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Congress Passes 21st Century Cures Act with HRA Provisions

December 15 - Posted at 4:20 PM Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

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.)

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. 

Can corporations shift targeted workers who have known high medical costs from the company health plan to public exchange (aka Marketplace/SHOP) based coverage created by the Affordable Care Act? Some employers are beginning to inquire about it and some consultants are advocating for it.

 

Health spending is driven largely by those patients with chronic illness, such as diabetes, or those who undergo expensive procedures such as an organ transplant. Since a large majority of big corporations are self-insured and many more smaller employers are beginning to research this as an option to help control their medical premiums, shifting even one high-cost member out of the company health plan could potentially save the employer hundreds of thousands of dollars a year by shifting the cost for the high-cost member claims to the Marketplace/SHOP plan(s).

 

It is unclear if the health law prohibits this type of action, which opens a door to the potential deterioration of employer-based medical coverage.

 

An employer “dumping strategy” can help promote the interests of both employers and employees by shifting health care expenses on to the public through the Marketplace.

 

It’s unclear how many companies, if any, have moved any of their sicker workers to exchange coverage yet, which just became available January 1, 2014, but even a few high-risk patients could add millions of dollars in claim costs to those Marketplace plans. The costs could be passed on to customers in the next year or two in the form of higher premiums and to taxpayers in the form of higher subsidy expenses.

 

A Possible Scenario

 

Here’s an example of how an employer “dumping-situation” it might work:

 

At renewal, an employer reduces the hospital/doctor network on their medical plan to make the company health plan unattractive to those with chronic illness or high cost medical claims. Or, the employer could raise the co-payments for drugs or physician visits needed by the chronically ill, also making the health plan unattractive and perhaps nudging high-cost workers to examine other options available to them.

 

At the same time, the employer offers to buy the targeted worker a high-benefit “platinum” plan in the Marketplace. The Marketplace/SHOP plan could cost $6,000 or more a year for an individual in premiums, but that’s still far less than the $300,000 a year in claim costs that a hemophilia patient might cost the company.

 

The employer could also give the worker a raise so they could buy the Marketplace/SHOP policy directly.

 

In the end, the employer saves money and the employee gets better coverage. And the Affordable Care Act marketplace plan, which is required to accept all applicants at a fixed price during open enrollment periods, takes over the costs for their chronic illness/condition.

 

Some consultants feel the concept sounds too easy to be true, but the ACA has set up the ability for employers and employees to voluntarily choose a better plan in the Individual Marketplace which could help save a significant amount of money for both.

 

Legal but ‘Gray’

 

The consensus among insurance and HR professionals is that even though the employer “dumping-strategy” is technically legal to date (as long as employees agree to the change and are not forced off the company medical plan), the action is still very gray. This is why many employers have decided this is not something they want to promote at this time.

 

Shifting high-risk workers out of employer medical plans is prohibited for other kinds of taxpayer-supported insurance. For example, it’s illegal to persuade an employee who is working and over 65 to drop company coverage and rely entirely on the government Medicare program. Similarly, employers who dumped high-cost patients into temporary high-risk pools established originally by the ACA health law are required to repay those workers’ claims back to the pools.

 

One would think there would be a similar type of provision under the Affordable Care Act for plans sold through the Marketplace portals, but there currently is not.

 

The act of moving high-cost workers to a Marketplace plan would not trigger penalties under ACA as long as an employer offers an affordable medical plan to all eligible employees that meets the requirements of minimum essential coverage, experts said.  If  workers are offered a medical plan by their employer that is affordable coverage and meets the minimum essential coverage requirements, workers cannot use tax credits to help pay for the Marketplace-plan premiums.

 

Many benefits experts say they are unaware of specific instances where employers are shifting high-cost workers to exchange plans and the spokespeople for AIDS United and the Hemophilia Federation of America, both advocating for patients with expensive, chronic conditions, said they didn’t know of any, either.

 

But employers are becoming increasingly interested in this option.

 

This practice, however, could raise concerns about discrimination and could cause decreased employee morale and even resentment among employees who are not offered a similar deal, which could end up causing the employer more headaches and even potential discrimination lawsuits.

 

Many believe that even though this strategy is currently an option for employers, in the end, it may not be a good idea. This type of strategy has to operate as an under-the-radar deal between the employer and targeted employee and these type of deals never work out. Most legal experts who focus on employee benefits do not recommend this strategy either as it just opens the door of discrimination claims from employees.

 

Please contact our office for assistance in reviewing all of the benefit options available to your company and employees under ACA.

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