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Uncategorized

Some Insurers Step Up Group Health Plan Assistance

Some health insurers are helping business workers in group plans maintain employee benefits during the COVID-19 pandemic, a new survey has found. 

Social distancing and stay-at-home orders have put the hurt on hundreds of thousands of businesses across the country, which has forced them to reduce employees’ hours, furlough them or lay them off.

Besides all those employees seeing their pay drastically curtailed or disappear altogether, it also affects their employee benefits, with health coverage topping the list.

With so many people concerned they may lose coverage and business owners equally worried about their employees, some insurers are stepping up by extending coverage for affected group plan participants. 

The survey by insurance research organization LIMRA found that 42% of group health plans are automatically continuing coverage for all employees for a specified period of time, and another 22% are extending eligibility on a case-by-case basis to employees whose status has changed.

About 35% of insurance companies have adjusted reinstatement rules to make it easier for those affected by COVID-19 to regain coverage, and a similar number are extending the timeframe in which employees may elect to pay or continue coverage if separated from their employer.

Nearly all carriers in the survey said they are offering premium grace periods of 60 days on average to workers unable to pay their premiums due to COVID-19, while others plan to reassess or extend those timelines if needed.

These moves are important, considering that about 70% of all workers in the U.S. receive health coverage from their jobs, according to LIMRA.

The typical scenario

When an employee is laid off or furloughed, their hours are essentially reduced to zero, which can result in a loss of eligibility to participate in their employer’s group health plan.

Group health insurers will have written documents that outline the rules for particular plans. These rules include a definition of eligible employees, including how long an employee can be absent from work before the employee will lose eligibility for insurance coverage.

Health plan documents do not usually differentiate between an employee who is terminated and one who is laid off and one who is furloughed.

To be eligible under the typical plan’s rules, an employee must work a minimum number of hours per week (usually at least 30). If an employee is under protected leave – such as Family Medical Leave Act protection – benefits continue during leave.

In other words, an employee who is not meeting the hours requirement or is not actively at work (work from home is considered actively at work) based on being terminated, furloughed  or laid off – even temporarily – will generally have their benefits terminated. They should then receive an offer of COBRA or state continuation, unless state law does not require it due to an employer’s size.

However, if an employee continues to remain eligible for the business’s group health plan during an unpaid absence, the employer will need to determine how to handle their insurance premium payments.

The takeaway

If you are concerned about benefits continuation for laid-off, furloughed or terminated employees, you can call us to see if your health plan has made any special arrangements during the COVID-19 outbreak.

We can check to see if there is any way to continue coverage for any affected employees, and for how long and at what cost to you.

Uncategorized

Pandemic Could Depress Health Care Costs

A new study predicts that employer health care costs will be stable or could fall this year because medical care for people who are not infected with COVID-19 has actually declined precipitously during the pandemic, all of which would bode well for insurance rates.

Because of the fear of contagion, health care practitioners have expressed concern that people who have had mild heart attacks or strokes or other ailments have not gone to hospital for treatment.

Additionally, the number of elective surgeries has plummeted during the pandemic. In other words, deferred medical care is pushing down overall medical expenses borne by employers and group health plan insurers.

Several factors at play

There are other factors at play besides deferred medical care. Because people are also social distancing to protect against contracting COVID0-19, they are not contracting other communicable diseases like the cold and flu. 

Also, because of shelter-at-home orders, people are not involved in as many accidents, like vehicle crashes and sports injuries. Violent crime, shootings and stabbings have also plummeted, meaning fewer people are coming to the emergency room with serious or life-threatening injuries. 

“With treatment for COVID-19 top of mind, people have been putting off non-emergency medical care, including routine office visits and elective procedures at hospitals,” said Trevis Parson, chief actuary of Willis Towers Watson. “Given this reduction in use of medical services, we expect cost reductions due to care deferral to more than offset projected cost increases associated with COVID-19 infections.”

The WTW study notes that infection levels vary greatly from city to city and region to region. Less densely populated areas are faring better than large cities. It estimates overall health care costs this year based on various infection rates and how much medical care is deferred as follows:

  • In areas with a 1% infection level (rural areas) – Employer costs could decline between 1% and 4%.
  • In areas with a 15% infection level (large cities and surrounding areas) – Employer costs could rise or fall by roughly 1%.
  • In areas with a 20% infection level (large metropolises) – Employer costs could rise between 1% and 3%.

WTW noted that ultimately the financial impact on group health care plans will depend on how much the virus spreads and how severe the illness is in those people who are hospitalized. 

The estimates in the analysis only reflect increases to employer medical and pharmacy claim costs for this year. Other health care plan costs, such as dental and vision, will likely see lower costs in 2020, as employees will likely eliminate some discretionary care.

The analysis also does not consider other impacts, including non-health benefit costs (e.g., disability and life insurance), increased mortality and broad negative economic impact.

The study is an update to a WTW analysis released in late March that estimated employers could see health care benefit costs rise by 7% due to the pandemic.

At the time, WTW estimated that at a 10% infection level, benefit costs could rise by 1% to 3%, while a 30% infection level could see costs rise by 4% to 7%. At the highest rate included in the analysis, a 50% infection level, costs could rise between 5% and 7%.

Another study by ehealth.com backs up WTW’s findings. An earlier poll of health insurers found that COVID-19 will have little effect on 2021 health insurance product menus or premiums. In fact, 83% of insurers polled said they did not anticipate raising rates in 2021 as a result of the crisis. 

Although 17% of the insurers said they thought COVID-19 could lead to an increase in rates, none predicted COVID-19 would increase 2021 rates by more than 5%, according to the survey.

Other positives

The ehealth.com survey of 33 insurance companies also found the following:

  • 32 insurers said they are waiving deductibles and other out-of-pocket costs for testing.
  • 19 insurers said they are waiving out-of-pocket costs for COVID-19 treatment.
  • 32 insurers are seeing enrollees make more use of telemedicine services.
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Uncategorized

How to Open Shop and Bring Staff Back to Work

If your business is preparing to open due to a relaxation of shelter-at-home orders, you should proceed with caution and make sure you have safeguards in place to protect your workers, as well as customers if they are entering your premises.

How can you take that first step back to a semblance of normalcy?

Here are some recommendations from the Los Angeles Department of Public Health and other sources that can apply to any municipality anywhere in the country. The advice mainly applies to establishments that will have customers, but most of the recommendations are relevant across a wide swath of sectors.

Measures to protect employees

  • If someone can continue working from home, let them do so.
  • Tell employees not to come to work if sick.
  • If any employee tests positive for, or has symptoms consistent with COVID-19, you should:

– Ask that they isolate themselves at home, and

– Ask all employees who have come in contact with that colleague to immediately self-quarantine at home.

  • Check employees for symptoms or a fever before they enter the workspace. This must include a check-in concerning cough, shortness of breath or fever and any other symptoms the employee may be experiencing.
    These checks can be done remotely or in person upon the employee’s arrival. A temperature check should be done at the worksite, if feasible.
  • Offer at no cost to your employees cloth face coverings if they are going to have contact with the public during their shift. If they are disposable, masks should be thrown away at the end of every shift. If they are reusable, they should be washed after every shift in hot water.
  • Instruct employees not to touch the exterior of their mask when removing and handling it.
  • Disinfect break rooms, restrooms and other common areas frequently.
  • Place hand sanitizer in strategic locations.
  • Allow employees to take frequent breaks to wash their hands.

Signage

Place signs at each public entrance of your facility to inform all employees and customers that they should:

  • Avoid entering the facility if they have a cough or fever.
  • Maintain a minimum 6-foot distance from one another.
  • Wear a mask for their own protection, as well as for the safety of others.

Controlling crowds, lines

Limit the number of customers in the store at any one time, to allow customers and employees to easily maintain at least 6-foot distance from one another at all practicable times.

Post an employee at the door to ensure the maximum number of customers in the facility is not exceeded. If people are queueing up, mark the ground outside the store to ensure proper social distancing.

If you have a restaurant, encourage people not to crowd and wait outside. Set up a system to alert people by cellphone when they are next.

Spacing between employees

  • Require employees to work at least 6 feet apart. You may need to reorganize your office or workstations to ensure proper spacing.
  • In jobs where workers are on their feet, you can mark spots on the floor where they should stand to ensure social distancing between your staff.
  • Social distancing in break rooms and supply areas (such as device charging stations and packaging supplies) may be addressed temporarily by spacing out tables, chairs and microwaves.
  • Another option is to use partitions made of plexiglass so workers can communicate and make eye contact.
  • In addition, you may want to abandon the popular open workspace concept and revert to using cubicles, which gained popularity in the 1980s and 1990s as a way to increase productivity by putting barriers between office workers. Having that divider will make your staff feel safer and can offer some protection.
  • Reconfigure furniture placement in offices, public seating areas and other non-warehouse or production areas to support physical distancing.

Cleaning and circulation

A recent research study that analyzed superspreading events showed that closed environments with minimal ventilation strongly contributed to a characteristically high number of secondary infections.

If you have fans or air conditioning units blowing, take steps to minimize air from fans blowing from one worker directly at another. Also consider opening windows to improve circulation.

Also important are:

  • Disinfecting frequently touched surfaces in workspaces, as well as doorknobs, buttons and controls. More frequent cleaning and disinfection may be required based on level of use.
  • Providing workers and customers with tissues and trash receptacles.
  • Employees who are cleaning and disinfecting should wear disposable gloves.
  • Cleaning surfaces using soap and water, then using disinfectant.
  • Sanitizing any other personal protective equipment such as hardhats after every shift.
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Uncategorized

IRS Allows Mid-Year Changes to Health Plans, FSAs

The IRS has loosened restrictions on employees who want to make changes to their group health plans and flexible spending accounts (FSAs) in the middle of the policy year.

IRS rules are typically stringent and rigid, barring changes from being made to health plans except during open enrollment. Under the new rules, the employer would still have to approve letting staff make changes to their plans if they have more than one option to choose from.

The IRS issued the new guidance after employer groups lobbied the agency and Congress to loosen the rules because the COVID-19 pandemic has led to profound changes in employees’ health care needs as well as access to childcare.

The new rules are temporary and apply only to 2020. All of the following mid-year changes must be approved by the employer;

Health plan changes: Employers can let employees make mid-year changes that would be in effect for the remainder of the year. The new guidance allows employees to:

  • Drop out of their health insurance if they have another option,
  • Sign up for insurance if they have not done so,
  • Add family members to their plan, or
  • Switch to a different health insurance plan.

Allowing these changes could be beneficial to employees who have had their salaries cut, or were furloughed, but were able to retain their health coverage. Someone in this position, for example, may decide to switch to a lower-cost health plan if they are unable to afford the premiums on their current plan. 

Flexible spending accounts: Employees must decide before the plan year starts how much to set aside every paycheck into their FSA, the funds of which can be used to pay for health care-related expenses. Under the new guidance, they are allowed to make changes to their contribution levels mid-year.

Employees that expect more medical expenses and are able to afford it, can elect to increase their FSA funding. But those who may have been setting aside funds for an elective surgery that they may want to postpone, can chose to decrease the amount they put into their FSA every month.

Carryover amount: Regulations governing FSAs require employees to use all of the funds in their FSA in a given year or lose it. There are two exceptions: Employers can give employees a two-and-a-half-month grace period after the end of the plan year to spend remaining funds that are in the account at the end of the year, or they can let workers carry over up to $500 from one year to the next.

Starting this year, the carryover limit will be set at 20% of the maximum health care FSA contribution limit, which is indexed to inflation. That means that for 2020, employers can let employees carry over up to $550 into 2021.

The takeaway

While allowing your employees to make changes can help them better budget their health care spending, making the change will result in extra administrative expenses for you. Changing plans mid-year, signing up employees for new plans and adding dependents can involve a significant amount of paperwork and documentation.

That said, allowing employees to make these changes mid-year could help them better budget their health care spending and give them some extra peace of mind.

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