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Days before his inauguration, President-elect Joe Biden outlined an agenda for COVID-19 relief and economic recovery that includes federal aid for health care expenses, such as providing subsidized COBRA coverage.
The relief and stimulus proposals in Biden’s $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan package range from asking Congress for additional $1,400 checks for low- and middle-income wage earners to reimbursing employers with 500 or fewer employees for providing paid leave. Other provisions focus on helping consumers with health care expenses.
According to a Jan. 14 fact sheet from the Biden-Harris transition team, the new administration will immediately ask Congress to:
“Roughly two to three million people lost employer-sponsored health insurance between March and September, and even families who have maintained coverage may struggle to pay premiums and afford care,” according to the transition team’s fact sheet. “Together, these policies would reduce premiums for more than 10 million people and reduce the ranks of the uninsured by millions more.”
Employers may require terminated workers who choose to continue coverage under the employer-sponsored health plan for up to 18 months to pay for COBRA coverage, with premiums limited to the full cost of the coverage plus a 2 percent administration charge. That cost, however, is not affordable for many newly unemployed workers.
During the pandemic, some employers are choosing to pay for the COBRA coverage of former employees who were laid off, or to do so for current employees who lost group health plan coverage when they were furloughed or had their hours reduced.
Last April, the Department of Labor and the IRS issued regulations extending the deadlines for COBRA notices, elections and premium payments from March 1, 2020, until 60 days after the end of the ongoing COVID-19 national emergency. “While the usual statutory penalties for COBRA violations should not apply [for now], failing to notify COBRA-qualified beneficiaries of their rights may increase the likelihood of a breach of fiduciary duty claim,” Emily Meyer, an attorney with Cohen & Buckman in New York City, wrote in November.
Among other health care-related agenda items, the new administration will ask Congress to:
The fate of the health care provisions is uncertain at this time. Congressional Democrats welcomed Biden’s proposals. Rep. Steven Horsford, D-Nev., for instance, issued a statement saying he was “glad to see that the plan provides critical subsidies [for COBRA and ACA plans] to help American families access health care during this critical time.”
Republicans have criticized the extent of the new proposals, estimated to cost an addition $1.9 trillion over existing relief. Efforts by Congress “should be strategic, focusing on families and small businesses in need,” said Sen. Rick Scott, R-Fla.
Every year Applicable Large Employers (ALEs) must file and furnish their ACA information to the IRS and their employees, respectively. Failing to do so can result in significant IRS penalty assessments.
To recap, only groups with 50 or more full time or equivalent employees or those groups under 50 with self funded medical coverage are required to furnish their employees with copies of either the 1095-B or 1095-C forms (based on group size)
Employers will need to be sure you meet the following IRS deadlines for complying with the ACA’s Employer Mandate for 2020:
Failing to meet these deadlines can result in penalties under IRC 6721/6722, which the IRS is issuing through Letter 972CG. If you receive one of these notices, you only have 45 days from the issue date to respond to the penalty notice.
For the 2020 tax year, the penalties associated with failing to comply with IRC 6721/6722 for employers with average gross receipts of more than $5 million in the last three years are as follows:
Failure to timely file and furnish correct information returns
If employers file ACA information returns with the IRS no more than 30 days after the deadline they could be subject to a $50 penalty per return not filed, not to exceed an annual maximum of $556,500. If the ACA information returns are 31 or more days late, up to August 1, 2021, the penalty per return jumps up to $110, not to exceed an annual maximum of $1,669,500. After August 1, the penalty amount steepens to $270 per return, not to exceed an annual maximum of $3,339,000. For intentional disregard, meaning the deadline was missed willfully, the penalty more than doubles to $550 per return with no annual maximum limit.
The penalty amounts for employers with gross receipts of $5 million or less in the last three years will have the same penalty amounts per return with lower annual maximums, except in the case of intentional disregard. For more information on the penalty schedules for failing to meet the IRS deadlines click here.
As if the penalties for failing to meet the filing and furnishing deadlines weren’t enough, the IRS is also issuing penalties to employers that fail to comply with the ACA’s Employer Mandate. As a reminder to employers in conjunction with the Employer Shared Responsibility Payment (ESRP), the ACA’s Employer Mandate, Applicable Large Employers (ALEs), organizations with 50 or more full-time employees and full-time equivalent employees, are required to offer Minimum Essential Coverage (MEC) to at least 95% of their full-time workforce (and their dependents) whereby such coverage meets Minimum Value (MV) and is affordable for the employee, or be subject to Internal Revenue Code (IRC) 4980H penalties. These penalties are being issued through IRS Letter 226J.
The 2021 open enrollment season is quickly approaching. This week the IRS released Rev. Proc. 2020-36 which, among other items, set the affordability threshold for employers in 2021. In order to avoid a potential section 4980H(b) penalty, an employer must make sure one of its plans provides minimum value and is offered at an affordable price.
A plan is considered affordable under the ACA if the employee’s contribution level for self-only coverage does not exceed 9.5 percent of the employee’s household income. This 9.5 percent threshold is indexed for years after 2014. In 2021 the affordability threshold will be 9.83 percent which is up slightly from the 2020 affordability threshold of 9.78 percent.
An employer wishing to use one of the affordability safe harbors will use the 2021 affordability threshold of 9.83 percent when determining if the safe harbor has been satisfied. The first affordability safe harbor an employer may utilize is referred to as the form w-2 safe harbor. Under the form w-2 safe harbor, an employer’s offer will be deemed affordable if the employee’s required contribution for the employer’s lowest cost self-only coverage that provides minimum value does not exceed 9.83 percent of that employee’s form w-2 wages (box 1 of the form w-2) from the employer for the calendar year.
The second affordability safe harbor is the rate of pay safe harbor. The rate of pay safe harbor can be broken into two tests, one test for hourly employees and another test for salaried employees. For hourly employees an employer’s offer will be deemed affordable if the employee’s required contribution for the month for the employer’s lowest cost self-only coverage that provides minimum value does not exceed 9.83 percent of the product of the employee’s hourly rate of pay and 130 hours. For salaried employees an employer’s offer will be deemed affordable if the employee’s required contribution for the month for the employer’s lowest cost self-only coverage that provides minimum value does not exceed 9.83 percent of the employee’s monthly salary.
The final affordability safe harbor is the federal poverty line safe harbor. Under the federal poverty line safe harbor, an employer’s offer will be deemed affordable if the employee’s required contribution for the employer’s lowest cost self-only coverage that provides minimum value does not exceed 9.83 percent of the monthly Federal Poverty Line (FPL) for a single individual. The annual federal poverty line amount to use for the United States mainland in 2021 is $12,760. Therefore, an employee’s monthly cost for self-only coverage cannot exceed $104.52 in order to satisfy the federal poverty line safe harbor.
Obviously employers are dealing with a lot of issues as the COVID-19 crisis continues to impact almost every employer in the country. However, it is important for employers to remain compliant with the always evolving ACA rules and regulations. When planning for the 2021 plan year, every employer should check to make sure at least one of its plans that provides minimum value meets one of the affordability safe harbors discussed above for each of its full-time employees. It would not be surprising if individuals were more scrupulous with their healthcare choices in 2021 which could leave noncompliant employers exposed to section 4980H(b) penalties.
IRS Notice 2020-44 was issued last week as a reminder that Patient-Centered Outcomes Research Institute (PCORI) fees were extended under the Further Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2020 and are now not scheduled to expire until plan years ending after September 30, 2029. Annual PCORI fees will still need to be paid by insurers for employers with fully insured group health plans (and will remain to be included in annual premiums). Groups that offer self-insured plans are responsible for filing and paying the fee on IRS Forms 720, which must be filed by July 31 each year.
The IRS Notice also clarifies there is still a filing obligation owed for all such group health plan filings for plan years ending on or after October 1, 2019, and before October 1, 2020, with the PCORI Fee amount being $2.54 (up from $2.45 for the previous PCORI fee period). However, the guidance recognizes that insurers and self-funded plan sponsors may not have been accurately tracking the number of covered lives to be reported and paid for the plan year periods from October 1, 2019, through October 1, 2020, because the previous PCORI fee assessments under the Affordable Care Act were scheduled to end after September 30, 2019. To allow for ease in current reporting of covered lives information, the Notice clarifies that in addition to the other statutory methods of reporting covered lives, for the PCORI reporting periods for plan years ending from October 1, 2019, through October 1, 2020, the IRS will allow insurers and plan sponsors to use a “reasonable” method to calculate the average number of covered lives for this period.
Impact on Employers
Employers with fully insured health plan coverage provided by an insurance carrier may see a slight increase in future insurance premiums to account for this recent update from the IRS. Self-funded health plan sponsors need to ensure they timely file their annual Form 720 by July 31, 2020, using the appropriate PCORI fee amount (i.e., $2.45 per covered life for plan years ending on or before September 30, 2019, or $2.54 per covered life for plan years ending on or after October 1, 2019), based on the calculated covered lives formula alternatives (e.g., actual count method, snapshot method, Form 5500 method, or for the October 1, 2019, through October 1, 2020, periods, a “reasonable” method for average covered lives).
If you are feeling a sense that the rules around benefits haven’t changed enough in the last three months, this is a reminder of a change made during the long ago time of December 2019. We all thought the annual PCORI (Patient-Centered Outcomes Research Institute) was set to expire back in 2019 but the SECURE Act extended the PCORI fee for another 10 years, meaning the fee will be in effect until 2029 for most plans (2030 for others, depending on the plan’s year-end).
If your company had a self-insured group health plan in 2019, make sure you’ve set your calendar alerts to pay the PCORI fee for the 2019 plan year. As a reminder, the PCORI fee was put into place by the ACA to help fund the Patient Outcomes Research Institute and is based on the average number of covered lives under the plan. The fee and the related IRS Form 720 are due no later than July 31st.
For plan years ending before October 1, 2019, the fee is $2.45/person. The IRS has not announced the specific fee for plan years ending between October 1, 2019 and December 31, 2019; however, it is expected to be slightly higher than $2.45 per covered member. Remember, covered lives include spouses, dependents, retirees, and COBRA beneficiaries. If you have not been through this process before, or if you just need a quick refresher, the IRS has issued detailed guidance on the multiple methods you may use to calculate the PCORI fee, as well as instructions for completing the Form 720 and submitting your payment.
Earlier this week, the IRS issued Notice 2019-63, which extends both: (1) the filing deadline for Forms 1095-C and 1095-B; and (2) the good-faith reporting relief. But this year, there’s more. In limited circumstances, the IRS will not penalize entities for the failure to furnish information to individuals using Form 1095-B, and in some cases, Form 1095-C (see discussion of Section 6055 Relief below).
Notice 2019-63 extends the due date for reporting entities to furnish 2019 Forms 1095-C and 1095-B to individuals from January 31, 2020 to March 2, 2020. These forms must also be filed with the IRS (along with the applicable transmittal statement) by February 28, 2020 (if filed on paper) or March 31, 2020 (if filed electronically). Reporting entities may, however, request individual extensions to file these forms with the IRS.
The IRS may impose penalties of up to $270 per form for failing to furnish an accurate Form 1095-C or 1095-B to an individual and $270 per form for failing to file an accurate Form 1095-C or 1095-B with the IRS. As in prior years, the IRS indicated in Notice 2019-63 that it would not impose these penalties for incomplete or inaccurate forms for the 2019 calendar year (due in 2020), if the reporting entity can show that it “made good-faith efforts to comply with the information-reporting requirements.” This good-faith reporting relief does not apply to forms that were untimely furnished to individuals or filed with the IRS.
Under Section 6055 of the Internal Revenue Code (the “Code”), providers of minimum essential coverage must furnish certain information to “responsible individuals” about enrollment in the minimum essential coverage during the previous calendar year. The purpose of this reporting requirement is to assist the IRS enforce compliance with the “individual mandate” penalty under the ACA.
Under the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017, the individual mandate penalty was not repealed, but the penalty amount was reduced to zero. This makes reporting under Section 6055 of the Code irrelevant. As a result, Notice 2019-63 provides limited relief from the reporting requirements under Section 6055 of the Code.
Here is a brief summary of the Section 6055 reporting requirements:
Notice 2019-63 provides relief with respect to Forms 1095-B and limited relief with respect to Forms 1095-C. For insurers and small self-funded employers, the entity must still prepare and file the Forms 1095-B with the IRS. However, these entities are not required to furnish individuals with a copy of the Form 1095-B as long as the entity satisfies both of the following requirements:
Notice 2019-63 generally does not extend this relief to large self-funded employers, except for Forms 1095-C that are prepared on behalf of individuals who are not full-time employees for the entire 2019 calendar year. A large employer sponsor of a self-funded plan may file a Form 1095-C on behalf of an individual who was enrolled in the self-funded plan during the 2019 calendar year, but was not a full-time employee during any month of the calendar year. (For these individuals, the “all 12 months” column of line 14 is completed using the code “1G.”) Examples of where this relief may extend to Forms 1095-C are: (1) former employees who terminated employment before 2019 but were enrolled in the self-funded plan under COBRA or retiree coverage; and (2) employees who were part-time during all of 2019, but were enrolled in the self-funded plan because the plan sponsor extended eligibility for the self-funded plan to part-time employees.
While the filing deadline extension and the extension of the good-faith reporting relief is likely welcome news to insurers and employers alike, it’s probably not surprising. And, while the Section 6055 reporting relief is likely surprising, it’s probably only meaningful to insurers.
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.
Health Reimbursement Arrangements (HRAs) are account-based health plans funded with employer contributions to reimburse eligible participants and dependents for medical expenses. Prior to the Affordable Care Act, HRAs were not uncommon.
After the ACA, however, HRAs – which were classified as group health plans (GHPs) – had to satisfy the ACA’s market reform requirements, such as the prohibition against annual limits. Thus, unless an HRA was integrated with a GHP, HRAs usually could not satisfy these requirements alone.
On June 13, the Departments of Treasury, Labor, and Health and Human Services issued final regulations regarding HRAs, which will be effective on January 1, 2020. The regulations discuss two types of HRAs: (1) the individual coverage HRA (ICHRA); and (2) the expected benefit HRA.
An ICHRA can satisfy GHP requirements by integrating the HRA with individual market coverage or Medicare. The expected benefit HRA permits an employee to obtain excepted benefits like dental, vision, or short-term limited-duration insurance with an HRA. This article will focus on ICHRAs.
In order to offer an ICHRA, employers must ensure that a number of requirements are satisfied. For example, all individuals covered by the HRA need to be enrolled in individual health insurance or Medicare. Additionally, before any reimbursements are made, the employer must substantiate such enrollment with documentation from a third party or the participant’s attestation. An attestation, however, must be disregarded, if the employer has actual knowledge that the individual is not enrolled in eligible coverage.
Additionally, HRA coverage must be offered uniformly on the same terms and conditions to all employees in the class. Classes will be discussed in more detail below, but the regulations permit an employer to increase the maximum benefit for (1) older participants if that increase applies to all similarly aged participants in that class, and (2) participants with more dependents.
Further, being covered by an ICHRA will make an individual ineligible for a Premium Tax Credit (PTC). For this reason, the regulations have numerous notice requirements. First, employers must provide notice to eligible ICHRA employees 90 days before the beginning of a plan year that their participation in the ICHRA will make them ineligible for a PTC. For newly eligible employees, the notice must be provided no later than the date they are first eligible to participate. Moreover, there must be an opt-out provision at least annually and upon termination.
The ICHRA regulations make it possible for employers to offer an HRA to a certain class of employees and a traditional GHP to another class. It is important to note that an employer may not offer the same class of employees the option of an ICHRA or a traditional GHP.
The regulations also provide strict rules regarding how to define classes. The classes must be of a minimum size based on the number of employees the employer has:
Additionally, the classes must be based on named classes in the regulations which are based on objective criteria:
The regulations also clarify that employers may still offer retiree-only HRAs and they will not be subject to the ICHRA rules.
Given that there is a notice requirement and that open enrollment for plans that begin January 1, 2020 will generally begin in the fall, employers that would like to implement an ICHRA would likely have to start making plan design decisions soon. Even though the concept of an HRA may be familiar to many employers, these new regulations are nuanced, and employers will likely need assistance to navigate them.
Since the IRS began enforcing the Affordable Care Act (ACA), it has been lenient in its enforcement of the penalties associated with the ACA particularly with regard to late and incorrect Forms 1094-C and 1095-C. This position appears to have changed with regard to the 2017 reporting season. Recently, a number of employers received a Notice 972CG from the IRS. The Notice 972CG proposes penalties under IRC section 6721 for late or incorrect filings. The focus of this is to explain the Notice 972CG and the basic steps employers who receive this letter should follow.
Typically, the employer received a Letter 5699 inquiring why the employer had not filed the Forms 1094-C and 1095-C for the 2017 reporting season. The reasons the employer had not filed timely have varied but most employers filed the Forms 1094-C and 1095-C with the IRS well past the original due date, but well within the parameters discussed in the Letter 5699. Afterwards, these employers reported they then received a Notice 972CG from the IRS.
The Notice proposes penalties under IRC section 6721 for each late Form 1095-C filed by the employer. For the 2017 tax year, the penalty for each section 6721 violation is $260 per return. Therefore, if an employer filed 200 Forms 1095-C late, the Notice 972CG has proposed a penalty of $52,000.
The proposed penalty amounts in the Notice can be smaller than $260 per return if the employer filed the return within 30 days of the original due date (March 31 if the Forms were filed electronically not factoring in the automatic extension). If an employer filed within 30 days of the original March 31 due date, the penalty is $50 per return. If the employer’s returns were filed after 30 days of the original due date but prior to August 1 of the year in which the Forms were due, the employer’s penalty will be $100 per return. Each of these scenarios is unlikely if the employer filed after receiving the Letter 5699 as the IRS did not send these Letters out by the August 1 cutoff to allow employers to mitigate the potential penalties under section 6721.
An employer has 45 days from the date on the notice to respond to the IRS. A business operating outside of the United State has 60 days to respond to the Notice 972CG. If an employer does not respond within this time frame, the IRS will send a bill for the amount of the proposed penalty. Therefore, a timely response to the Notice 972CG is mandatory if an employer wishes to abate or eliminate the proposed penalty.
An employer has three courses of action when responding to the Notice 972CG. First, the employer could agree with the proposed penalty. If an employer agrees with the proposed penalty, box (A) should be checked and the signature and date line below box (A) should be completed. Any employer selecting this option should follow the payment instructions provided in the Notice.
Alternatively, an employer can disagree in part with the Notice’s findings or an employer can disagree with all of the Notice’s findings. If an employer disagrees in part with the Notice, the employer will check box (B). If an employer disagrees entirely with the Notice, the employer will check box (C). If box (B) or (C) are checked, the employer will be required to submit a signed statement explaining why the employer disagrees with the Notice. An employer should include any supporting documents with the signed statement. Any employer who partially disagrees with the Notice should follow the payment instructions provided in the Notice.
An employer checking box (B) or (C) in its response will have to convince the IRS that the employer’s late filing (or incorrect filing) of the Forms 1094-C and 1095-C was due to a “reasonable cause.” The Code discusses what may constitute a “reasonable cause” in exhaustive regulations that must be reviewed thoroughly before any employer responds to a Notice 972CG with box (B) or (C) checked. For an employer to establish a “reasonable cause” the employer will have to establish “significant mitigating factors” or that the “failure arose from events beyond the filer’s control.” Furthermore, to prove “reasonable cause” the employer will have to show that it acted in a “responsible manner” both before and after the failure occurred. An employer should craft its response using the template roughly outlined in the IRS regulations and Publication 1586.
Any employer who receives a Notice 972CG must take action immediately. An employer should consult an attorney or tax professional familiar with its filing process and the pertinent rules, regulations, and publications. Moving forward, it is imperative that employers file the Forms 1094-C and 1095-C in a timely, accurate fashion.
On July 22, 2019, the IRS announced that the ACA affordability percentage for the 2020 calendar year will decrease to 9.78%. The current rate for the 2019 calendar year is 9.86%.
As a reminder, under the Affordable Care Act’s employer mandate, an applicable large employer is generally required to offer at least one health plan that provides affordable, minimum value coverage to its full-time employees (and minimum essential coverage to their dependents) or pay a penalty. For this purpose, “affordable” means the premium for self-only coverage cannot be greater than a specified percentage of the employee’s household income. Based on this recent guidance, that percentage will be 9.78% for the 2020 calendar year.
Employers now have the tools to evaluate the affordability of their plans for 2020. Unfortunately, for some employers, a reduction in the affordability percentage will mean that they will have to reduce what employees pay for employee only coverage, if they want their plans to be affordable in 2020.
For example, in 2019 an employer using the hourly rate of pay safe harbor to determine affordability can charge an employee earning $12 per hour up to $153.81 ($12 X 130= 1560 X 9.86%) per month for employee-only coverage. However in 2020, that same employer can only charge an employee earning $12 per hour $152.56 ($12 X 130= 1560 X 9.78%) per month for employee-only coverage, and still use that safe harbor. A reduction in the affordability percentage presents challenges especially for plans with non-calendar year renewals, as those employers that are subject to the ACA employer mandate may need to change their contribution percentage in the middle of their benefit plan year to meet the new affordability percentage. For this reason, we recommend that employers re-evaluate what changes, if any, they should make to their employee contributions to ensure their plans remain affordable under the ACA.
As we have written about previously, employers will sometimes use the Federal Poverty Level (FPL) safe harbor to determine affordability. While we won’t know the 2020 FPL until sometime in early 2020, employers are allowed to use the FPL in effect at least six months before the beginning of their plan year. This means employers can use the 2019 FPL number as a benchmark for determining affordability for 2020 now that they know what the affordability percentage is for 2020.