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Exchanges Gear Up for 2015 Open Enrollment Period

July 08 - Posted at 2:01 PM Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

As fall approaches, both state and federal Exchanges created by the Affordable Care Act (ACA) are preparing for potential opportunities and challenges they may face during the 2015 open enrollment period. The start date for the Exchange open enrollment has been delayed by a month, beginning on November 15, 2014, and will run through February 15, 2015.  Those desiring coverage beginning January 1, 2015 must enroll by December 15, 2014.


This delay will help to ease some enrollment pressure points, but does not address some of the challenges associated with a new automatic renewal policy. Specifically, the Obama Administration and the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) just announced a proposed rule to automatically renew existing Exchange health plans and premium subsidies for 2015 that individuals obtained in 2014.   


Automatic Renewal Concerns

A key feature of the 2015 open enrollment period is implementation of the automatic renewal system. Consumers who do not return to the website and change their plan or eligibility information will be automatically re-enrolled in their current  plan from the previous enrollment period for the 2015 plan year. The overall goal is to relieve pressure on the Exchange website while allowing for roughly 95% of consumers to re-enroll in health plans. However, automatic re-enrollment raises issues with the subsidy programs operated by the Exchanges. 


Beginning in 2015, the automatic re-enrollment function is likely to cause issues with consumers that have a different income levels than the previous year. With the automatic re-enrollment feature, most consumers may not report changes in their income, thus creating discrepancies in subsidy distributions. For instance, if someone experiences a decrease in income from the previous year, but the change is not reported due to the automatic re-enrollment, the consumer may not receive subsidies that he/she is eligible for, and vice versa if the consumer’s income increases. With roughly 87% of consumers enrolled in an Exchange plan receiving subsidy tax credits, resolving this issue will be key to the success of the upcoming enrollment period.  


In addition, reports continue to surface that the IRS has not been able to document the reported income for several million Americans who enrolled an Exchange plan for the 2014 plan year.  Therefore, hundreds of thousands of individuals may end up receiving subsidies for two different plan years, which they might not qualify for resulting in an unexpected tax burden, interest and penalties. 


Open Enrollment Period Delayed

Despite the issues plaguing the Exchanges, a recent change in the date of the 2015 open-enrollment period may help alleviate some of the future website and enrollment strains. This spring, the Obama Administration announced a month-long extension of the 2015 open enrollment period until February 15, 2015.   An initial delay was announced last fall that pushed back the start date from October 15 to November 15, 2014.  As a result of these changes, insurance companies will benefit from the delay, consumers will have more time to enroll in an Exchange plan, and websites hope to have fewer technical and administrative hiccups.  However, some have expressed concerns that the White House continues to make up the rules as they go along which violates normal regulatory protocols associated with a statutory-based initiatives like the ACA.  


While the Exchanges prepare for the new open enrollment season, some problems from the previous open enrollment likely remain unresolved. As widely reported earlier, both and its state-level Exchanges experienced a slew of technical issues and glitches in the 2014 open enrollment that hampered enrollment and significantly increased the wait time for enrollment activation for many.  


Verifying Income Levels

Other technical issues have hampered enrollment, such as the lack of oversight in filling out applications on the Exchange websites. The delay in’s verification requirement has led to chaos in the federal Exchange, as well as in states that use the federal Exchange, by implementing an “honor system” where individuals self-report their income without having to provide proof. As a result, HHS and the IRS must verify the incomes of a backlog of roughly 2 million individuals for federal subsidy eligibility.  


AAG  will continue tracking and reporting on key health care reform changes that will affect employers and individuals alike.

Contraception Ruling’s Impact Seen as Limited

July 03 - Posted at 2:01 PM Tagged: , , , , , , , , ,

In the recent U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Burwell vs. Hobby Lobby, it was ruled that closely held for-profit companies have the right to refuse to offer insurance coverage for specific birth control methods if they conflict with the owner’s religious beliefs. Many benefits attorneys expect the impact of this ruling to limited for employers—despite what some political reps might suggest.


The June 30, 2014 ruling pertains to the Affordable Care Act (ACA) mandate that employers who provide medical coverage to employees must provide contraceptive coverage to female full-time employees with no cost-sharing. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) regulations had set forth an expansive interpretation of contraceptive coverage, including so-called “morning-after pills” and intrauterine devices (IUDs).


The ruling was limited to closely held companies (those with a limited number of shareholders) whose owners hold sincere religious beliefs, such as the firms that sued HHS in this case: Hobby Lobby, an arts and crafts chain that says it is run on biblical principles, and Conestoga Wood Specialties, a Pennsylvania cabinet-making company owned by a Mennonite family.


Few Employers Affected

“The Hobby Lobby ruling has a direct impact on a relatively small number of employers—as a percentage of total employers across the country there are very few that can be considered faith-based employers,” advised a recent alert from a law firm.


 “Employers who do not have objections to the mandate are most likely able to continue with their plans without any changes merely because of this decision,” concurred another benefits attorney. “Employers who wish to take advantage of the ruling may want to amend their plans in order to make them clear about what is and is not covered.”


Why have there been apparently overwrought reactions to the ruling? Supreme Court decisions implicating any of the Affordable Care Act’s provisions are routinely  used both by proponents and opponents of the act as evidence of the correctness of their position. Their positions are then picked up by and amplified in media coverage, often resulting in confusion on the part of the public.


Contraceptives Only

The opinion “seemed to limit itself to the contraceptive mandate only, likely quelling the concerns of many who argued a broader decision may put in jeopardy other items typically covered under group plans, such as vaccinations and blood transfusions,” according to a post by attorneys at Fisher & Phillips. In addition, the court warned that its decision should not be interpreted to provide a shield to employers to cover up illegal discrimination under the appearance of claimed religious beliefs (for example, companies claiming to object, on religious grounds, to same-sex marriage).


This decision on contraceptives likely will not seem to extend to larger corporations with diverse ownership interests. The court noted the difficulty of determining the religious beliefs of, for example, a large publicly traded corporation, and pointed out that the corporations in this case were all closely held corporations, each owned and controlled by a single family, with undisputed sincere religious beliefs.


Attorneys expect that “there may be relatively few employers that fit the exemption created by the court’s decision,” and that “HHS will likely draft new regulations to comply with [the] decision, and it remains to be seen whether new plaintiffs will challenge the contraception requirements or other requirements under the ACA on similar grounds.”


The Administration’s Options

The Supreme Court decision cited the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) requirement that any laws that substantially burden a person’s exercise of religion must be justified by a compelling governmental interest and be the least restrictive approach to furthering the governmental interest. The majority opinion, written by Justice Samuel Alito and signed by three other justices, suggested that one “least restrictive” approach would be for the government to directly pay for contraceptives when an employer has religious objections to providing them.


A concurring opinion by Justice Anthony Kennedy suggested that the administration extend an accommodation already made available to religiously affiliated nonprofit organizations more broadly to private employers who claim that purchasing insurance that covers contraception, or certain types of contraception, would violate their religious beliefs.


The Hobby Lobby decision should stand as a reminder that while there may be differences of opinion about specific rules and requirements under the ACA, and some of those differences may be decided against the government, the law itself is not going away. Employers need to continue to monitor new developments and implement strategies for complying with the ACA.

Many employers originally thought they could shift health costs to the government by sending their employees to a health insurance Exchange/Marketplace with a tax-free contribution of cash to help pay premiums, but the Obama administration has squashed this idea in a new ruling. Such arrangements do not satisfy requirements under the Affordable Care Act (ACA), the Obama administration said, and employers could now be subject to a tax penalty of $100 a day — or $36,500 a year — for each employee who goes into the individual Marketplace/Exchange for health coverage.


The ruling this month, by the Internal Revenue Service, prevents any “dumping” of employees into the exchanges by employers.


Under a main provision in the health care law, employers with 50 or more employees are required to offer health coverage to full-time workers, or else the employer may be subject to penalties.


Many employers had concluded that it would be cheaper to provide each employee with a lump sum of money to buy insurance on an exchange, instead of providing employer-sponsored health coverage directly to employees as they had in the past.


But the Obama administration has now raised objections in an authoritative Q&A document recently released by the IRS, in consultation with other agencies.


The health law, known as the Affordable Care Act (ACA), was intended to build on the current system of employer-based health insurance. The administration wants employers to continue to provide coverage to workers and their families and do not see the introduction of ACA as an eventual erosion of employer provided coverage.


Employer contributions to sponsored health coverage, which averages more than $5,000 a year per employee, are not counted as taxable income to workers. But the IRS has said employers could not meet their obligations under ACA by simply reimbursing employees for some or all of their premium costs from the marketplace/exchange.


Christopher E. Condeluci, a former tax and benefits counsel to the Senate Finance Committee, said the recent IRS ruling was significant because it made clear that “an employee cannot use tax-free contributions from an employer to purchase an insurance policy sold in the individual health insurance market, inside or outside an exchange.”


If an employer wants to help employees buy insurance on their own, Condeluci said, they can give the employee higher pay, in the form of taxable wages. But in such cases, he said, the employer and the employee would owe payroll taxes on those wages, and the change could be viewed by workers as reducing a valuable benefit.


A tax partner from a large accounting firm has also said the ruling could disrupt reimbursement arrangements used in many industries.


For decades, many employers have been assisting employees by reimbursing them for health insurance premiums and out-of-pocket costs associated with their health coverage. The new federal ruling eliminates many of those arrangements, commonly known as Health Reimbursement Arrangements (HRAs) or employer payment plans, by imposing an unusually punitive penalty. The IRS has said that these employer payment plans are considered to be group health plans, but they do not satisfy requirements of the Affordable Care Act for health coverage.


Under the law, insurers may not impose annual limits on the dollar amount of benefits for any individual, and they must provide certain preventive services, like mammograms and colon cancer screenings, without co-payments or other charges.

But the administration has said that employer payment plans or HRAs do not meet these requirements.


This ruling was released as the Obama administration rushed to provide guidance to employers and insurers who are beginning to review coverage options for 2015.


The Department of Health and Human Services said it would provide financial assistance to certain insurers that experience unexpected financial losses this year. Administration officials hope the payments will stabilize medical premiums and prevent rate increases that are associated with the required policy changes as a result of ACA.


Republicans want to block these payments, however, as they see them as a bailout for insurance companies who originally supported the president’s health care law.


Stay tuned for more updates on ACA as they are released. Should you have any questions, please do not hesitate to contact our office. 

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