By: Philip Qualo, J.D.
The Nation’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic called on employers to exercise greater flexibility and understanding for employees impacted by COVID-19. For the most part, the series of legislations enacted since the pandemic hit the U.S. have been aimed at expanding unemployment, group health plan coverage, leaves of absence, and providing financial support to struggling employers and Americans faced with an economy that evaporated overnight. However, plan sponsors offering benefits on a pre-tax basis through Internal Revenue Services (IRS) Section 125 cafeteria plans struggled to correlate the nationwide call to provide flexible options employees with the strict terms of their cafeteria plans.
Section 125 cafeteria plans are required to maintain employee pre-tax elections for benefits offered through the plan for the full plan year, with very few exceptions. The type of benefits offered through a cafeteria plan generally include employer-sponsored health coverage, Health Flexible Spending Arrangements (Health FSAs) and Dependent Care Assistance Programs (DCAPs). The IRS also imposes strict limitations on when midyear changes to those elections may be made. As employers have been forced to deal with mandatory shutdowns, furloughs, and newly enacted leave requirements, most plan sponsors found themselves with little guidance on how to handle requested changes to elections made before COVID-19 became a household name.
After much anticipation, the IRS finally released much needed guidance on May 12, 2020. In IRS Notice 2020-29, the IRS provides for increased flexibility with respect to midyear elections under a Section 125 cafeteria plan during calendar year 2020 due to COVID-19. The Notice applies to cafeteria plans that offer employer-sponsored health coverage, FSAs and DCAPs. The Notice permits an employer to amend its cafeteria plans to allow employees to:
Notice 2020-29 does not require cafeteria plans adopt these midyear elections. An employer that decides to amend their cafeteria plan to allow for any of the above midyear election changes must adopt a plan amendment. It should be noted that any amendment to a cafeteria plan made under pursuant to the Notice is only valid through December 31, 2020.
It is important to note that an employer is not required to provide unlimited election changes but may, in its discretion, determine the extent to which such election changes are permitted and applied, provided that any permitted election changes are applied on a prospective basis only, and the changes to the plan's election requirements do not result in failure to comply with the nondiscrimination rules applicable to Section 125 cafeteria plans.
In determining the extent to which midyear election changes are permitted and applied, an employer may wish to consider the potential for adverse selection of health coverage by employees. To prevent adverse selection of health coverage, an employer may wish to limit elections to circumstances in which an employee's coverage will be increased or improved as a result of the election.
By: Andrew Silverio, Esq.
As the days in isolation continue to stretch into weeks and eventually months, it seems there is no industry or business that has not been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. But a recent report released by the American Hospital Association (available at https://www.aha.org/guidesreports/2020-05-05-hospitals-and-health-systems-face-unprecedented-financial-pressures-due) reveals a significant financial impact on hospitals and health systems, entities which are truly on the front lines of the fight against COVID-19. This may seem counterintuitive – one might expect that a massive public health event like a viral pandemic would result in an influx of business and corresponding increase in revenues for hospitals and other providers. However, the report outlines various ways in which these providers are suffering significant losses – estimated at $202.6 billion over four months, or $50.7 billion per month.
First, many Americans sheltering in place and reluctant to risk exposure to the virus are canceling or postponing standard care, and shortages of protective equipment and crucial drugs have forced providers to incur increased cost to secure these materials. Additionally, the sudden and historic surge of unemployment has led to a corresponding rise in uninsured patients. Despite government efforts to expand access to COBRA coverage, these efforts have not impacted the cost of coverage itself, and it can still be prohibitively costly, especially for the newly unemployed.
The report itself provides a much more in-depth analysis of the impact of these factors, and I encourage reviewing it in full (with a grain of salt, as the AHA is ultimately an advocacy organization). Taken at face value, it remains to be seen what the ultimate impact on payers will be. Certainly some of this expense will be passed on to payers directly, for example increased supply costs for drugs and medical equipment, but more indirect and widespread impact is likely as well, for example if providers make concerted efforts to be more aggressive with billing and collections do to the increase in uninsured patients, or are forced out of operation, reducing healthcare options overall. For example, CNN outlines at https://www.cnn.com/2020/04/21/us/coronavirus-rural-hospitals-invs/index.html the disparate impact on rural hospitals, many of which are being forced to close down as the sudden and almost complete end of routine care is not accompanied by a corresponding surge in COVID-19 patients. In communities with few healthcare options, the loss of a single hospital can be disastrous, with no competitive incentive remaining for the surviving providers to reasonably limit their charges or ensure the quality of care beyond what’s necessary to manage direct liability.
In this episode, Brady Bizarro and Jennifer McCormick discuss the impact of COVID-19 on workers' compensation claims. How can we tell if employees were exposed at work? How should employers prepare for an influx in claims? What actions are state legislatures taking across the country to expand workers' compensation benefits for pandemic-related injuries? Our legal experts grapple with these questions and more.
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By: Kevin Brady, Esq.
Earlier this month, the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) and the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) jointly issued a Final Rule extending a number of deadlines and timeframes relevant to group health plans. The Final Rule recognizes that as a result of the National Emergency, plan participants “may encounter problems in exercising their health coverage portability and continuation coverage rights, or in filing or perfecting their benefit claims. As such, the stated purpose of the Final Rule is “to minimize the possibility of individuals losing benefits because of a failure to comply with certain pre-established timeframes.”
The Final Rule essentially requires plans to disregard a designated period of time when determining whether certain deadlines or timeframes are satisfied. Consistent with the Final Rule’s stated purpose, the extension of these timeframes will provide additional opportunities for employees and their dependents to maintain existing, or enroll in, coverage as well as provide additional opportunities for participant’s to submit and appeal claims. This designated period of time is succinctly described as the “Outbreak Period” which entails “the period from March 1, 2020 until sixty (60) days after the announced end of the national emergency period or such other date announced by the Agencies in a future notification.”
Under HIPAA, employees who experience certain special enrollment events generally have a limited period of time (following the event) to request coverage under their employer’s plan. Under the Final Rule, the Outbreak Period must be disregarded when considering whether a HIPAA special enrollment request is timely.
Electing Continuation Coverage
Plan participants who experience “qualifying events” are generally eligible for continued coverage under COBRA subject to certain conditions. After receipt of the COBRA election notice, “qualified beneficiaries” have 60 days to elect continuation coverage. Under the Final Rule, plans must disregard the Outbreak Period when determining whether a qualified beneficiary’s election is timely.
Timely Payment of Premiums
After electing COBRA continuation coverage, qualified beneficiaries must pay their first premium payment with 45 days of their election. Furthermore, qualified beneficiaries must pay premiums in a timely fashion (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.” Under the Final Rule, the Outbreak Period cannot be considered when determining whether payment of the premium is timely.
Notice of Qualifying Event
Under certain circumstances (generally divorce or a child losing dependent status), plan participants will bear the responsibility for notifying the group health plan of the qualifying event under COBRA. While COBRA typically requires this notice to be provided within 60 days, the Final Rule requires plans to disregard the Outbreak Period when determining whether notice is timely.
Claims and Appeals
Filing of Claims
Group health plans will generally limit the period of time in which a claim may submitted and considered eligible for coverage. Under the Final Rule, plans must disregard the Outbreak Period when considering whether a claim has been timely filed. This will undoubtedly lead to additional, and potentially significant exposure, for plans as claims that could have been properly denied previously, may now be payable under the plan.
Appealing an Adverse Benefit Decision
Group health plans must provide participants at least 180 days to appeal an adverse benefit decision. Whether a plan provides the required 180 days, or more, plans must disregard the Outbreak Period when determining this deadline. Similar to the extension of the deadline for filing claims, this extension may also lead to additional, and potentially significant, exposure for plans.
For claimants enrolled in non-grandfathered group health plans, those claims which are otherwise eligible for external review (only certain types of appeals are eligible), are entitled to additional time to request an external review under ERISA’s appeals procedure rules. Under the Final Rule, the Outbreak Period is disregarded when considering the deadline to file an external review.
Further, if a claimant’s external review request is not “complete” (meaning that the request for review is not sufficient to be considered by the Independent Review Organization) the claimant is typically limited to the duration of the filing period to perfect the request. However, the Final Rule also requires the plan to disregard the Outbreak Period when determining whether additional information, provided to perfect a request for external review, is timely.
As the economy suffers, our industry is impacted when employers furlough employees or implement layoffs, as well when employers can no longer afford to offer benefits or continue operations. Fewer benefit plans, fewer plan participants, and dramatic changes in claim type and volume are certain, leaving health benefits at risk during a time when they are most needed. Yet, there are those that are improving coverage, leveraging opportunities, and preparing to take advantage of the employer, employee, and claims growth likely to follow a lifting of stay-at-home orders. Join The Phia Group as they discuss ways administrators are extending benefits and taking care of those in need. From COBRA to workers' compensation, mandates to stop-loss, join us to discover innovative ways to conquer the challenges and come out on top.
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By: Jon Jablon, Esq.
In case you haven’t heard, COVID-19 is kind of a bummer. We’re all at home, and like my colleague Jen McCormick, I’ve got a toddler who wants nothing more at any given time than to go to a playground. Even after so many weeks of this, it still seems surreal to be able to say “sorry, buddy, but if we go to a playground, dad might go to jail!”
Anyway. This blog post is about direct primary care!
Some have expressed the view that the best feature of DPC is the personalization of care; others say the best thing about it is the flat fee. In my view, though – through COVID-19-colored lenses – the best thing about DPC is that direct primary care providers are already prepared to work from home.
When I text Dr. Tremblay, it doesn’t matter that his office is closed. It doesn’t matter that I could go to jail if I bring my son to a playground. No – all that matters is that during this crisis, my DPC provider is available to help me. Ironically, he may even be more available than usual, since he’s not burdened with that pesky office time.
I can’t speak to the ability to retain DPC care in the midst of this crisis, but if the benefits of DPC in normal times weren’t attractive enough, it’s definitely worth looking into now! In this time of need, individuals or even entire employer groups would do well to explore this option, and provide some much-needed additional security to their families.
This may sound like a sales pitch, but really it’s just my personal anecdote about how much more secure my wife and I are knowing that we can speak to a doctor at any time, and have prescriptions written for us, from the comfort of a playground. Or, uh, without ever having to leave the house, I mean.
Please continue to stay safe, everyone – including social distancing and access to care!
Today, we launch a new series harkening to our Boston roots - “Wicked Awesome Wins.” Here, we will showcase our staff and some of their most successful and noteworthy wins on behalf of our clients. Join Ron and Brady as they interview Attorney Robert Martinez and explore a case in which he secured a massive balance bill write-off from a hospital using some creative tactics.
By: Chris Aguiar, Esq.
There are so many fascinating things to debate in what can only be described as perhaps the strangest times we as a society have collectively endured. Should we open the economy at the expense of American lives? Does the data even support this notion that social distancing makes a difference? How could the models have been so far off their original projections? How did the current administration do with respect to its response? It would be disingenuous to say that these are not topics in which I am interested, but in terms of the day to day business of a subrogation professional (and in the context of this blog), I’m thinking much more in the weeds.
The immediate question a lot of our subrogation clients are asking is quite simply, what is the rule regarding workers' compensation claims with respect to this pandemic? Will medical professionals, first responders, and even essential employees be able to make claims for workers' comp? One’s gut reaction might be to say, “of course they can!” – But deeper analysis requires a bit more nuanced thinking.
The success of every injury claim, be it an auto accident, a work injury, or medical malpractice, rests on a critical element of proving negligence – causation! How does one prove that they contracted the virus as a result of working with a person infected with COVID-19, rather than when they stopped at the grocery store on the way home from their shift? With a virus that the media would lead you to believe is so potent that the mere act of stepping outside your door will leave you at significant risk, how are we to know what actually “caused” that person to contract the virus? It would be virtually impossible to tie the contracting of the virus to one single event – accordingly, the theoretical answer lies in the concept of “presumptive illness”. The practical answer, as is so often the case with legal discussion, is, well, “it depends.”
Every state has different definitions of “presumptive illness” - a presumption that one who works closely with those who are ill, such as medical personnel and first responders, contracted the illness within the scope of their employment. Furthermore, every state defines the class of employees who are eligible for the presumption differently (e.g. which “essential employees” are eligible for the presumption?). Additionally, many states are currently reviewing their laws and determining whether to make a change to specifically address the current pandemic and what employees on the front lines are able to claim. Needless to say, as with everything related to COVID-19, it is a quickly developing situation. At this time, whether a plan participant is eligible for worker’s compensation benefits depends on the type of work they do, and whether that state already provides for this presumption. If it doesn’t, states will need to add this presumption in order to allow workers to access these benefits.
Anyone who has questions can feel free to reach out to our team for more information at firstname.lastname@example.org.
By: Nick Bonds, Esq.
While some of the United States is tentatively beginning to reopen, much of the country remains firmly under social distancing orders. The ripple effects of keeping people cooped up with their families vary wildly, but many are reveling in the extra time spent together, and are finding numerous ways to stay sane and entertained in the face of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Some of this has led to fairly predictable shortages, but there are reasons for hope. Aside from the struggle of grocery stores (and even a few global online retail-giants-who-shall-not-be-named) to keep toilet paper, disinfectant wipes, and hand sanitizer in stock, the fact that our stores’ shelves have been rendered entirely barren should be seen as a testament to the resilience of our modern supply chain.
Nonetheless, there are a number of things you just can’t find right now. Toilet paper remains scarcer than I’d like it to. The meat case at my local store has been pretty sparse of late. You probably can’t buy a Nintendo Switch from a traditional retail outlet at MSRP to save your life right now. And, spurred by the hordes of energetic youths with no safe outlet for their boundless energy, trampolines are flying off of shelves.
This got me thinking… plenty of people find perfectly mundane ways of injuring themselves in the home. Sure, social distancing keeps us safe from the coronavirus, and protects us in plenty of other ways. Fewer drivers on the roads means fewer car accidents. Fewer kids playing peewee football means fewer broken collarbones. But as a former kid myself, I can tell you: we will find a way to injure ourselves, trampoline or no. And fear of the coronavirus may well make people wary of visiting an emergency room (preferably an urgent care clinic), even when truly necessary, exacerbating injuries and prolonging the healing process. This will almost certainly lead to higher claims costs for plans down the line.
All this to say, it is imperative that we all keep up with our personal well-being in this time of social distancing. If anything, this pandemic may help all of us maintain a greater awareness of our personal health. Companies that encourage telemedicine can help their employees build a rapport with their healthcare providers, leading to better health outcomes and ultimately saving plans money. Keeping ourselves and our families mentally and physically engaged throughout this time will keep us all healthier and saner until we can finally go to our offices again. If it takes a videoconference with your doctor (or a trampoline/black-market videogame console) to make that happen, maybe it’s worth it.
Andrew Silverio, Esq.
Apologies for the attention-grabbing headline, but no, as good as that would be for payers, it didn’t. However, Kaiser Health News recently ran a story, which was also picked up by NPR, speculating that this is precisely what had occurred. The article, which ran on April 17, 2020, discussed the terms and conditions placed on providers who receive funds from the Public Health and Social Services Emergency Relief Fund under Public Law 116-136, one of which states that “… for all care for a presumptive or actual case of COVID-19, Recipient certifies that it will not seek to collect from the patient out-of-pocket expenses in an amount greater than what the patient would have otherwise been required to pay if the care had been provided by an in-network Recipient.”
For its expansive reading of this seemingly limited prohibition on balance-billing, KHN points to a statement on an explanatory HHS website (the article links to https://www.hhs.gov/provider-relief/index.html) stating that “HHS broadly views every patient as a possible case of COVID-19.” The rationale then, is that if providers can’t balance bill COVID-19 patients, and every patient is a COVID-19 patient, then providers can’t balance bill anyone. However, as noted above, the actual requirement in the provider “Acceptance of Terms and Conditions” (available at https://www.hhs.gov/sites/default/files/relief-fund-payment-terms-and-conditions.pdf) applies to “…all care for a presumptive or actual case of COVID-19.” Even if every patient is a “presumptive” COVID-19 patient, it is simply not the case that all treatment is treatment for a COVID-19 case.
As beneficial as a broader interpretation of this guidance could be for payers, we would not advise payers to rely on it as it is simply not supported by the terms of the provider Terms and Conditions or consistent with the past positions of HHS. First, note that the “every patient” language was found in explanatory public HHS guidance online, not the actual Terms and Conditions. Additionally, as of April 24, 2020, that language appears to have been removed (perhaps due to the potential for misinterpretation, but that is of course speculation). The link cited by the KHN article now redirects to https://www.hhs.gov/coronavirus/cares-act-provider-relief-fund/index.html, which as of April 24, 2020 does not contain the “every patient” language and states that its content was last reviewed on April 24, 2020.
As the legal landscape around COVID-19 continues to rapidly develop, as always, don’t hesitate to contact us with any questions.