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In a proposed regulation, federal agencies suggest a rule that would require employer-sponsored group health plans to provide plan enrollees with estimates of their out-of-pocket expenses for services from different health care providers. Plans would make this information available through an online self-service tool so enrollees could shop and compare costs for services before receiving care.
Comments are due by Jan. 14, 2020, on the transparency-in-coverage rule issued by the departments of Health and Human Services, Labor and the Treasury. The unpublished rule was released on Nov. 15, when the agencies also posted a fact sheet summarizing the proposal.
Some feel that the rule, if finalized, would be the most dramatic expansion of disclosure obligations for group health plans since the ERISA was passed in 1974.
The proposal is part of the Trump administration’s attempt to create price competition in the health care marketplace. It follows the November release of a final rule requiring hospitals to publish their prices online for standard charges, including negotiated rates with providers. That rule, to take effect Jan. 1, 2021, is expected to be challenged in court by hospital industry groups.
The new proposal would apply to all health plans except those that are grandfathered under the Affordable Care Act. Among other obligations, group health plans and health insurance carriers would be required to do the following:
Information about employees’ out-of-pocket expenses and cost-sharing under employer plans is already disclosed in pre-service and post-service benefit claim determinations. However, “the proposed rules would take these disclosure requirements a step further by requiring individually tailored cost estimates prior to the receipt of services,” noted Susan Nash, a partner at law firm Winston & Strawn in Chicago.
While transparency in health care pricing is generally welcomed by employers, she observed, “employers may balk at the cost of preparing the online or mobile app-based cost-estimator tools, or purchasing such tools from vendors.”
In addition, because much of the information required to be disclosed is specific to the participant and the benefit option in which the participant is enrolled, the disclosures “will require greater coordination among employers and third-party administrators, pharmacy benefit managers, [and] disease management, behavioral health, utilization review, and other specialty vendors and will require amendments to existing agreements,” Nash explained.
The rules around public disclosure will likely be opposed by health insurance carriers who view their price negotiation as confidential and part of the service that they provide as carriers, and insurers are likely to challenge them in court, as hospital systems are expected to do with the final rule on disclosing their prices.
The suspense is over – the Department of Labor announced yesterday the revised Overtime Rule, which will set the minimum salary threshold for the Fair Labor Standard Act’s white-collar exemptions at $684 per week, or $35,568 per year. The rule, which will expand overtime pay obligations to an estimated 1.3 million additional workers, will take effect on January 1, 2020. The big question is what do you need to know about this breaking news?
It seems an eternity ago when President Obama directed the U.S. Department of Labor (USDOL) to revise the regulations governing the outdated white-collar exemptions of the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). The proposal eventually released by the USDOL would have radically altered the federal compensation rules. Most notably, the agency would have more than doubled the salary threshold and applied, essentially, a formula to update the amount every three years. This minimum threshold was set to become effective on December 1, 2016, and the “updating” would begin, ironically, on January 1, 2020.
But concerned states and business groups sought to block the rule from taking effect, and, at the last minute, a federal court issued a preliminary injunction preventing the rule from being implemented on a nationwide basis. Since the Texas court put the final nail in Overtime Rule 1.0’s coffin by striking down the rule once and for all in August 2017, employers have been patiently awaiting a revised rule.
Under the current administration, USDOL leadership indicated that it would no longer advocate for the $913 per week proposal but would instead undertake further rulemaking to determine what the salary level should be. In what seemed like a painstakingly long process, the agency held public forums, issued a request for information, and sought comments on a proposed rule that, like Overtime Rule 1.0, focused solely on the pay component but without completely overshadowing the duties tests. After all, the FLSA authorizes the agency to define and delimit the executive, administrative, and professional exemptions – not supplant them. Today, finally, all of the work culminated in the release of Overtime Rule 2.0.
After the drama surrounding the last-minute injunction blocking the 2016 proposal, it would be natural for employers to feel gun-shy about adjusting to these changes. After all, isn’t there a chance that another court will once again block these changes and put us in yet another state of limbo? While there is always a chance for litigation to unfold in such a way that it would impact the implementation of this rule, there are several reasons why you should be preparing as if this rule will go into effect as planned on January 1, 2020.
First, while there is no magic number for setting the salary threshold (that’s the whole point), there is something to be said for certainty. The new rule skirts some of the more problematic areas that existed with the first attempt at revisions. The $684 per week threshold will require the reclassification (or pay increases) of some employees, but a far less significant portion than would have seen increases had the $913-per-week proposal of three years ago was adopted.
Second, while the rule contains some of the same flaws as Overtime Rule 1.0, they generally are not the kinds of concerns that were previously raised in lawsuits. Employer advocates will have more difficulty taking the position that this particular threshold eclipses the duties tests. Likewise, while employee advocates might feel that the threshold is set at too low a level, meeting the pay component does not make someone exempt in and of itself, so this argument is more philosophic in nature and may not warrant the rule being blocked.
Finally, the USDOL must be well prepared at this point to defend the rule. Even aside from the litigation, it has received voluminous public feedback on an increase from $455 per week numerous times, including those shared in 2015, 2017, and 2018. So, while litigation seems inevitable, employers should not be idle in preparing for this rule to take effect.
As recounted above, the drama surrounding Overtime Rule 1.0 was a painfully long process for employers as they waited to see what might happen. The best practice, though, is to assume Overtime Rule 2.0 is the real thing. That said, you should not run out tomorrow and make immediate changes to your compensation structure. Instead, you should use this time to start evaluating not just whether changes will be necessary, but how best to make those changes (timing, communications, etc.).
If you made changes in 2016 in anticipation of the $913 per week threshold, you are certainly ahead of the curve. If you did some of the work but decided to wait to implement once the preliminary injunction was put in place, you also have a great head start. Nonetheless, in both cases, you must keep in mind that three years have passed and it is possible that an employee’s work has changed in the interim.
It is imperative to confirm your prior findings at least for any employee that might receive a salary increase to qualify for exempt status under Overtime Rule 2.0. No employee is automatically entitled to be treated as exempt; in contrast, increasing the salary for an employee that does not meet the duties tests can only make matters worse.
Right now, you should begin:
The U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) is suggesting changes to the forms employers commonly use to administer the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA). The DOL said its goal is to make the optional forms easier to understand, but some management attorneys worry doctors will be confused by the revisions.
The department is seeking comment on the proposed revisions through Oct. 4th. It noted that the proposed changes would include:
The proposed revisions are an improvement, but most still view the forms as lengthy. The increased reliance on check boxes would avoid the confusion that results when a health care provider filling out a medical certification has poor handwriting.
“Physicians do not like completing FMLA forms as a general rule,” said Scott Eldridge, an attorney with Miller Canfield in Lansing, Mich. “Employers should therefore welcome attempts to simplify the process for employees and their physicians.”
While health care providers often provide narrative responses to the questions on the current forms, the responses don’t always clearly indicate whether the health care provider thinks the employee has a serious health condition. This usually ends up with the the employer being left to surmise as to the doctor’s intent or go back for a clarification. The new check boxes would help minimize the need for clarification.
The presentation of questions on the existence of a serious health condition are an improvement as well.
The current forms ask if the patient was admitted for an overnight stay or when the patient was treated, whereas the proposed forms ask if the patient has been admitted or is expected to be admitted for an overnight stay and the days they were seen or will be seen. Under the current forms, the health care provider is not encouraged to explain future inpatient status or future treatment. Contemplation of future treatment is critical, since employees are required to report leave at least 30 days in advance when the need for leave is foreseeable.
The revised forms also capture information to support leaves taken for chronic conditions and permanent or long-term conditions, while the existing forms do not.
Incomplete certification forms often delay employers’ designating leave as FMLA. The proposed revisions would reduce follow-up by presenting the questions on intermittent leave in a more organized manner.
Current forms ask for the health care provider to estimate the hours the patient needs care and provide a somewhat confusing and misaligned template to record the frequency and duration. The proposed forms have a tidy template for use to complete the duration and frequency and instruct the health care provider to provide their best estimate.
The proposed revisions also note that some state or local laws may prohibit disclosure of the patient’s diagnosis. This note supports compliance with laws such as the California Family Rights Act and is helpful for employers using a single form to designate federal FMLA and state leave.
The proposed revisions do have some problems, according to Sarah Platt, an attorney with Ogletree Deakins in Milwaukee.
The layout of the proposed form to certify an employee’s serious health condition has check boxes that are likely to be missed, she said. “The new form would call for the health care provider to check a box on the left side of the form for the type of serious health condition at issue, and then also complete check boxes within each category,” she said.
“The forms seem to call for health care providers to make legal conclusions at issue, rather than merely answer questions,” she added. “I would not be surprised if we see health care providers checking boxes in multiple categories on the proposed certification forms.”
While follow-up on FMLA medical certification is common, that often is because a health care provider skips questions on the current forms or writes something vague, such as “unknown.” The new forms will not necessarily eliminate this problem.
The proposed medical certification forms organize the questions around the different definitions of a serious health condition. The existing forms gather the same information but do not include headings highlighting the different definitions.
Platt is concerned that with the proposed revisions, health care providers may answer questions that don’t apply to the circumstances involved in the leave request. “I think it would be helpful to at least have a check box for ‘yes’ or ‘no’ or ‘not applicable’ along the left margin for each section,” she said.
The forms the DOL has proposed updating are:
Employers cannot permit employees to use PTO or other paid leave prior to using unpaid FMLA leave for an FMLA qualifying condition, according to a new Department of Labor Opinion Letter. The Opinion Letter also provides that employers cannot designate more than 12 weeks of leave per year as FMLA (or 26 weeks per year if leave qualifies as FMLA military caregiver leave).
Under the FMLA, covered employers must provide eligible employees up to 12 weeks of unpaid, job and benefit-protected leave per year for qualifying medical or family reasons (or up to 26 weeks per year for qualifying military caregiver leave). The Opinion Letter addresses the situation where an employee anticipates a leave of absence for an FMLA-qualifying reason and the employee wants to take off more than the 12 weeks allotted under the FMLA by using other available paid leave policies (such as vacation, sick pay, PTO, etc.) at their disposal. Under this scenario, the employee notifies the employer that he or she plans to exhaust an available paid leave policy first for an FMLA-qualifying reason, and then after that time has run out, he or she desires to take the 12 weeks of FMLA leave.
We have awaited to see where the U.S. Department of Labor would land with its much anticipated revised “overtime rule” and late yesterday the agency delivered. The USDOL released its long-awaited proposed rule which, if adopted, would set the minimum salary threshold at $679 per week, or $35,308 per year. For now, the proposed rule does not include an automatic update provision (which many were concerned would simply serve to periodically inflate the threshold level), nor does it revise the duties test that accompanies the rule.
Once published in the Federal Register, the public will have 60 days to submit comments regarding, among other things, the proposed minimum salary threshold.
Proposed Rule In A Nutshell
Courtesy of Fisher Phillips LLP
2018 has seen quite a few changes in labor and employment law. But with the New Year having just rung in, it’s time to look forward rather than backward. The question on the tip of everyone’s tongue is: what’s next? Here are our predictions for what to expect in 2019 when it comes to workplace law.
Expect More Class Actions
We’re going to start out with the bad news. Because of the potential for a big payout, class and collective actions are a favorite for plaintiffs’ attorneys. You should not expect that to change in 2019.
The California Supreme Court’s decision in Troester v. Starbucks Corporation has opened up even more avenues for potential wage and hour claims in the Golden State, and the trend could hit the rest of the country, too. In July 2018, the California Supreme Court narrowed the scope of the de minimus doctrine under state law and held that employees must be paid for off-the-clock work that regularly lasts several minutes per day. While the California Supreme Court refused to shut the door entirely on the de minimus doctrine, it noted that technological advances should help employers track small bits of time, and that employers can restructure work to avoid off-the-clock time.
Employers outside of California may see plaintiffs’ attorneys attempting to use the same rationale employed by the California Supreme Court to argue that the de minimus doctrine should not apply in the circumstances of their case. Moreover, with more employees having remote access to emails and other mobile platforms, the number of ways for employees to argue that they were working off the clock has increased.
The Ascendance Of Arbitration Agreements
One way for employers to avoid class actions is through arbitration agreements. Last May, the Supreme Court ruled in Epic Systems Corporation v. Lewis that mandatory class action waivers in arbitration agreements are enforceable. As a result, you can expect to see an increase in the number of companies rolling out updated agreements to include class action waiver language. (Note: if you have not had your arbitration agreement reviewed since May when Epic Systems came out, make it your New Year’s Resolution to do so.)
However, while popular with employers, arbitration agreements are decidedly not so with the plaintiffs’ bar. Expect to see plaintiffs’ counsel becoming more creative in challenging arbitration agreements on grounds related to unconscionability.
We may even be starting to see a backlash against arbitration agreements. Most recently, some law students have been pressuring big law firms to do away with them when it comes to their own hires. And last year, the California legislature passed a law banning mandatory employment arbitration agreements for claims arising out of alleged violations of the Fair Employment and Housing Act or California Labor Code. Although the bill was ultimately vetoed by outgoing Governor Jerry Brown, expect to see the fight continue in 2019.
Don’t Look To Congress To Lead The Way
With Democrats controlling the House, and Republicans controlling the Senate and Executive Branch, you can expect that most employment legislation will be dead on arrival. When it comes to innovative legislation impacting the workplace, you should look to the states to lead the way. This is not to say that there won’t be any changes to labor and employment law on the federal level in 2019. However, we expect the most significant changes to be made by agencies (such as the National Labor Relations Board, the Department of Justice, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, etc.) rather than Congress.
NLRB Will Narrow The Definition Of Joint Employer
One of those agencies—the NLRB—made noise last year when it published a proposed rule that would alter the definition of joint employment to make it more difficult to hold multiple businesses responsible for alleged labor and employment law violations by staffing companies, franchisees, and other related organizations. Expect to see continued movement and updates on this proposed rule in 2019.
But before getting too excited at any potential changes, you should keep in mind that states may have their own rules regarding joint employment that could differ from what the NLRB comes up with. Any new rules may not affect your organization’s liability under state law.
USDOL Has A Full Plate
Another agency you should keep an eye on is the U.S. Department of Labor (USDOL). Not only is the USDOL considering its own joint employment rule, but the agency has proposed regulations regarding the regular rate of pay and white collar exemptions (also known as the “overtime” rule).
The regular rate of pay is of particular importance to employers because it is used to calculate the overtime rate of non-exempt employees. While we know that changes to the proposed regulations are targeting sections 7(e)(2) and 7(g)(3) of the Fair Labor Standards Act, the USDOL has been rather vague about what the proposed regulations will look like. The USDOL states that they aim to “provide employers more flexibility in the compensation and benefits packages they offer employees” and “lessen litigation regarding the regular rate.”
The regulation relating to the white collar exemption is less opaque. As employers may recall, the minimum salary threshold for white collar exemptions was supposed to increase from $455 per week (or $23,660 annually) to $913 per week (or $47,476 annually), with the amount to be updated every three years. However, right before these changes were scheduled to take effect in December 2016, a federal court blocked their implementation. Under a new administration, we expect that we will see a more modest proposed increase in the white collar exemption in 2019—perhaps in the low $600s per week.
Paid Sick Leave Will Continue To Be On Trend
Although there are no federal laws mandating paid sick leave (yet), you can expect that paid sick and family leave will continue to be a big issues, with states and localities picking up the slack. Right now, 11 states and the District of Columbia require paid sick leave. Additionally, various cities and counties have stepped in where states have not provided for such leave or to give more generous benefits than the state.
You generally should anticipate an expansion of paid sick leave benefits in 2019. The New Jersey Paid Sick Leave Act went into effect October, while Michigan, Washington, and Westchester County (NY) have paid sick leave laws going into effect this year.
While some municipalities in Texas want to get in on this trend, a Texas appeals courtruled the Austin Paid Sick Leave Ordinance violates the state constitution because it preempts the Texas Minimum Wage Act. San Antonio passed its own sick leave ordinance in 2018, but it may only be a matter of time before it, too, is challenged in court.
Privacy Issues Remain Paramount
The EU General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) went into effect in May 2018, ushering in sweeping reforms for companies that do business in the EU or employ EU residents. The GDPR threatens strict penalties for non-compliance—up to the greater of 20 million Euro or 4 percent of global annual turnover in the prior year. Having been in effect less than a year, it is still not clear how fines will be assessed and what the potential exposure will be for companies that are found to be non-compliant. As 2019 progresses, you can expect to see many investigations that began in 2018 come to a close, and we’ll begin to get a better idea of how regulatory authorities will assess fines for non-compliance—including whether the fearsome 4 percent penalty will be assessed.
Lest you think the major developments in privacy are safely across the ocean in Europe, you can be sure there will be plenty of action closer to home in 2019. The Illinois Supreme Court currently has a case before it over whether a technical violation of the Illinois Biometric Information Act (BIPA) gives standing to sue absent a person suffering a concrete injury. If the court answers in the affirmative, you can expect to see a continued proliferation of BIPA class actions.
Further, California passed the California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA) in 2018, which goes into effect at the beginning of 2020. While the law is not as comprehensive as the GDPR, California employers will soon need to figure out this year if it applies to them. You should take compliance seriously: the CCPA allows consumers whose rights have been violated under the Act to bring suit for actual damages or statutory penalties (whichever is greater) under a mechanism somewhat akin to a California Labor Code Private Attorneys General Act. You can expect the proliferation of CCPA lawsuits will be on next year’s list of predictions.
The Trump administration announced a proposed rule today that would allow businesses to give employees money to purchase health insurance on the individual marketplace, a move senior officials say will expand choices for employees that work at small businesses.
The proposed rule, issued by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), the Department of Labor (DOL) and the Department of Treasury, would restructure Obama-era regulations that limited the use of employer-funded accounts known as health reimbursement arrangements (HRA). The proposal is part of President Donald Trump’s “Promoting Healthcare Choice and Competition” executive order issued last year, which tasked the agencies with expanding the use of HRAs.
Senior administration officials said the proposed change would bring more competition to the individual marketplace by giving employees the chance to purchase health coverage on their own. The rule includes “carefully constructed guardrails” to prevent employers from keeping healthy employees on their company plans and incentivizing high-cost employees to seek coverage elsewhere.
That issue was a primary concern under the Obama administration, which barred the use of HRAs for premium assistance. The 21st Century Cures Act established Qualified Small Employer Health Reimbursement Accounts (QSEHRA), but those are subject to stringent limitations.
Under the new rule, HRA money would remain exempt from federal and payroll income taxes for employers and employees. Additionally, employers with traditional coverage would be permitted to reserve $1,800 for supplemental benefits like vision, dental and short-term health plans.
Officials estimate 10 million people would purchase insurance through HRAs, including 1 million people that were not previously insured. Most of those people would be concentrated in small and mid-sized businesses.
The proposed change would “unleash consumerism” and “spur innovation among providers and insurers that directly compete for consumer dollars,” one senior official said. Officials expect 7 million people will be added to the individual marketplace over the next 10 years.
The rule does not change the Affordable Care Act’s employer mandate, which requires employers with 50 or more employees to offer coverage to 95% of full-time employees. Administration officials expect the proposal will have the biggest impact on small businesses with less than 50 employees.
However, the rule could scale back the use of premium subsidies. If the HRA is considered “affordable” based on the amount provided by the employer, the employee would not be eligible for a premium tax credit. If the HRA fails to meet those minimum requirements, the employee could choose between a premium tax credit and the HRA.
Overall, the rule will “create a greater degree of value in healthcare and the health benefits marketplace than we would otherwise see,” one official said.
The regulation, if finalized, is proposed to be effective for plan years beginning on and after January 1, 2020.
In the past week, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has significantly increased the number of Notices of Inspection issued to employers nationwide, leading to a dramatic spike in I-9 audits. Unlike the enforcement initiative rolled out by federal authorities in February of this year, the latest sweep is no longer concentrated in Southern California but appears to be nationwide in scope.
There appears to be somewhat of a pattern with regard to which employers are targeted by this effort. ICE seems to be focusing on businesses operating in states, counties, and cities that have designated “sanctuary” status, and has also ramped up efforts to follow up with employers who have been subject to an I-9 audit in the past.
Regardless of whether you fall into either of these two categories, you are at increased risk of a visit from federal immigration authorities. What should you do today to prepare for a possible knock on the door from federal officials tomorrow?
On June 19, 2018, the Trump administration took the first step in a three-part effort to expand affordable health plan options for consumers when the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) finalized a proposed rule designed to make it easier for a group of employers to form and offer association health plans (AHP). A final rule relaxing rules around short-term, limited duration insurance and a proposed rule addressing health reimbursement arrangements are expected in the upcoming months. In cementing proposed changes to its January 2018 proposed rule, “Definition of ‘Employer’ Under Section 3(5) of ERISA — Association Health Plans,” the administration seeks to broaden health options for individuals who are self-employed or employed by smaller businesses. The final rule will be applicable in three phases starting on September 1, 2018.
Under the rule, it will be substantially easier for a group of employers tied by a “commonality of interest” to form a bona fide association capable of offering a single multi-employer benefit plan under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (ERISA). The rule outlines two primary bases for establishing this “commonality of interest”: (1) having a principal place of business in the same region (e.g., a state or metropolitan area), or (2) operating in the same industry, trade, line of business or profession. An association also may establish additional membership criteria enabling entities with a sufficient “commonality of interest” to participate in the AHP, such as being minority-owned or sharing a common moral or religious conviction, so long as the criteria are not a subterfuge for discrimination based on a health factor. Further, the final rule clarifies how the association must be governed and controlled by its employer-members in order to be considered a bona fide association capable of offering a single-employer health benefit plan.
Meeting the criteria for a bona fide group or association of employers in the final rule allows the AHP to be treated as a single-employer ERISA plan. Thus, assuming the association is comprised of employer-members with more than 50 total full-time employees, it will be considered a large group and exempt from key Affordable Care Act (ACA) market reforms, such as the essential health benefits requirements and modified community rating rules, that would otherwise apply to a health plan offered by any of its individual employer-members with less than 50 full-time employees. This is important because the ACA applies certain requirements only to small group (and individual) health insurance products and not to large group plans.