In addition to $600 checks for most Americans, the year-end COVID-19 stimulus package signed by the President on December 27, 2020, includes a new round of changes that employers will need to track for their employee benefit plans. The Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2021 (H.R. 133) (the “Act”) is the fourth major legislative attempt to provide relief to businesses and individuals facing economic hardship due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Although lacking a catchy acronym (like the “CARES” and “SECURE” Acts), this legislation makes the most significant changes to health plans since the Affordable Care Act, offers employers and employees additional flexibility for cafeteria plan benefits, and provides additional retirement plan relief.
Group Health Plans
Deadline relief afforded by a new DOL and IRS Joint Notice during the COVID-19 national emergency significantly changes the administration of both self-funded and fully insured group health plans. Some of the extended deadlines are already causing confusion and increasing compliance risks for employers.
A frequently overlooked portion of the CARES Act offers employers the ability to give their employees some immediate – and cost-free – financial assistance. The Act opens the door for employees to use pre-tax dollars to purchase over-the-counter drugs and menstrual care products. Employers will need to modify health FSAs, HSAs, and HRAs to take advantage of this relief.
The Department of Labor’s Employee Benefits Security Administration issued guidance on April 28, 2020, providing temporary, coronavirus-related relief from many deadlines and requirements under ERISA. Notably, the guidance relaxes the standards for employers to provide notices electronically, and affords significant latitude to COBRA qualified beneficiaries for electing, and paying for, COBRA continuation coverage.
As we are all now intimately aware, the coronavirus pandemic has changed the nature of the workplace, and all of the benefits, rights, and responsibilities arising out of employment. We are operating under a new set of rules, and those rules are changing daily. Employers’ efforts to manage their workforce in order to maintain fiscal viability while protecting the health of employees also affect benefits. The cascading effect of these factors raises many thorny benefits questions. We will summarize – and attempt to answer – a few of those questions here (based on the legal landscape as of March 31, 2020).
Cyberattacks have managed to invade all walks of life, and employee benefit plans are no exception. When a plan is attacked, the fallout can be overwhelmingly expensive and burdensome to correct. Many plan sponsors are purchasing cyber liability insurance coverage to supplement their data security measures. Understanding those policies – and their exclusions – is important for sponsors who are exploring such coverage.
Although the GOP tax reform bill reduces to zero the penalty for failing to comply with the Affordable Care Act’s individual coverage mandate, it does nothing to alleviate the employer ACA mandate. Coincidentally, the IRS has just started issuing notices of potential penalty assessments under that employer mandate (commonly known as the “play-or-pay” provision).
These notices take the form of a “Letter 226J” (this notation appears in the footer of each page), and the Letter makes crystal clear the amount of the potential penalty assessment (which can be substantial). This dollar amount appears in bold on the second line of the Letter’s text.
Final regulations issued by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) under both the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) and the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act (“GINA”) will require modifications to many employee wellness programs. These modifications may include the deletion of certain questions from health risk assessments, additional employee notification requirements, and a reduction in the incentives used to discourage tobacco usage. Although certain aspects of these regulations will not apply until the first day of the 2017 plan year, others are already in effect.
The well-publicized cyber-attack on Anthem, Inc.’s information technology system may require employers to take prompt action to protect the rights of their health plan participants. Although neither the scope nor the cause of the security breach has yet been determined, the attack has been described as both “massive” and “sophisticated.”
In a series of notices and FAQs, the IRS has clearly enunciated its view that an employer’s reimbursement of an employee’s premiums for individual health insurance violates certain provisions of the Affordable Care Act (“ACA”). While reiterating this key point, Notice 2015-17 does grant a limited period of relief for smaller employers. Nonetheless, even those employers should be working toward a June 30 deadline to comply with these ACA constraints.