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Until very recently, employers were at risk of receiving steep fines if they reimbursed employees for non-employer sponsored medical care – the Affordable Care Act (ACA) included fines of up to $36,500 a year per employee for such an action. Late in 2016, however, President Obama signed the 21st Century Cures Act and established Qualified Small Employer Health Reimbursement Arrangements (QSEHRAs). As of January 1, 2017, small employers can offer these tax-free medical care reimbursements to eligible employees.
If an employee incurs a medical care expense, such as health insurance premiums or eligible medical expenses under IRC Section 213(d), the employer can reimburse the employee up to $4,950 for single coverage or $10,000 for family coverage. Employees may not make any contributions or salary deferrals to QSEHRAs.
The maximum amount must
be prorated for those not eligible for an entire year. For example, an employer
offering the maximum reimbursement amount should only reimburse up to $2,475 to
an employee who has been working for the company for six months. For a complete
list of medical expenses covered under IRC 213(d), see https://www.irs.gov/pub/irs-pdf/p502.pdf.
Employers may tailor which expenses they will reimburse to a certain extent,
and do not have to reimburse employees for all eligible medical expenses.
Much like other healthcare reimbursement arrangements, employees may have to provide substantiation before reimbursement. The IRS has discretion to establish requirements regarding this process, but has not yet done so. Although reimbursements may be provided tax-free, they must be reported on the employee’s W-2 in Box 12 using the code “FF.”
To offer QSEHRAs, an employer cannot be an applicable large employer (ALE) under the ACA. Only employers with fewer than 50 full-time equivalent employees can offer this benefit. Further, a group cannot offer group health plans to any employees to qualify.
Typically, an employer that chooses to offer a QSEHRA must offer it to all employees who have completed at least 90 days of work. The few exceptions to this rule include part-time or seasonal employees, non-resident aliens, employees under the age of 25, and employees covered by a collective bargaining agreement.
Employers may offer differing reimbursement amounts based on employee age or family size. However, such variances must be based on the cost of premiums of a reference policy on the individual market. It is currently unclear which reference policy will be selected or how permitted discrepancies will be calculated.
To be eligible for a tax-free reimbursement, employees must have proof of minimum essential coverage. It is uncertain how closely employers will have to scrutinize such proof, although guidance will hopefully be available soon.
Eligible employees must disclose to health exchanges the amount of QSEHRA benefits available to them. The exchanges will account for the reported amount, even if the employee does not utilize it, and will likely reduce the amount of the subsidies available. Employers should take this into account before adopting a QSEHRA.
In order to establish a QSEHRA, employers will have to set up and administer a plan. Group health plan requirements, such as ACA reporting and COBRA requirements, do not apply to QSEHRAs. But in order to properly provide reimbursements to employees, employers will likely have to establish reimbursement procedures.
Additionally, any eligible employees must be notified of the arrangements in writing at least 90 days before the first day they will be eligible to participate. For the current year, the IRS is giving employers who implement QSEHRAs an extension until March 13, 2017 to provide a notice. The notice must provide the amount of the maximum benefit, and that eligible employees inform health insurance exchanges this benefit is available to them. It also must inform eligible employees they may be subject to the individual ACA penalties if they do not have minimum essential coverage.
Earlier this week, President Obama signed the 21st Century Cures Act (“Act”). This Act contains provisions for “Qualified Small Business Health Reimbursement Arrangements” (“HRA”). This new HRA would allow eligible small employers to offer a health reimbursement arrangement funded solely by the employer that would reimburse employees for qualified medical expenses including health insurance premiums.
The maximum reimbursement that can be provided under the plan is $4,950 or $10,000 if the HRA provided for family members of the employee. An employer is eligible to establish a small employer health reimbursement arrangement if that employer (i) is not subject to the employer mandate under the Affordable Care Act (i.e., less than 50 full-time employees) and (ii) does not offer a group health plan to any employees.
To be a qualified small employer HRA, the arrangement must be provided on the same terms to all eligible employees, although the Act allows benefits under the HRA to vary based on age and family-size variations in the price of an insurance policy in the relevant individual health insurance market.
Employers must report contributions to a reimbursement arrangement on their employees’ W-2 each year and notify each participant of the amount of benefit provided under the HRA each year at least 90 days before the beginning of each year.
This new provision also provides that employees that are covered by this HRA will not be eligible for subsidies for health insurance purchased under an exchange during the months that they are covered by the employer’s HRA.
Such HRAs are not considered “group health plans” for most purposes under the Code, ERISA and the Public Health Service Act and are not subject to COBRA.
This new provision also overturns guidance issued by the Internal Revenue Service and the Department of Labor that stated that these arrangements violated the Affordable Care Act insurance market reforms and were subject to a penalty for providing such arrangements.
The previous IRS and DOL guidance would still prohibit these arrangements for larger employers. The provision is effective for plan years beginning after December 31, 2016. (There was transition relief for plans offering these benefits that ends December 31, 2016 and extends the relief given in IRS Notice 2015-17.)
Even small employers notsubject to the Affordable Care Act’s (ACA) coverage mandate can’t reimburse employees for nongroup health insurance coverage purchased on a public exchange, the Internal Revenue Service confirmed. But small employers providing premium reimbursement in 2014 are being offered transition relief through mid-2015.
IRS Notice 2015-17, issued on Feb. 18, 2015, is another in a series of guidance from the IRS reminding employers that they will run afoul of the ACA if they use health reimbursement arrangements (HRAs) or other employer payment plans—whether with pretax or post-tax dollars—to reimburse employees for individual policy premiums, including policies available on ACA federal or state public exchanges.
This time the warning is aimed at small employers—those with fewer than 50 full-time employees or equivalent workers. While small organizations are not subject to the ACA’s “shared responsibility” employer mandate to provide coverage or pay a penalty (aka Pay or Play), if they do provide health coverage it must meet a range of ACA coverage requirements.
“The agencies have taken the position that employer payment plans are group health plans, and thus must comply with the ACA’s market reforms,” noted Timothy Jost, J.D., a professor at the Washington and Lee University School of Law, in a Feb. 19 post on the Health Affairs Blog. “A group health plan must under these reforms cover at least preventive care and may not have annual dollar limits. A premium payment-only HRA or other payment arrangement that simply pays employee premiums does not comply with these requirements. An employer that offers such an arrangement, therefore, is subject to a fine of $100 per employee per day. (An HRA integrated into a group health plan that, for example, helps with covering cost-sharing is not a problem).”
The notice provides transition relief for small employers that used premium payment arrangements for 2014. Small employers also will not be subject to penalties for providing payment arrangements for Jan. 1 through June 30, 2015. These employers must end their premium reimbursement plans by that time. This relief does not extend to stand-alone HRAs or other arrangements used to reimburse employees for medical expenses other than insurance premiums.
No similar relief was given for large employers (those with 50 or more full-time employees or equivalents) for the $100 per day per employee penalties. Large employers are required to self-report their violation on the IRS’s excise tax form 8928 with their quarterly filings.
“Notice 2015-17 recognizes that impermissible premium-reimbursement arrangements have been relatively common, particularly in the small-employer market,” states a benefits brief from law firm Spencer Fane. “And although the ACA created “SHOP Marketplaces” as a place for small employers to purchase affordable [group] health insurance, the notice concedes that the SHOPs have been slow to get off the ground. Hence, this transition relief.”
Subchapter S Corps.
The notice states that Subchapter S closely held corporations may pay for or reimburse individual plan premiums for employee-shareholders who own at least 2 percent of the corporation. “In this situation, the payment is included in income, but the 2-percent shareholder can deduct the premiums for tax purposes,” Jost explained. The 2-percent shareholder may also be eligible for premium tax credits through the marketplace SHOP Marketplace if he or she meets other eligibility requirements.
Employers can pay for some or all of the expenses of employees covered by Tricare—a Department of Defense program that provides civilian health benefits for military personnel (including some members of the reserves), military retirees and their dependents—if the payment plan is integrated with a group health plan that meets ACA coverage requirements.
Higher Pay Is Still OK
One option that the IRS will allow employers is to simply increase an employee’s taxable wages in lieu of offering health insurance. “As long as the money is not specifically designated for premiums, this would not be a premium payment plan,” said Jost. “The employer could even give the employee general information about the marketplace and the availability of premium tax credits as long as it does not direct the employee to a specific plan.”
But if the employer pays or reimburses premiums specifically, “even if the payments are made on an after-tax basis, the arrangement is a noncompliant group health plan and the employer that offers it is subject to the $100 per day per employee penalty,” Jost warned.
“Small employers now have just over four months in which to wind down any impermissible premium-reimbursement arrangement,” the Spencer Fane brief notes. “In its place, they may wish to adopt a plan through a SHOP Marketplace. Although individuals may enroll through a Marketplace during only annual or special enrollment periods, there is no such limitation on an employer’s ability to adopt a plan through a SHOP.”