Advocates claim a newly issued regulation could transform how employers pay for employee health care coverage.
On June 13, the U.S. Departments of Health and Human Services, Labor and the Treasury issued a final rule allowing employers of all sizes that do not offer a group coverage plan to fund a new kind of health reimbursement arrangement (HRA), known as an individual coverage HRA (ICHRA). The departments also posted FAQs on the new rule.
Starting Jan. 1, 2020, employees will be able to use employer-funded ICHRAs to buy individual-market insurance, including insurance purchased on the public exchanges formed under the Affordable Care Act (ACA).
Under IRS guidance from the Obama administration (IRS Notice 2013-54), employers were effectively prevented from offering stand-alone HRAs that allow employees to purchase coverage on the individual market.
“Using an individual coverage HRA, employers will be able to provide their workers and their workers’ families with tax-preferred funds to pay all or a portion of the cost of coverage that workers purchase in the individual market,” said Joe Grogan, director of the White House Domestic Policy Council. “The departments estimate that once employers fully adjust to the new rules, roughly 800,000 employers will offer individual coverage HRAs to pay for insurance for more than 11 million employees and their family members, providing them with more options for selecting health insurance coverage that better meets their needs.”
The new rule “is primarily about increasing employer flexibility and worker choice of coverage,” said Brian Blase, special assistant to the president for health care policy. “We expect this rule to particularly benefit small employers and make it easier for them to compete with larger businesses by creating another option for financing worker health insurance coverage.”
The final rule is in response to the Trump administration’s October 2017 executive order on health care choice and competition, which resulted in an earlier final rule on association health plans that is now being challenged in the courts, and a final rule allowing low-cost short-term insurance that provides less coverage than a standard ACA plan.
New Types of HRAs
Existing HRAs are employer-funded accounts that employees can use to pay out-of-pocket health care expenses but may not use to pay insurance premiums. Unlike health savings accounts (HSAs), all HRAs, including the new ICHRA, are exclusively employer-funded, and, when employees leave the organization, their HRA funds go back to the employer. This differs from HSAs, which are employee-owned and portable when employees leave.
The proposed regulations keep the kinds of HRAs currently permitted (such as HRAs integrated with group health plans and retiree-only HRAs) and would recognize two new types of HRAs:
What ICHRAs Can Do
Under the new HRA rule:
The rule also includes a disclosure provision to help ensure that employees understand the type of HRA being offered by their employer and how the ICHRA offer may make them ineligible for a premium tax credit or subsidy when buying an ACA exchange-based plan. To help satisfy the notice requirements, the IRS issued an Individual Coverage HRA Model Notice.
QSEHRAs and ICHRAs
Currently, qualified small-employer HRAs (QSEHRAs), created by Congress in December 2016, allow small businesses with fewer than 50 full-time employees to use pretax dollars to reimburse employees who buy nongroup health coverage. The new rule goes farther and:
The legislation creating QSEHRAs set a maximum annual contribution limit with inflation-based adjustments. In 2019, annual employer contributions to QSEHRAs are capped at $5,150 for a single employee and $10,450 for an employee with a family.
The new rule, however, doesn’t cap contributions for ICHRAs.
As a result, employers with fewer than 50 full-time employees will have two choices—QSEHRAs or ICHRAs—with some regulatory differences between the two. For example:
“QSEHRAs have a special rule that allows employees to qualify for both their employer’s subsidy and the difference between that amount and any premium tax credit for which they’re eligible,” said John Barkett, director of policy affairs at consultancy Willis Towers Watson.
While the ability of employees to couple QSEHRAs with a premium tax credit is appealing, the downside is QSEHRA’s annual contribution limits, Barkett said. “QSEHRA’s are limited in their ability to fully subsidize coverage for older employees and employees with families, because employers could run through those caps fairly quickly,” he noted.
For older employees, the least expensive plan available on the individual market could easily cost $700 a month or $8,400 a year, Barkett pointed out, and “with a QSEHRA, an employer could only put in around $429 per month to stay under the $5,150 annual limit for self-only coverage.”
Similarly, for employees with many dependents, premiums could easily exceed the QSEHRA’s family coverage maximum of $10,450, whereas “all those dollars could be contributed pretax through an ICHRA,” Barkett said.
An Excepted-Benefit HRA
In addition to allowing ICHRAs, the final rule creates a new excepted-benefit HRA that lets employers that offer traditional group health plans provide an additional pretax $1,800 per year (indexed to inflation after 2020) to reimburse employees for certain qualified medical expenses, including premiums for vision, dental, and short-term, limited-duration insurance.
The new excepted-benefit HRAs can be used by employees whether or not they enroll in a traditional group health plan, and can be used to reimburse employees’ COBRA continuation coverage premiums and short-term insurance coverage plan premiums.
Safe Harbor Coming
With ICHRAs, employers still must satisfy the ACA’s affordability and minimum value requirements, just as they must do when offering a group health plan. However, “the IRS has signaled it will come out with a safe harbor that should make it straightforward for employers to determine whether their ICHRA offering would comply with ACA coverage requirements,” Barkett said.
Last year, the IRS issued Notice 2018-88, which outlined proposed safe harbor methods for determining whether individual coverage HRAs meet the ACA’s affordability threshold for employees, and which stated that ICHRAs that meet the affordability standard will be deemed to offer at least minimum value.
The IRS indicated that further rulemaking on these safe harbor methods is on its agenda for later this year.