Tag Archives: Affordable Care Act

ACA Cheat Sheet for 2017 & 2018

On Tuesday, September 26, 2017, Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) announced that Republicans would abandon efforts to pass ACA repeal and replace legislation, namely the much-amended American Health Care Act of 2017, and on September 30, 2017 their chance to pass any other version of repeal and replace this year as a budget reconciliation measure, requiring only 51 votes, also expires.  For the remainder of 2017, then, applicable large employers and their brokers and advisers should refresh their familiarity with employer shared responsibility rules under the ACA.  Below is a cheat sheet with affordability safe harbor thresholds, applicable large employer penalty tax amounts, and out-of-pocket maximums for 2017 and for fast-approaching 2018.  Sources are Revenue Procedures 2016-24 and 2017-36, and the Final Rule on Benefit and Payment Parameters for 2017 and 2018.

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Filed under Affordable Care Act, American Health Care Act, Employer Shared Responsibility, Health Care Reform, Post-Election ACA, PPACA

SCOTUS Rulings Highlight ACA Paradox

The two landmark rulings by the Supreme Court last week – one upholding the ability of the federal health exchange to award premium tax credits, and one upholding the right of same-sex couples to be married in all 50 states – would not appear to be interrelated.  However the back-to-back rulings highlight an unusual paradox in the ACA regarding access to premium tax credits.  Specifically, by marrying and forming “households” for income tax purposes, individuals may lose eligibility for premium tax credits that they qualified for based only on their individual income.  This has always been the case for married couples – both opposite-sex and same-sex — but it may come as news to same-sex couples now seeking to marry in states that prohibited such unions prior to the Supreme Court ruling.

To understand this ACA paradox – that married status may reduce or eliminate premium tax credit eligibility – some background is helpful.

Since January 1, 2014, state health exchanges and the federal exchange have made advance payments of premium tax credits to carriers on behalf of otherwise eligible individuals with household income between 100% and 400% of the federal poverty level (FPL).  For a single individual this translates to annual household income in 2015 between $11,770 – $47,080.  (For individuals in states that expanded Medicaid under the ACA, premium tax credit eligibility starts at 133% (effectively 138%) of FPL, which translates to $16,243.)

For these purposes, “household income” is the modified adjusted gross income of the taxpayer and his or her spouse, and spouses must file a joint return in order to qualify for premium tax credits except in cases of domestic abuse or spousal abandonment.  A taxpayer’s household income also includes amounts earned by claimed dependents who were required to file a personal income tax return (i.e., had earned income in 2015 exceeding $6,300 or passive income exceeding $1,000).   Generally speaking, same-sex adult partners will not qualify as “qualifying relative” tax dependents, in the absence of total and permanent disability.

Therefore, adult couples sharing a home in the absence of marriage or a dependent relationship will be their own individual households for tax purposes and for purposes of qualifying for advance payment of premium tax credits.  Conversely, adult couples who marry must file a joint tax return save for rare circumstances, and their individual incomes will be combined for purposes of premium tax credit eligibility.  By way of example, two cohabiting adults each earning 300% of FPL in 2015 ($35,310) will separately qualify for advance payment of premium tax credits in 2015, presuming their actual income matches what they estimated during enrollment.  However once the couple marries, their combined household income of $70,620 will exceed 400% of FPL for a household of two ($63,720), and they will lose eligibility for premium tax credits.

The rules for figuring tax credit eligibility for a year in which a couple marries or separates are quite complex.  The instructions to IRS Form 8962, Premium Tax Credit return, provide some guidance but the advice of a CPA or other tax professional may be required.

Before the Supreme Court’s ruling last week, the Department of Health and Human Services instructed the exchanges to follow IRS guidance recognizing persons in lawful same-sex marriages as “spouses” for purposes of federal tax law, in accordance with the Supreme Court’s 2013 ruling in United States v. Windsor.  That ruling recognized same-sex marriages under federal law provided that they were lawfully conducted in a state or other country, but fell short of declaring same-sex marriage as a Constitutional right that must be made available in all U.S. states.   It is likely that HHS will update guidance to the exchanges to reflect the recent, more expansive ruling on this issue.

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Filed under 401(k) Plans, Affordable Care Act, Employer Shared Responsibility, Federally Facilitated Exchange, Fringe Benefits, Health Care Reform, Health Insurance Marketplace, Premium Tax Credits, Same-Sex Marriage

California Adopts FT/FTE Counting Method to Determine Small Group Market Eligibility

Update:  Governor Jerry Brown signed SB 125, discussed below, on June 17, 2015.

In 2016, when California’s small group insurance market expands to include employers of up to 100 employees, employers in the state will use the same method of counting full time and full-time equivalent employees towards that threshold, as is required under the ACA’s employer shared responsibility rules.  This will be the effect of Senate Bill 125, which has been enrolled and sent to Governor Brown for signature.  It is expected that he will sign the bill into law, and the bill is effective upon enactment.

Current California Insurance and Health and Safety Code provisions define a “small employer” as an employer that, on at least 50 percent of its working days during the preceding calendar quarter or preceding calendar year, employed at least one, but no more than 50, ‘eligible employees,’ the majority of whom were employed within California.”   An “eligible employee” is in turn defined as “any permanent employee who is actively engaged on a full-time basis  . . . with a normal workweek of an average of 30 hours per week [or at least 20, at the employer’s option] over the course of a month” at the employer’s regular place of business, and who has met any applicable waiting period requirements.”   When it first enacted ACA-compliant measures in the 2011-2012 legislative session (AB 1083), California opted to postpone expansion of this definition — from employers of up to 50, to up to 100 employees — until January 1, 2016, which is the latest expansion date that the ACA allows.

Notably, the current manner of counting employees towards the 100 employee threshold does not take into account full-time equivalent (FTE) employees, which are counted towards the definition of an Applicable Large Employer (ALE) subject to ACA employer shared responsibility (or “pay or play”) duties, as set forth in Internal Revenue Code § 4980H, and final regulations thereunder.  FTEs are determined by totaling hours of service worked in a month by employees (including seasonal workers) who average under 30 hours of service per week (but not exceeding 120 hours/month for any single employee), and dividing the total by 120, such that 10 employees averaging 15 hours per week would result in 5 FTEs.  ACA health exchange regulations require that the ACA definition apply for purposes of policies that are sold on the small group exchange (SHOP) but not with regard to non-exchange policies.  SB 125 makes the ACA counting method applicable to all small group market policies sold in the state, whether or not offered on SHOP:

“For plan years commencing on or after January 1, 2016, the definition of small employer, for purposes of determining employer eligibility in the small employer market, shall be determined using the method for counting full-time employees and full-time equivalent employees set forth in Section 4980H(c)(2) of the Internal Revenue Code.”

California Insurance Code § 10753(q)(3); California Health and Safety Code § 1357.500(k)(3), both as amended by SB 125.  Both measures apply only to nongrandfathered health plans.

As a result, and with one important exception noted below, California employers will only need to do one set of calculations to be able to determine their status as Applicable Large Employers subject to ACA pay or play rules, and their status with regard to California’s small or large group markets.

The exception is with regard to counting employees of related entities.  Both California Code provisions amended by SB 125 require employers to count employees employed by “affiliated companies” that are eligible to file a combined tax return for purposes of state taxation.  However, the test for joint filing under the California Revenue and Taxation Code is not the same as “controlled group” status under federal law, which is expressly incorporated into the employee counting rules in Code Section 4980H(c)(2).  It is possible that this was an unintended drafting discrepancy that future guidance will resolve, but in the meantime, California employers with related entities should consult their state and federal law tax advisors to make sure they are counting employees properly for California small group eligibility and ACA shared responsibility purposes.

This exception aside, SB 125 brings welcome simplification at a time when employers with between 51 and 100 employees are calculating the likely costs and complications of losing access to large group coverage, and entering a market subject to rating restrictions and mandated coverage of essential health benefits.  Although legislative measures are afoot to allow states to further postpone, past 2016, the expansion of the small employer definition, California is unlikely to adopt any such change, should it become available.

SB 125, which was sponsored by California Senator Ed Hernandez (D-West Covina) also changes the annual open enrollment period for California’ state health exchange, Covered California™ , from October 15-December 7 of the year preceding the coverage year, to November 1 of the year preceding the coverage year, through January 31 of the new coverage year.  This is also consistent with the ACA, specifically with the Final HHS Notice of Benefit and Payment Parameters for 2016.  The new open enrollment period will first apply on November 1, 2015 through January 31, 2016, for the 2016 coverage year.

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Filed under Affordable Care Act, California AB 1083, California Insurance Laws, Covered California, Employer Shared Responsibility

Proposed EEOC Rules Further Complicate Wellness Program Design

On April 20, 2015, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) published proposed regulations and interpretive guidance (collectively, “rules”) under Title I of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) applicable to incentive-based wellness programs commonly offered in connection with group health plans.  The new rules add to existing wellness regulations under HIPAA and the ACA, which are published and enforced by the Departments of Treasury, Labor, and Health and Human Services (the “Departments”).

The new guidance primarily impacts wellness programs that condition large financial incentives (or penalties) on employees undergoing biometric testing and/or completing health risk assessments (HRAs).  However it has broader implications – and complications – for all wellness program designs.  Below we explain why certain wellness program designs fall under the ADA, how the EEOC’s proposed rules, if finalized in their current form, would limit design options for these programs, and what employers might consider doing in the meantime.

Wellness Programs Subject to the ADA

As mentioned, the EEOC rules primarily impact wellness programs that provide a high financial reward for merely undergoing biometric testing and/or completing an HRA, or that impose a penalty on employees who choose not to participate in such testing.

This specific plan design is permitted under existing HIPAA/ACA wellness regulations, which aim to prevent discrimination on one or more “health factors,” including a disability, illness, claims experience or medical history.  As we have discussed in an earlier post, those regulations permit employers to tie any size financial incentive or penalty to a wellness program that requires mere participation (“participation-only”), and restrict the incentive (and impose other design criteria) only when the incentive is conditioned on physical activity or attainment of a specific health outcome (“health-contingent”).

The Departments consistently have maintained, however, that satisfaction of HIPAA/ACA requirements does not equal satisfaction of other laws governing wellness programs, including the ADA.  They most recently reiterated this position in ACA FAQ XXV, published on April 16, 2015.  And the EEOC in past guidance has identified biometric testing as a workplace medical examination, and HRAs as containing “disability-related inquiries,” such that participation must be “voluntary” on the part of the employee.   EEOC Enforcement Guidance on Disability-Related Inquiries and Medical Examinations of Employees Under the ADA, Q&A 22. (July 27, 2000).   That guidance clarified that a wellness program is “voluntary” as long as an employer neither requires participation nor penalizes employees who do not participate.  Even since, the EEOC requirement of voluntary participation has been on a collision course with the unlimited financial incentives that HIPAA and the ACA permit under “participation-only” wellness plans.

What was not clear, until publication of the new rules, was the point at which a financial wellness incentive crossed the border from voluntary to coercive, in the eyes of the EEOC.   Employer uncertainty on this point reached a crescendo in the latter part of 2014, when the EEOC brought three separate enforcement actions against employers whose “participation only” wellness programs included biometric testing and HRAs, but met applicable HIPAA/ACA design guidelines for same.  In the third and most prominent action, against Honeywell, the wellness program imposed a potential annual surcharge of up to $4,000 on employees who refused, along with their spouse, to undergo biometric testing including a blood draw, performed by a third party vendor.  The federal court rejected the EEOC’s attempt to stop Honeywell’s use of the program, but the case had a “chilling effect” on employers whose wellness programs followed similar designs.

Proposed Design Restrictions

Under the proposed EEOC rules, an incentive or reward under a wellness program that includes biometric testing and/or an HRA crosses the line from voluntary to coercive when it exceeds a dollar amount equal to 30% of the total cost of employee-only health coverage (employer and employee contributions, combined).  An additional incentive or penalty of up to 20% may be imposed in exchange for the employee disclosing whether or not they use tobacco, but not in exchange for blood testing for nicotine or cotinine.  Most significant, this cap on incentives applies to biometric testing and HRAs (or to other forms of medical examination or disability-related inquiries under a wellness program) even when the program is “participation-only” under HIPAA/ACA rules.  Note that only employers with 15 or more employees are subject to Title I of the ADA; smaller employers are outside the EEOC’s jurisdiction.

By contrast, the HIPAA/ACA rules apply these limits only to health-contingent wellness programs, and also permit the maximum percentage limits to apply to the cost of dependent coverage when the wellness program allows participation by dependents.  The EEOC rules do not address dependent participation, most probably because their jurisdiction is limited to the employer-employee relationship.  Nor do they address whether participation by spouses in biometric testing/HRAs triggers concerns under the Genetic Information Nondisclosure Act, or “GINA.” The EEOC did take this position in the Honeywell case, however, and in the new guidance reserves the topic for future comment.

In addition to the cap on incentives, the EEOC rules would also impose other criteria for “voluntariness” on wellness programs that include biometric testing/HRAs, including that:

  • the employer may not require participation in the wellness program;
  • the employer may not deny access to health coverage (other than through imposition of the permitted reward/penalty percentage) to those who do not participate; and
  • the employer may not take adverse employment action or otherwise retaliate against employees who do not participate, or who participate but do not attain a desired health outcome.

Additionally, for all wellness programs that are used in conjunction with a group health plan, whether or not they include biometric testing/HRAs, employers must provide a written notice explaining what medical information will be obtained under the wellness program, how it will be used, and the restrictions on disclosure that apply, including HIPAA privacy and security rules.  Note that this is in addition to the notification of reasonable alternative methods of attaining a wellness reward that the HIPAA/ACA rules require be included in all health-contingent wellness program materials.

The EEOC rules also impose confidentiality requirements on all wellness programs, not just that include biometric testing/HRAs, and further require that wellness programs be “reasonably designed to promote health or prevent disease.”  The EEOC confidentiality and reasonable design rules are quite similar to existing requirements under HIPAA/ACA regulations, with the following modifications:

  • The EEOC confidentiality rules require that medical information be disclosed to employers only in aggregate form, except as is necessary to administer the health plan.
  • The EEOC reasonable design rules would apply to participation-only wellness programs; under HIPAA/ACA regulations they only apply to health-contingent programs.
  • The EEOC reasonable design rules would require that a wellness program that collects medical information (such as through biometric testing) provide follow-up information or advice with regard to health issues.
  • The EEOC reasonable design rules would prohibit wellness programs that require an overly burdensome investment of time in order to attain an incentive, involve unreasonably intrusive procedures, or act primarily to shift health costs onto employees.

Finally, the EEOC rules require that all wellness programs satisfy reasonable accommodation requirements under the ADA.  Under existing HIPAA/ACA regulations, accommodation (in the form of an offer of alternative ways to attain a reward) is only expressly required for health-contingent wellness programs.  The example given is provision of a sign language interpreter to allow a hearing-impaired employee to attain a reward by taking part in nutrition classes.

What to Do Now  

It is likely that the EEOC will receive a large number of public comments on the proposed regulations and guidance.  They have asked for comments on a number of points in addition to the proposed guidance, including whether wellness incentive limits should link to the ACA concept of “affordable” coverage.

Public comments are due on June 19, 2015 and it may take some time for the EEOC to incorporate them into final regulations and guidance.  Although compliance with the proposed rules is optional in the meantime, the standards they outline likely will function as a “safe harbor” from challenge on ADA grounds, such that risk-averse employers may want to take steps to comply with them proactively.    In the interim, employers can also expect business lobbies to challenge the dual standard the EEOC rules would impose on several aspects of participation-only wellness programs. (A House bill that would insulate ACA/HIPAA compliant wellness incentives from attack under GINA or the ADA was proposed before the EEOC rules were published.)  All employers maintaining wellness programs should consider distributing the notice re: wellness program data collection, use and privacy, and should work with their wellness vendors and benefit advisors to craft the appropriate language.   Pending further guidance on whether participation by family members triggers GINA concerns, it seems premature to eliminate, or modify wellness incentives for participation by spouses and dependents.

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Filed under Affordable Care Act, Benefit Plan Design, HIPAA and HITECH, PPACA, Wellness Programs

New Cafeteria Plan Guidance Eases Transitions to Exchange Coverage

IRS Notice 2014-55, issued September 18, 2014, permits two new types of mid-year changes in cafeteria plan elections (other than health flexible spending account elections) that will enable employees to drop employer group coverage in favor of individual coverage offered on state and federally-facilitated health exchanges (collectively, “the Exchange.”)  Making that transition primarily will appeal to employees with household incomes in ranges that qualify them for financial assistance on the Exchange, in the form of premium tax credits and cost sharing.  Those ranges are between 100% and 400% of federal poverty level in states that have not expanded Medicaid, and between 138% and 400% of federal poverty level in states that have expanded Medicare.

Recap of Existing Change in Status Rules

Under existing cafeteria plan regulations, a participant may make a mid-year change in their plan elections only in the event of a “change in status,” and only to the extent that the election change is both “on account of” and “corresponds with” the change in status.  This latter requirement is referred to as the “consistency rule.”  An example of a change in election that satisfies the consistency rule is removing a spouse from coverage as a result of a change in status that is a legal separation or divorce.  By contrast, the participant dropping his or her own coverage in that situation would not satisfy the consistency rule.

Existing regulations set forth a finite list of changes in status that trigger the right to a mid-year cafeteria plan election.  The list does not currently include a change in employment status – such as a transition from full-time to part-time status – that is not accompanied by a loss of group health plan eligibility. In addition, under special enrollment rights that were introduced with HIPAA, employees may enroll in their employer’s plan in the event they lose other coverage (for instance, through exhausting COBRA coverage), may add to their coverage a dependent newly acquired through birth, marriage, or adoption, and may make mid-year cafeteria plan changes that are consistent with these events.  HIPAA’s special enrollment rights do not contain provisions that relate to availability of individual coverage on the Exchange.

Please note that references below to “changing cafeteria plan elections” may more accurately be described as revoking an election to make pre-tax salary deferral elections towards the purchase of group health premiums.

Notice 2014-55

Effective immediately, although at the option of employers, Notice 2014-55 permits mid-year cafeteria plan election changes in two different situations that are related to Exchange coverage.

The first situation applies when an employee who has been classified as full-time for ACA coverage purposes (averaging 30 or more hours of service per week) has a change in status which is reasonably expected to result in the employee averaging below full-time hours, without resulting in a loss of their group health coverage.  Under the look-back measurement method, as set forth in final employer shared responsibility regulations, an employee who averages full-time hours during an initial (following hire) or standard (ongoing) look-back measurement period generally will be offered coverage for the entire related initial or standard stability period (and associated administrative period) without regard to the actual hours worked during the stability period, such that a schedule reduction would not impact coverage.

Now, under Notice 2014-55, full-time employees whose average weekly hours are “reasonably expected” to remain below 30 – and whose reduced earnings may now qualify them for premium assistance on an Exchange, or increased assistance –  may revoke group coverage for themselves and covered dependents, provided it is for the purpose of enrolling in Exchange coverage or other “minimum essential coverage” that will take effect no later than the first day of the second month following the revocation.   (Minimum essential coverage is not limited to exchange coverage and may, for instance, include group health coverage offered by a spouse’s employer.)  Employers may rely on employee’ representations regarding the purpose of the election change.  Changes to health FSA elections are not permitted in this situation.

The second situation has two variations.  The first applies when an employee has special Exchange enrollment rights, including as a result of marriage, birth or adoption.  Similar to HIPAA special enrollment rights, these permit purchase of Exchange coverage outside of Exchange open enrollment. The second applies under a non-calendar year cafeteria plan when an employee wants to enroll in Exchange coverage during the Exchange open enrollment period, effective as of the first of the following calendar year.

In either instance an employee may prospectively revoke group health coverage for him or herself and family members, provided it is for the purpose of enrolling in Exchange coverage that will take effect no later than the day immediately following the last day of the original coverage that is revoked.  Employers may rely on employee’ representations regarding the purpose of the election change.  Changes to health FSA elections are not permitted in this situation.

Plan Amendments and Effective Dates

The IRS intends to amend cafeteria plan regulations to reflect the guidance in Notice 2014-55.  Employers may rely on the terms of the Notice until new regulations issue.

Employers who want to incorporate the new election changes into their cafeteria plans must amend their plan documents in order to do so.   Employers who put the changes into effect between now and the end of 2014 may amend their plan documents any time on or before the last day of their 2015 plan year (December 31, 2015 for a calendar year plan).  The amendment may be retroactive to the date the change went into effect, provided that participants are informed of the amendment and provided that, in the interim, the employer operates its plan in accordance with Notice 2014-55, or with subsequent issued guidance.

Employer Shared Responsibility Considerations

As mentioned, the first permitted change primarily relates to applicable large employers who use the look-back measurement period to identify full-time employees.  To minimize “pay or play” liability, these employers should continue to monitor, over subsequent measurement periods, the average hours worked by employees who migrate to Exchange coverage, and offer affordable, minimum value coverage over corresponding stability periods to those whose hours average 30 or more per week, or 130 or more per month.

Interestingly, this portion of Notice 2014-55 refers to individuals who were “reasonably expected” to average 30 or more hours of service prior to the change, but who are “reasonably expected” to average below that after the change.  This “reasonably expected” language  – which implies a measure of employer discretion – appears in the final shared responsibility regulations only in connection with assessment of an employee’s likely status (full-time, part-time, seasonable or variable hour) upon initial hire.   After an employee has remained employed throughout an entire standard stability period (which generally corresponds to the plan or policy year), he or she is an “ongoing employee” and his or her status as full-time or not full-time is determined solely based on average hours worked over the preceding look-back measurement method, or, under the “monthly” measurement period, over the preceding calendar month.  In other words, employer discretion is removed from the ongoing measurement process.  Now, it is reintroduced by Notice 2014-55 in the limited context of a schedule reduction during a stability period.

If the second permitted change is adopted by an applicable large employer, presumably that employer will continue to monitor employees who have migrated to the Exchange using the measurement method under which the employee previously qualified for an offer of group health coverage.

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Filed under Affordable Care Act, Benefit Plan Design, Cafeteria Plans, Covered California, Employer Shared Responsibility, Federally Facilitated Exchange, Health Care Reform, Health FSA, Health Insurance Marketplace, PPACA, State Exchange

New Rules Defined for “Results Based” Wellness Programs

Proposed regulations issued by the IRS, DOL and HHS (the “Agencies”) on November 20, 2012 increase, for plan years beginning on or after January 1, 2014, the maximum permitted reward that “health-contingent wellness programs” (i.e., “results-based” programs) may offer, from 20% of the total health insurance premium applicable to individual coverage, to 30%, with an additional 20% incentive permitted only in connection with programs to reduce or eliminate tobacco use.  The proposed regulations, which amend final regulations from 2006 on HIPAA’s nondiscrimination provisions, make other changes to the five “consumer-protection conditions” that such programs must satisfy.[1]  Below, I highlight key changes under the new regulations:

Financial Incentives

  • As mentioned, the maximum financial incentive that a results-based wellness program may offer in 2014 is an amount equal to 30% of the total premium cost (employer and employee portions) for individual coverage under a group health insurance policy or self-funded plan.  (The percentage may be based on family or self plus one coverage costs only to the extent that the added spouse/dependents may participate in the results-based wellness program.)
  • An additional 20% incentive is allowed (for a total incentive of 50%) but only if it is offered in connection with a program that reduces or stops tobacco use.
  • Employers must be sure that their results-based wellness program incentives do not exceed the 30% and 50% thresholds either separately or when added together.
    • An example in the regulations describes a wellness program that offers an annual premium rebate of $600 to employees who attain goals under a program for reducing weight, blood sugar and other biometric measurements, and also imposes an annual $2,000 surcharge on employees who have used tobacco in the last 12 months and who are not enrolled in the plan’s tobacco cessation program.  The annual individual premium under the related group health plan is $6,000, of which the employer pays $4,500.  This program design meets the maximum incentive thresholds because the total of all rewards (including not imposing the tobacco use surcharge) is $2,600 ($600 + $2,000) which does not exceed 50% of the total cost of individual coverage, which is $3,000 ($6,000/2).  Also, tested separately, the $600 reward for the non-tobacco wellness program does not exceed 30% of the total annual cost of individual coverage, which is $1,800) ($6,000 x 30%).
    • The regulations make clear that rewards for participation-only wellness program components do not need to be factored in to the maximum reward calculation, even if the participation-only component (such as completion of a health risk assessment) is teamed with a results-based component (such as required smoking cessation).
    • The regulations reassert that permitted financial rewards may take the form of a premium rebate or contribution, a waiver of all or part of a cost-sharing mechanism (such as deductibles, co-insurance, or co-payments), the absence of a surcharge, the value of a benefit that would not otherwise be provided under the plan, or other financial or nonfinancial incentives or disincentives.
      • Compliance Note:  All wellness programs must be “voluntary” in order to meet the requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act.  The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), which administers the ADA, has not clearly defined what makes a wellness program “voluntary” or not voluntary.  This remains a compliance grey area for employers.
    • The new rules apply to non-grandfathered and grandfathered plans under the Affordable Care Act (ACA), and to insured and self-funded group health plans, whether “small” or “large” plans.  They do not yet apply to individual insurance policies.  The uniformity among group plans will permit consistent coordination between the 50% wellness incentive that includes smoking cessation measures, and the tobacco use surcharge (up to 50% of the applicable premium).  That premium surcharge is set forth in proposed regulations on guaranteed availability and premium rating that HSS issued on the same day as the wellness regulations.[2]   (The HHS regulations cover other insurance market reform provisions under the ACA and will be the topic of a future post at http://www.EforERISA.com.)

Offers of Reasonable Alternative Standards

The regulations provide substantial new information on how employers and insurers may comply with the requirement of offering a “reasonable alternative standard” – or waiver of the otherwise applicable standard – to employees who cannot attain the results-based goals due to medical reasons.  (The specific criteria are that the goal either is “unreasonably difficult” to attain “due to a medical condition,” or that it is “medically inadvisable” for the employee to attempt to reach the goal.)  References below to “employers” apply equally to group insurance carriers where applicable.

  • First, the regulations provide two examples of new model language notifying employees of the reasonable alternative standard concept.  The new language replaces the prior, more opaque notice, which may have a chilling effect on some employees.  The standard model language, and a permitted variation, both are repeated below:

 “Your health plan is committed to helping you achieve your best status.  Rewards for participating in a wellness program are available to all employees.  If you think you might be unable to meet a standard for a reward under this wellness program, you might qualify for an opportunity to earn the same reward by different means.  Contact us at [insert contact information] and we will work with you to find a wellness program with the same reward that is right for you in light of your health status.”

“Fitness is Easy! Start Walking!  Your health plan cares about your health.  If you are overweight, our Start Walking program will help you lose weight and feel better.  We will help you enroll. (**If your doctor says that walking isn’t right for you, that’s okay too.  We will develop a wellness program that is.)”

  • The notice of a reasonable alternative standard must be set forth in all written materials that describe the wellness program but does not need to be added to materials that simply make reference to the existence of the program.  For instance, it need not be set forth in the Summary of Benefits and Coverage document (which is provided by carriers to employers with insured plans).
  • Employers do not need to “pre-design” reasonable alternative standards but instead may design them once an employee requests alternative standards.  As provided in the 2006 regulations, and in comparable language under the ACA, however, employers may design alternative standards for specific sub-populations, such as cholesterol reduction programs tailored to employees whose high cholesterol readings make it unreasonably difficult or medically inadvisable for them to attempt to attain lowered readings.
  • If the reasonable alternative standard is completion of an educational program, the employer must make the educational program available, instead of requiring the employee to locate one, and may not require the employee to pay for the program.
  • If the reasonable alternative standard is a diet program, the employer does not need to pay for the cost of food but must pay any membership or participation fee.
  • If the reasonable alternative standard is compliance with the recommendations of a medical professional, and the medical professional is hired or employed by the employer, the employer must offer a reasonable alternative standard if the employee’s own physician determines that recommendations made by the employer’s physician are not medically advisable for that employee.  Regular insurance co-pays or costs will apply to medical items and services furnished in accordance with the physician’s recommendations.
  • The new regulations provide that, only where it is “reasonable under the circumstances,” employers may request a written statement from an employee’s personal physician that the standard wellness goal presents unreasonable difficulties to the employee or that it is medically inadvisable for the employee to attempt to attain it.  When the medical problem or health status that is at issue is clearly apparent, for instance confinement to a wheelchair, the employer does not have a reasonable basis for requesting the physician’s note.
  • An example in the regulation illustrates that “stacking” of reasonable alternative methods of attaining financial rewards may be necessary.  For instance if the wellness goal is reducing body mass index (BMI) to 26 or lower, a reasonable alternative method of attaining the same reward may be a program of walking 150 minutes a week.  An employee who cannot walk that much for health reasons could still attain the same financial reward by following recommendations set by his or her own physician.
  • Finally, the preamble to the new regulations indicates that employers may not stop offering a reasonable alternative method simply because employees fail to attain the alternative goal, particularly where addictive behavior is involved.  Noting (as did the prior wellness regulations) the “cycle of failure and renewed effort” that addicts experience, the preamble states that employers must continue to offer the alternative standard despite a low success rate, or must offer a new reasonable alternative standard such as a different weight loss program or nicotine replacement therapy.

Developing Issues

The Agencies invited public comments on a number of topics that are on their radar screens but not yet defined enough to regulate, including the following:

  • How to apportion financial rewards among family members where the health goal may not be applicable to all of them (for instance smoking cessation).
  • How best to define “tobacco use” (comments on this topic actually are requested in the insurance market reform regulations issued by HHS).
  • How the percentage limits apply to a financial reward whose amount may not be known initially (such as waiver of copayments, which will vary depending on the employee’s health during the course of the plan year).
  • Whether evidence- or practice-based standards are needed to ensure that wellness programs are reasonably designed to promote health or prevent disease, and best practices regarding use of these strategies.
  • Other suggestions for avoiding a “one size fits all” wellness program design.

Limited as they are to results-based programs, the regulations are not of pressing importance to employers and advisors who work with “participation-only” wellness programs, under which no health-related goal or result must be achieved in order to receive the financial reward.  To comply with HIPAA, these plans must only offer participation to all “similarly situated individuals,” with differences permitted among “bona fide employment-based classifications” such as work location, union versus non-union, etc.  (The “similarly situated” rule equally applies to results-based programs.)  Surveys cited in the preamble to the regulations indicate that participation-only programs comprise the vast majority of wellness programs, with the most prevalent design offering a three to 11% premium discount or other cash reward to employees who complete a health risk assessment.  However, the trend towards results-based wellness programs – particularly those for smoking cessation – likely will increase in tandem with rising premium costs for group HMO, PPO and even high-deductible insurance policies.  This trend is anticipated to continue through implementation in 2014 of the state exchanges, the individual mandate, and the employer shared responsibility rules (pay or play) under the ACA.  For that reason, employers and benefits advisors cannot afford to ignore rules governing results-based wellness programs.


[1] The five criteria are:  (a) that employees be able to qualify for the reward at least annually; (b) that the financial reward not exceed the percentage thresholds outlined above, as applied to the total premium cost for individual coverage; (c) that the wellness program be reasonably designed to promote health or prevent disease; (d) that the wellness program be made available to all similarly situated individuals, including that a waiver of the health goal or a reasonable alternative means of attaining the health goal be offered to employees whose health factors present an obstacle; and (e) that all written plan materials disclose the availability of other means of qualifying for the reward.  These criteria are found in the 2006 HIPAA final regulations as well as in Section 2705(j) of the Public Health Service Act, which was incorporated into the Affordable Care Act (ACA § 1201(4)).

[2] The HHS proposed regulations would permit the tobacco use surcharge in the small group market only in connection with a wellness program that meets HIPAA nondiscrimination standards.

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Filed under Affordable Care Act, Benefit Plan Design, PPACA, Wellness Programs