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.
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.
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).
In Notice 2019-63, the IRS has granted health insurers and large employers 30 more days to issue the appropriate 2019 ACA-reporting forms to their insureds and full-time employees. Rather than January 31, 2020, these Forms 1095-B and 1095-C will now be due by March 2, 2020. The IRS has also extended the “good-faith” standard for compliance with these reporting rules. Finally, in view of the zeroing out of the penalty for failing to comply with the ACA’s individual mandate, insurers and large employers will now have an additional compliance option.
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.
The Affordable Care Act (“ACA”) imposed reporting requirements on health coverage providers (including self-funded employer plans) and “applicable large employers” (those with 50 or more full-time employees). For health coverage provided during both 2015 and 2016, the IRS extended the deadline for issuing certain of the required reporting forms. In Notice 2018-06, the IRS has now granted a similar extension with respect to reporting health coverage provided during calendar-year 2017.
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.
As annual open enrollment season approaches, many employers may be evaluating ways in which to control rising health plan costs. One strategy frequently considered is a financial incentive for employees to waive or opt out of the employer-sponsored group health coverage. Although such “cash-in-lieu” or “opt-out” arrangements have long been common, they raise potential problems under the Affordable Care Act (“ACA”), as well as a number of other federal laws.
As explained in our December 19, 2016, article, the 21st Century Cures Act allows small employers (those that are not subject to the Affordable Care Act’s “play-or-pay” requirements because they have fewer than 50 full-time employees, including full-time equivalents) to offer their employees a premium reimbursement arrangement that would otherwise violate the ACA. By establishing a “qualified small employer health reimbursement arrangement” (or “QSEHRA”), such an employer may subsidize its employees’ purchase of individual health insurance coverage. In its recent Notice 2017-20, the IRS has granted these employers additional time to comply with the QSEHRA notification requirement.