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President Biden’s latest COVID-19 stimulus package – the American Rescue Plan – has been passed by Congress and will become law once the president signs it into effect this Friday (3/12/21). The measure provides $1.9 trillion in economic relief, with many of the specific items directly affecting employers. What do businesses need to know about this finalized legislation?
What Is Not Included In The American Rescue Plan?
Before examining the areas of law that changed, it is just as important to review portions of the initial proposal which were not included in the final version signed by the president. The three most critical pieces NOT included:
What You Should Do: While these provisions did not make it into the final American Rescue Plan, the White House and Democratic leaders have stated their intent to introduce new legislation in the future to fulfill these campaign promises.
Extension Of FFCRA Tax Credits
The federal Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA) expired on December 31, 2020 – and with it, covered employers’ obligation to provide emergency paid sick leave and emergency family and medical leave. Shortly before the end of the year, Congress extended the tax credit for employers who voluntarily continued to provide such paid leave through March 31, 2021.
President Biden’s original vision for the American Rescue Plan proposed to extend and expand emergency paid leave obligations in several key areas. However, the House version of the current COVID-19 relief bill does not extend the employer obligation to provide paid leave. Instead, the legislation merely extends the tax credit for voluntary provision of leave through September 30, 2021 and makes related changes. These provisions of the relief bill include the following:
Even though the current legislation does not extend the employer mandate to provide paid FFCRA leave, this is likely not the last conversation on this topic. There are indications that the Biden administration may attempt to resurrect pieces of the American Rescue Plan that did not make it into this bill into subsequent legislation in the near future.
What You Should Do: Determine which, if any, state and local paid sick leave laws may apply to you as many have been extended beyond the December 31, 2020 expiration of the FFCRA paid leave mandate. In addition, you should continue to monitor developments at the federal level. Although an extension of paid leave was not included in this stimulus package, it is still on the Biden administration’s and many members of Congress’s “to do” list. We could see new leave mandate proposals in the immediate future, so this will be one area to watch closely.
Boost For Vaccine Efforts
The American Rescue Plan provides over $15 billion aimed toward enhancing, expanding and improving the nationwide distribution and administration of vaccines, including the support of efforts to increase access, especially in underserved communities, to increase vaccine confidence and to fund more research, development, manufacturing, and procurement of vaccines and related supplies as needed. The upshot? We may see the widespread proliferation of vaccine availability even earlier than expected.
What You Should Do: Despite developments indicating that vaccines are likely to become much more widely available in the short term, many employers remain unprepared to deal with related issues. Those issues include not only the initial administration process, but also the extent to which the greater prevalence of vaccinated employees may (or may not) affect your safety protocols in terms of mask mandates, physical distancing, and related rules.
Relief For Small Businesses
The American Rescue Plan Act provides additional funding for small businesses, with a focused effort on those in hard-hit industries like restaurants and bars. The new bill provides $25 billion for a new Small Business Administration program focused on supporting restaurants and other food and drinking establishments. These grants are available for up to $10 million for those eligible and can be used to pay expenses like payroll, mortgage, rent, utilities, and food and beverages.
The bill provides an additional $7 billion for the Paycheck Protection Program, which provides small businesses with the potential for 100% forgivable loans. The additional PPP funding brings the total for the current round of the program to over $813 billion. Likewise, both bills expand PPP eligibility for certain nonprofit organizations.
The new law also provides $15 billion to the Economic Injury Disaster Loan (EIDL) Advance program designed to provide economic relief to businesses currently experiencing a temporary loss of revenue due to COVID-19. Like the PPP, the EIDL program is administered through the SBA to help qualifying businesses meet financial obligations and operating expenses that could have been met had the disaster not occurred. Priority funding is also allocated to businesses with less than 10 employees that the pandemic has severely impacted.
Finally, the law includes funding under the Shuttered Venue Operators Grant (SVOG) program, which had previously appropriated $15 billion in the December 2020 stimulus package. Eligible entities for the SVOG include live venue operators or promoters, theatrical producers, live performing arts organization operators, museum operators, motion picture theatre operators, and talent representatives. Eligible entities for the SVOG program can also qualify for loans under the PPP.
What You Should Do: If you’re a small business operating in a hard-hit industry such as the hospitality sector, you should quickly determine eligibility for funding. Even if you’re not a bar or a restaurant, you might still be eligible for economic assistance through the various grants or loan programs detailed in the plan if the COVID-19 pandemic has severely impacted your business.
President Biden considers it imperative that workers impacted by the pandemic not lose out on emergency enhanced unemployment benefits, but the expanded unemployment assistance under the CARES Act and Stimulus 2.0 are set to expire soon in mid-March. Without an extension, millions of unemployed Americans impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic would be impacted. Luckily, both the House’s and Senate’s versions of the American Rescue Plan increase and further extend these unemployment benefits. However, there were some key differences between the two versions of the proposal, and the finalized version differs from the initial proposal.
The finalized legislation retains the $300 per week unemployment benefits, however, the version signed into law extends these benefits until September 6, which is more in alignment with Biden’s proposed outline for the American Rescue Plan.
Another major change related to the unemployment benefits in the finalized version is the addition of a provision making the first $10,200 in unemployment received in 2020 non-taxable for households with incomes under $150,000. This provision will go a long way to address the looming concerns for the millions of Americans currently on unemployment insurance.
What You Should Do: There is not much for employers to do in response to this provision of the bill, as it is primarily geared toward workers. However, it is important to understand the lay of the land in terms of unemployment insurance, as certain industries may face obstacles in hiring for certain positions for the time being. You should be aware that the benefits will expire on September 6 and adjust your hiring plans accordingly.
The American Rescue Plan means that the federal government will send $1,400 stimulus checks on top of the $600 payments issued through the December stimulus bill. Under the structure agreed to during lawmaking negotiations, the payments will phase out at a quicker rate for those at higher income levels compared with the initial proposal floated by President Biden. Those earning $75,000 per year and couples earning $150,000 will still receive the full $1,400-per-person benefit but those earning more than $80,000 and couples earning more than $160,000 will not be eligible.
Tax Credits And Benefits
The bill expands three important tax credits: the child tax credit, the earned income credit, and the employee retention credit. The bill also increases certain health and pension benefits.
The bill also provides for a 100% COBRA premium subsidy effective April 1 through September 2021 for those who are involuntarily terminated and want to remain on their employer’s health insurance. The employer would pass along the subsidy so that qualifying individuals would pay nothing for their COBRA coverage during this period.
Finally, the bill expands the class of those who are entitled to help with the cost of their insurance under the Affordable Care Act. Consumers would be able to receive assistance if their premiums exceed 8.5% of their incomes rather than the current income cutoff of $51,000. The bill provides over $24 billion to shore up childcare facilities which have been hit particularly hard by the pandemic. It provides help to childcare workers making less than $12 per hour.
We will keep a close eye on further legislative proposals and provide updates as warranted.
The Department of Labor has just published a series of FAQs regarding premium reimbursement arrangements. Specifically, the FAQs address the following arrangements:
Situation #1: An arrangement in which an employer offers an employee cash to reimburse the purchase of an individual market policy.
When an employer provides cash reimbursement to the employee to purchase an individual medical policy, the DOL takes the position that the employer’s payment arrangement is part of a plan, fund, or other arrangement established or maintained for the purpose of providing medical care to employees, regardless of whether the employer treats the money as pre or post tax to the employee. Therefore, the arrangement is considered a group health plan that is subject to the market reform provisions of the Affordable Care Act applicable to group health plans and because it does not comply (and cannot comply) with such provisions, it may be subject to penalties.
Situation #2: An arrangement in which an employer offers employees with high cost claims a choice between enrollment in its group health plan or cash.
The DOL takes the position that offering a choice between enrolling in the group health plan or cash only to employees with a high claims risk would be discriminatory based on one or more health factors. The DOL states that such arrangements will violate such nondiscrimination provisions regardless of whether (1) the cash payment is treated by the employer as pre-tax or post-tax to the employee, (2) the employer is involved in the selection or purchase of any individual medical policy, or (3) the employee obtains any individual health insurance. The DOL also notes that such an arrangement, depending on facts and circumstances, could result in discrimination under an employer’s cafeteria plan.
Situation #3: An arrangement where an employer cancels its group policy, sets up a reimbursement plan (like an HRA) that works with health insurance brokers or agents to help employees select individual insurance policies, and allows eligible employees to access the premium tax credits for Marketplace coverage.
The DOL takes the position that such an arrangement is a considered a group health plan and, therefore, employees participating in such arrangement are ineligible for premium tax credits (or cost-sharing reductions) for Marketplace coverage. The DOL also takes the position that such arrangements are subject to the market reform provisions of the ACA and cannot be integrated with individual market policies to satisfy the market reforms. Thus, such arrangements can trigger penalties.
There has been quite a bit of banter regarding whether any of the foregoing arrangements could be an effective way for employers to avoid complying with the market reforms and other provisions of the Affordable Care Act applicable to group health plans. These FAQs are a strong indication that the DOL will be forceful in its interpretation and enforcement of these provisions.
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.