosure of information, pursuant to a wellness program, about a spouses’s manifestation of disease or disorder, which, as noted above, falls within the definition of the employee’s “genetic information” under GINA.2 See GINA Rule, 81 Fed. Reg. at 31,144.

Unlike the 2013 HIPAA regulations, which place caps on incentives only in health-contingent wellness programs, the incentive limits in the new GINA and ADA rules apply both to participatory and health-contingent wellness programs.

COBRA, FMLA and the ACA Employer Mandate

Let’s assume you have diligently designated initial and standard measurement and stability periods to take advantage of the opportunities provided by the final employer mandate regulations to minimize the risk of incurring employer mandate penalties under the ACA (if you have not, let’s do it now – better late than never). But you may not yet have figured out how these designations may impact your FMLA and COBRA administration. To help you do that, let me tell you a story….

Joe Blow worked as a full-time employee for Acme, Inc. for several years. As such, he and his family were covered by Acme’s medical plan. In 2014, Acme designated a November 1 – October 31 standard measurement period, and a January 1 – December 31 standard stability period for ongoing employees such as Joe. In November 2014, Joe was diagnosed with cancer and went out on FMLA leave. In accordance with its long-standing practice, Acme continued Joe’s coverage under the medical plan while Joe was on FMLA leave, until the later of February 28, 2015 (the end of the month in which the 12 week FMLA leave period ended), or the date Joe indicated he would not return to work.

In January 2015, Joe let Acme know that he would return to work on March 1, 2015, but that due to his medical condition he could only work 20 hours per week. Joe was a valuable employee, and Acme wanted Joe to return to work in whatever capacity they could have him. So Acme welcomed Joe’s return.

Now, before the ACA, Acme would have:

  • terminated Joe’s medical coverage upon his return to work,
  • retroactively collected from Joe the employee portion of the premium for his coverage for the FMLA leave period, and
  • offered Joe and his qualified beneficiaries COBRA coverage. The COBRA period would have started running as of March 1, 2015 (the end of the FMLA leave period).

What about after the ACA? When Joe returns to work in March 2015, Acme can no longer terminate his employee coverage, because Joe worked full time during the measurement period that ran from November 1, 2013 to October 31, 2014 (and therefore he satisfies the requirement to be considered a full-time employee for the stability period that runs from January 1, 2015 to December 31, 2015). This would remain true, even if Acme had extended Joe’s leave beyond the FMLA period, into March and April 2015. For example, if Acme had agreed to extend Joe’s leave through April 1, 2015 as an accommodation under the ADA, or if Acme had voluntarily permitted Joe to extend his leave (without terminating employment) through April 1, 2015, Acme would still not be able to terminate Joe’s coverage at the end of the FMLA leave, because of its ACA measurement and stability period designations. Acme needs to continue offering Joe coverage under the Plan through the end of 2015.

What about COBRA after the ACA? Joe works 20 hours per week for the remainder of 2015. Therefore, he does not work sufficient hours during the November 1, 2014 – October 31, 2015 measurement period to be considered a full time employee for the stability period that runs from January 1, 2016 to December 31, 2016, and Acme terminates Joe’s employee coverage as of January 1, 2016.

Under COBRA, the coverage period runs from the date of the qualifying event that leads to a loss of coverage (not from the date of the loss of coverage). Therefore, Joe’s standard 18 month COBRA period would end on August 31, 2016 (18 months after March 1, 2015). So under COBRA, Acme cannot terminate Joe’s COBRA coverage before August 31, 2016.

Alternatively, Acme could design its medical plan to start the COBRA period as of the date coverage is lost (as opposed to the date of the qualifying event). Here, that would give Joe 18 months of COBRA after January 1, 2016. Before it does so, however, Acme needs to make sure that its stop loss insurer is on board (Acme’s plan is self-funded, with a stop loss policy).

As this little tale teaches, regardless of whether Acme’s plan is self-insured or fully insured, and regardless of whether it decides to run the COBRA period from the original qualifying event, or from the loss of coverage at the end of the stability period, Acme should make sure that its insurance policies, plan documents, summary plan descriptions, medical plan eligibility administration, COBRA administration, and leave policies all account for the implications of its designated measurement and stability periods.

EEOC Proposes Amendments to ADA Regulations regarding Employer Wellness Programs

On April 20, 2015 the EEOC released proposed amendments to regulations under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) related to employer wellness programs. The proposed rule provides guidance on the extent to which employers may use incentives to encourage employees to participate in wellness programs that are part of their group health plans, and that include disability-related inquiries and/or medical examinations.  The proposed rules explain how a wellness program that includes incentives for participation can satisfy the “voluntary medical examination” exception to the ADA’s prohibition on “making disability-related inquiries or requiring medical examinations”.  The exception allows “voluntary medical examinations, including voluntary medical histories, which are part of an employee health program available to employees at that work site.”

This is the latest action in an ongoing turf battle between the EEOC (which administers the ADA) and the Departments of Labor, Treasury, and HHS (which administer the HIPAA nondiscrimination rules).  HHS has taken a liberal approach, allowing wellness programs to impose a 30% penalty for failure to participate in wellness programs (and up to 50% in the case of tobacco prevention or reduction programs), in accordance with the Affordable Care Act’s policy of encouraging wellness programs.  The EEOC has traditionally taken a more conservative view, holding such a large incentive would violate the ADA because it would render the program not voluntary.

The proposed rules permit incentives as high as 30% to encourage participation in a wellness program that includes disability-related inquiries or medical examinations, as long as participation is voluntary.  Voluntary means that the employer:

(1) does not require employees to participate;

(2) does not deny coverage under any of its group health plans or particular benefits packages within a group health plan for non-participation or limit the extent of such coverage (except pursuant to allowed incentives); and

(3) does not take any adverse employment action or retaliate against, interfere with, coerce, intimidate, or threaten employees who do not participate.

In addition, an employer must provide a notice that clearly explains what medical information will be obtained, who will receive the medical information, how the medical information will be used, the restrictions on its disclosure, and the methods the covered entity will employ to prevent improper disclosure of the medical information. Finally, the proposed rule allows the disclosure of medical information obtained by wellness programs to employers only in aggregate form, except as needed to administer the health plan.

icon   The Proposed Rules

icon   EEOC Q&As on the Proposed Rules