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On April 7, 2021, the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) issued eagerly anticipated guidance on administering COBRA subsidies under the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 (ARPA). The guidance includes Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) and various Model Notices and election forms implementing the COBRA Premium Assistance provisions under ARPA, while also announcing the launch of a page dedicated to COBRA Premium Subsidy guidance on its website.
Since ARPA was enacted, employers have been preparing to comply, albeit with many open questions. ARPA requires that full COBRA premiums be subsidized for “Assistance Eligible Individuals” for periods of coverage between April 1, 2021, through September 30, 2021. While this guidance answers important questions on the administration of the subsidies, it does not address many other details on the minds of employers. For example, this guidance does not cover important nuances such as what is an “involuntary termination” in order to qualify for subsidized coverage, how existing separation agreement commitments to subsidize COBRA should be viewed, or details on how the corresponding payroll tax credit will work.
The FAQs are largely directed to individuals and focus on how to obtain the subsidy and how subsidized coverage fits with other types of health coverage that may be available, including Marketplace, Medicaid, and individual plan coverage. We hope that employer directed guidance will follow to fill in the gaps.
Employers will be happy to know that the FAQs confirm a few points that will impact administration. First, eligibility for coverage under another group health plan, including that of a spouse’s employer, will disqualify the employee from the subsidy. Employees must certify on election forms that they are not eligible for such coverage and will notify the employer if they subsequently become eligible for coverage (individual coverage, such as through the Marketplace or Medicaid, will not disqualify an otherwise eligible individual from subsidized COBRA). Failure to do so will subject the individual to a tax penalty of $250, or if the failure is fraudulent, the greater of $250 or 110% of the premium subsidy. The availability of other coverage (which the employer may not know about) does not impact the employer’s initial obligation to identify potential Assistance Eligible Individuals and provide the required notices and election forms.
Soon after enactment, there were also questions circling about whether ARPA applied to small employer plans not subject to COBRA, but rather state “mini-COBRA” laws. The FAQs confirm that the subsidy also applies to any continuation coverage required under state mini-COBRA laws but also notes that ARPA does not change time periods for elections under State law. Further guidance would be welcome on obligations related to small insured plans. The FAQs also confirm that plans sponsored by State or local governments subject to similar continuation requirements under the Public Health Service Act are covered by the ARPA subsidies.
One area that has caused great confusion is how the right to retroactively elect COBRA coverage (to the date active coverage was lost) due to the DOL’s extended deadlines fits with this new election right. While there is more to come on this, the DOL helpfully confirmed that these are two separate rights and thankfully, the FAQs note that the extended deadlines do not apply to the 60-day notice or election periods related to the ARPA subsidies.
The most significant part of the guidance (that we knew was coming but are still happy to see sooner rather than later) are the Model Notices and election materials. The guidance package confirms that employers have until May 31, 2021, to provide the notices of the opportunity to elect subsidized coverage and individuals have 60 days following the date that notice is provided to elect subsidized coverage. Individuals can begin subsidized coverage on the date of their election, or April 1, 2021, as long as the involuntary termination or reduction in hours supporting the election right occurred before April 1, 2021. As previously noted, in no way do these timeframes extend the otherwise applicable 18-month COBRA period.
The Notices include an ARPA General Notice and COBRA Continuation Coverage Election Notice, to be provided to all individuals who will lose coverage due to any COBRA qualifying event between April 1 and September 30, 2021, and a separate Model COBRA Continuation Coverage Notice in Connection with Extended Election Periods, to be provided to anyone who may be eligible for the subsidy due to involuntary termination or reduction in hours occurring before April 1, 2021 (i.e., generally involuntary terminations or reductions in hours occurring on or after October 1, 2019).
Plans will also have to provide individuals with a Notice of Expiration of Period of Premium Assistance 15-45 days before the expiration of the subsidy — essentially explaining that subsidies will soon expire, the ability to continue unsubsidized COBRA for any period remaining under the original 18-month coverage period and describing the coverage opportunities available through other avenues such as the Marketplace or Medicaid. Employers are highly encouraged to use the DOL’s model notices without customization except where required to insert plan or employer specific information.
With the release of the model notices, employers and COBRA administrators now largely have the tools to administer this new election right. The FAQs remind us that the DOL will ensure ARPA benefits are received by eligible individuals and employers will face an excise tax for failing to comply, which can be as much as $100 per qualified beneficiary (no more than $200 per family) for each day the employer is in violation for the COBRA rules. Accordingly, employers will want to begin or continue conversations with COBRA administrators to ensure notices are timely provided to the right group of individuals.
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.
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.
Many Applicable Large Employers (ALE’s) have already started received Letter 226J from the IRS that indicates their proposed assessment of a penalty under the Employer Shared Responsibility provision of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA).
Letter 226J outlines several things for the ALE receiving it. The letter will tell the ALE what the proposed penalty assessment could be and will also state whether the assessment is based on an “A” or “B” Penalty. An “A” Penalty is assessed when at least one full-time employee is provided a premium tax credit when the employee obtains coverage in the healthcare marketplace exchange. An ALE may be subject to a “B” Penalty if employees decline substandard coverage (aka coverage offered is not affordable) offered by the ALE and then receive a tax credit when obtaining coverage from the marketplace exchange. The letter also provides a list to the ALE of the full-time employees that received a premium tax credit and therefore created the potential for a penalty under the ACA.
It is very important for ALE’s to respond to Letter 226J and do so in a timely manner. The IRS provides 30 days, from the date of issuance, for ALE’s to respond, and if no response is made by the ALE, the IRS will conclude the employer does not disagree with the proposed assessment. ALE’s should not assume that because they received a letter that they will owe a penalty or that the amount outlined in the letter is the amount they will ultimately pay to the IRS for non-compliance with the ACA. Additionally, if no response is made to the IRS, the IRS will demand payment by issuing notice CP 220J. Only once the notice and demand for payment is received is the ALE required to make the penalty payment. Letter 226J is not requesting any payment but is giving ALE’s the chance to respond/disagree with the decision initially made by the IRS & Marketplace.
Letter 226J clearly outlines instructions on how to respond to the letter if the ALE feels that it is not liable for the proposed penalty. ALE’s will complete Form 14764 responding to the IRS that it does not agree with the penalty determination. The ALE will provide the IRS with a signed statement explaining why it does not agree with the determination. Any supporting documentation should be provided to the IRS (for example, records indicating dates of termination of employees, proof that the ALE offered coverage to full-time employees) and any other information requested in Letter 226J. The ALE should also make any changes to the Employee Premium Tax Credit (PTC) Listing that was enclosed with Letter 226J. The Employee PTC Listing (Form 14765) will be included with Letter 226J and Form 14764 (ESRP Response). The Employee PTC Listing identifies each employee who received a PTC by month and also the line 14 and line 16 indicator codes that were provided on the employee’s 1095-C form. If the ALE provided the incorrect indicator codes on form 1095-C, the Employee PTC Listing provides a line for the ALE to correct the codes used.
Once the IRS receives the response to Letter 226J, it will acknowledge that it has received the response by sending the ALE a version of Letter 227. There are 5 versions of Letter 227, and the ALE will receive the appropriate version, acknowledging receipt of their response and an outline of any further action that may be required.
On Dec. 22, 2017, President Trump signed into law Congress’s tax reform legislation. The summary below addresses some of the changes that relate to compensation and employee benefits.
Individual shared responsibility – With respect to health care and employee benefits, the most important feature of the tax act is the elimination of the penalty on individual taxpayers who do not maintain minimum essential coverage. However, please note that this elimination of the penalty is prospective and only applies for months beginning after Dec. 31, 2018. Thus, the penalty remains fully in effect for 2018.
With the reduction in the penalty, some employers may see fewer employees enroll in health care coverage during their 2019 healthcare benefit open enrollment period. However, most employees will continue to view employers that offer health insurance coverage more favorably than those who do not. Therefore, offering health insurance will remain a valuable and tax-efficient recruiting and retention tool.
This may also reduce the number of individuals who enroll in healthcare through either the federal or various state specific healthcare marketplaces. However, premium tax credits will still be available for those individuals that purchase health insurance through these marketplaces. If enough healthy individuals drop their coverage, both the individual and employer group health market will likely see some cost increases to pay for the adverse selection impact of this change.
It is also important to remember that this change applies to the individual penalties only. The potential employer penalties for failing to offer coverage or offering inadequate coverage will remain, as well as the current law’s information reporting requirement.
IRS has begun notifying employers of their potential liability for an ACA employer shared responsibility payment in connection with the 2015 calendar year. It recently released Forms 14764 and 14765, which employers can use to dispute the assessment.
The Affordable Care Act (ACA) imposes employer shared responsibility requirements that are commonly referred to as the “employer mandate.” Beginning in 2015, applicable large employers (ALEs) – generally, employers with at least 50 full-time employees – are required to offer minimum essential coverage to substantially all full-time employees and their dependents, or pay a penalty if at least one full-time employee enrolls in marketplace coverage and receives a premium tax credit. Even if they offer employees coverage, ALEs may still be subject to an employer shared responsibility payment if the coverage they offer to full-time employees does not meet affordability standards or fails to provide minimum value.
The IRS announced their plans in Fall of 2017 to notify employers of their potential liability for an employer penalty for the 2015 calendar year. It released FAQs explaining that Letter 226J will note the employees by month who received a premium tax credit, and provide the proposed employer penalty. Additionally, the IRS promised to release forms for an employer’s penalty response and the employee premium tax credit (PTC) list respectively.
On Form 14764, employers indicate full or partial agreement or disagreement with the proposed employer penalty, as well as the preferred employer penalty payment option. An employer that disagrees with the assessment must include a signed statement explaining the disagreement, including any supporting documentation. This form also allows employers to authorize a representative, such as an attorney, to contact the IRS about the proposed employer penalty.
On Form 14765, the IRS lists the name and last four digits of the social security number of any full-time employee who received a premium tax credit for one or more months during 2015 and where the employer did not qualify for an affordability safe harbor or other relief via Form 1095-C. Each monthly box has a row reflecting any codes entered on line 14 and line 16 of the employee’s Form 1095-C. If a given month is not highlighted, the employee is an assessable full-time employee for that month – resulting in a potential employer assessment for that month.
If information reported on an employee’s Form 1095-C was not accurate or was incomplete, an employer wishing to make changes must use the applicable indicator codes for lines 14 and 16 described in the Form 1094-C and 1095-C instructions. The employer should enter the new codes in the second row of each monthly box by using the indicator codes for lines 14 and 16. The employer can provide additional information about the changes for an employee by checking the “Additional Information Attached” column. As mentioned:
Employers: Carefully Consider 226J Letter Responses
Miscoding can happen for different reasons, including vendor errors and inaccurate data. To minimize risk of additional IRS exposure, employers should carefully consider how best to respond to a 226J letter given circumstances surrounding the disputed assessments. For example, changing the coding on the 1095-C of an employee from full-time to part-time could trigger further review or questions by the IRS on the process for determining who is a full-time employee – and may increase the likelihood of IRS penalties for reporting errors on an employer’s Form 1095-Cs.
In its October FAQs, the IRS stated that it “plans to issue Letter 226J informing ALEs of their potential liability for an employer shared responsibility payment, if any, in late 2017.” If the IRS sticks to that timing, all notices should be sent out by the end of this calendar year. However, because the IRS has not indicated that it will inform employers that they have no employer penalty due, it is impossible to say that an employer not receiving a Letter 226J in 2017 is home free for 2015 employer penalties.
Employers should review the newly released forms so they are prepared to respond within 30 days of the date on the Letter 226J. They should also ensure processes are in place to make these payments, as necessary. Even employers who are not expecting any assessments will need to prepare to respond to the IRS within the limited timeframe to dispute any incorrect assessments.
As we near closer to Thanksgiving, it’s safe to say we are in “late 2017” territory. Last week, the IRS issued new FAQ guidance informing employers that they can expect notice of any potential ACA employer mandate pay or play penalties in late 2017.
What Will the Letter Look Like?
The IRS recently posted a copy of the Letter 226J here: https://www.irs.gov/pub/notices/ltr226j.pdf
Letters Will Look Back to 2015
The ACA employer mandate pay or play rules first took effect in 2015. The IRS Letters 226J at issue will relate only to potential penalties in that first year, and therefore they will be relevant only to employers that were applicable large employers (ALEs) in 2015.
In general, an employer was an ALE in 2015 if it (along with any members in its controlled group) employed an average of at least 50 full-time employees, including full-time equivalent employees, on business days during the preceding calendar year (2014).
Note that a special 2015 transition rule provided that certain “mid-sized” employers between 50 and 100 full-time employees could have reported an exemption from potential pay or play penalties.
What Are the Potential 2015 Penalties?
a) §4980H(a)—The “A Penalty” aka No Coverage Offered
This is the big “sledge hammer” penalty for failure to offer coverage to substantially all full-time employees. In 2015, this standard required an offer of coverage to at least 70% of the ALE’s full-time employees. (For 2016 forward, this standard has been increased to 95%).
The 2015 A Penalty was $173.33/month ($2,080 annualized) multiplied by all full-time employees then reduced by the first 80 full-time employees (reduced by the first 30 full-time employees for 2016 forward). It was triggered by at least one full-time employee who was not offered group coverage enrolling in subsidized coverage on the Exchange.
The reduced 70% threshold for the 2015 penalty should be sufficient for virtually all ALEs in 2015 to avoid the A Penalty, provided they offered a group health plan with eligibility set at 30 hours per week or lower. It would be very unlikely for a surprise A Penalty to arise for 2015.
b) §4980H(b)—The “B Penalty” aka Coverage Not Affordable
This is the much smaller “tack hammer” penalty that will apply where the ALE is not subject to the A Penalty (i.e., the ALE offered coverage to at least 70% of full-time employees in 2015, or 95% thereafter). It applies for each full-time employee who was not offered coverage, offered unaffordable coverage, or offered coverage that did not provide minimum value and was enrolled in subsidized converge on the Exchange.
The 2015 B Penalty was $260/month ($3,120 annualized). Unlike the A Penalty, the B Penalty multiplier is only those full-time employees not offered coverage (or offered unaffordable or non-minimum value coverage) who actually enrolled in the Exchange. The multiple is not all full-time employees.
What Happened to My Section 1411 Certification?
In the vast majority of states, they never came!
In short, the 1411 Certification (typically referred to as Employer Exchange Notices) informs the employer that one or more of their employees have been conditionally approved for subsidies (the Advance Premium Tax Credit) to pay for coverage on the exchange.
One important purpose of the notice is it provides employers with the chance to contemporaneously challenge the employee’s subsidy approval. Near the time of the employee’s subsidy approval, the ALE can show that it made an offer of minimum essential coverage to the full-time employee that was affordable and provided minimum value.
In other words, the notices provide the ALE with the opportunity to prevent the employee from incorrectly receiving the subsidies, and the ALE from ever receiving the Letter 226J from the IRS (because all ACA pay or play penalties are triggered by a full-time employee’s subsidized Exchange enrollment).
CMS admitted in a September 2015 FAQ that they were not able to send the notices for 2015 for federal exchange enrollment (most state exchanges took the same approach), but the potential penalties will nonetheless still apply.
The result is that ALEs will for be receiving their first notice of potential 2015 penalties via IRS Letter 226J in “late 2017.”
How Does the IRS Determine Potential Penalties?
The 2015 ACA reporting via Forms 1094-C and 1095-C (as well as the employee’s subsidized exchange enrollment data for 2015) serve as the primary basis for the IRS determination.
What Do I Need to Do?
First of all, review the information carefully.
The first-year ACA reporting for 2015 was a particularly difficult one, and one in which the IRS provided extended deadlines and a good faith efforts standard. It is very possible that the numerous challenging systems issues that made the first-year (and, frankly, all subsequent years) ACA reporting so difficult resulted in certain inaccuracies on the 2015 Forms 1094-C and 1095-C.
Be sure to review any potential penalties carefully with your systems records to confirm the reporting was correct.
a) If You Agree with the Penalty Determination – You will complete and return a Form 14764 that is enclosed with the letter, and include full payment for the penalty amount assessed (or pay electronically via EFTPS).
b) If You Disagree with the Penalty Determination – The enclosed Form 14764 will also include a “ESRP Response” form to send to the IRS explaining the basis for your disagreement. You may include any documentation (e.g., employment or offer of coverage records) with the supporting statement.
The response statement will also need to include what changes the ALE would like to make to the Forms 1094-C and/or 1095-C on the enclosed “Employee PTC Listing,” which is a report of the subsidized Exchange enrollment for all of the ALE’s full-time employees. The Letter 226J includes specific instructions on completing this process.
The IRS will respond with a Letter 227 that acknowledges the ALE’s response to Letter 226J and describes any further actions the ALE may need to take. If you disagree with the Letter 227, you can request a “pre-assessment conference” with the IRS Office of Appeals within 30 days from the date of the Letter 227.
If the IRS determines at the end of the correspondence and/or conference that the ALE still owes a penalty, the IRS will issue Notice CP 220J. This is the notice and demand for payment, with a summary of the pay or play penalties due.
Yesterday (May 4, 2017) , the House of Representatives narrowly passed the American Health Care Act of 2017 (AHCA), which contains major parts that would repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act (commonly referred to as Obamacare or ACA). The next obstacle the bill faces is making it through the Senate, which proves to be a formidable challenge.
The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office has not had time yet to analyze the current version of the bill, but this is expected next week. The bill must now pass the Senate and could get pushed back to the House if it sees changes in the upper chamber.
In the meantime, here are some highlights we know about the bill based on how it is written today and how it would work:
We will continue to keep you up to date on the bill as it progress through legislation.
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.
President-elect Donald Trump and Republican congressional leaders have announced repeatedly their intentions to repeal the Affordable Care Act (ACA) once President Barack Obama leaves office. But how that will exactly play out has been the topic of speculation by many.
Washington watchers expect that shortly after his inauguration on Jan. 20, President Trump and GOP leaders will try to pass a measure to repeal the ACA outright. That effort, however, will assuredly face a Democratic filibuster in the Senate, which would require at least 60 votes to overcome—and Republicans have only 52 Senate votes in the new Congress.
Facing a filibuster, Republicans are likely to turn to the budget reconciliation process, in which a simple Senate majority is needed to pass measures related to federal revenues and spending, as long as those measures are budget-neutral, meaning they neither increase nor decrease overall spending or revenue. Much of the ACA was originally passed by Democrats in 2010 using reconciliation.
For the parts of the ACA that are not directly related to federal spending, such as the insurance market reforms, Republicans may start negotiating with Democrats on changing the law in ways that can attract enough senators from both parties to reach the 60-vote threshold.
Opponents “cannot stand in the way of a repeal bill if the president goes out and says he wants it. They may be able to do some things to modify the transitional uncertainty, but it is happening,” said Randy Hardock, a partner at law firm Davis & Harman in Washington, D.C.
The taxes that the ACA imposed on employers will “go away,” he predicted. “But once they pass repeal, they won’t work on replace for two or three years, because the Democrats need to be brought to the table, and they’ll never cut a deal until the end” of the Congressional session.
“I do think they’ll pass a repeal bill, but I would speculate that they’ll try to do pieces of replace along with repeal,” said Katy Spangler, senior vice president, health policy, for the American Benefits Council, a trade association based in Washington, D.C.
The repeal bill that Congress passed last January, which was vetoed by Obama, “saved a half-trillion dollars” based on the elimination of direct federal subsidies for ACA coverage, she noted. If a similar bill is passed in 2017, those funds would be available to fund an ACA alternative—perhaps along the lines of a bill previously supported by House Budget Committee Chairman Tom Price, R-Ga., Trump’s nominee to be secretary of Health and Human Services. That measure would provide tax credits for people to buy insurance if they don’t have access to coverage through an employer or government program.
However, Spangler called it “a big gamble” to hope that the Senate will rule that money saved by repealing the ACA could be treated as a kind of budgetary fund that could later be used to make a replacement measure budget-neutral, when passed through the budget reconciliation process. “That’s a half-trillion-dollar gamble that [Republicans] might not be willing to take,” she said. “So maybe they do their version of the tax credits as part of that original repeal bill.”
Doing so, she suggested, “helps moderate Republicans know that you’re not just going to have 20 million people kicked off their insurance. And that gives you time to come back and get Democrats to perfect some of the market reforms and to perfect some other things to make [ACA repeal and replacement] better.”
On Jan. 3, Republicans introduced a resolution in the U.S. Senate to set up a reserve fund for future health care legislation under an ACA replacement bill, based on savings to be derived from the repeal of the Affordable Care Act.
While measures passed through the budget reconciliation process must be budget neutral, the resolution and related rules would give special protection to bills repealing or “reforming” the ACA, even if such bills cause a temporary increase in spending.
House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., said in a statement, “This resolution sets the stage for repeal followed by a stable transition to a better health care system. Today we begin to deliver on our promise to the American people.”
The New York Times reported that in the week of Jan. 9, according to a likely timetable sketched out by Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., incoming chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, the House will vote on a budget blueprint, which is expected to call for the repeal of the Affordable Care Act. Then, in the week starting Jan. 30, Walden’s committee will act on legislation to carry out what is in the blueprint. That bill would be the vehicle for repealing major provisions of the health care law.
Carolyn Smith, a benefits attorney with Alston & Bird in Washington, D.C., agreed that the Republicans’ vetoed repeal bill from last January could be “a model for what they’re thinking about now. It’s been blessed by the Senate parliamentarian, so you know that everything in there works in reconciliation. It basically got rid of pretty much all the [ACA] taxes. It got rid of the Medicaid expansion with a delayed effective date.”
Left intact, Smith pointed out, were “all of the market reforms.” But, she said, “I don’t think that insurers are going to think it’s sustainable to have none of the risk adjustment and premium subsidies,” leaving them with a number of federal mandates, including required services that their health plans must cover.
“We’re going to need a road map for individual and small group market coverage [for plan year 2018] by April at the latest, given the timelines for filing products and rates, and getting approval by states,” said Kris Haltmeyer, vice president, health policy and analysis, for the Chicago-based Blue Cross Blue Shield Association.
The insurance industry will “need to see stability and that Congress will honor the [subsidy] commitments that have already been made for 2016 and 2017 for products that have been priced and are out in the market. And we need predictability going forward to see what the pathway is for the next two to three years.”
“There are a lot of challenges if you go ahead and repeal, even with a transition, and don’t provide signals to the health insurance market about what the industry is going to look like,” said Jeanette Thornton, senior vice president at America’s Health Insurance Plans, a Washington, D.C.-based trade association representing the health insurance community.
She agreed with Haltmeyer that “making design changes to benefits and networks takes time” and that “plans are developing products and rates in the spring for the following year. We’ve been stressing the need to have some certainly, some rules of the road, to understand what the market is going to transition to so we can be prepared and make those changes.”
With the market reforms and consumer protections that Republicans are signaling they want to keep, “what’s it all going to look like?” Thornton wondered. “There’s no shortage of work if you work in health policy right now.”