"COVID-19
Uncategorized

The Big Question: Can Employers Require Workers to Vaccinate?

As the COVID-19 pandemic rages on and more employers bring staff back to the workplace, many businesses are considering implementing mandatory vaccination policies for seasonal flus as well as the coronavirus.

A safe and widely accessible vaccine would allow businesses to open their workplaces again and start returning to a semblance of normalcy. But employers are caught in the difficult position of having to protect their workers and customers from infection in their facilities as well as respecting the wishes of individual employees who may object to being required to be vaccinated.

The issue spans Equal Opportunity Employment Commission regulations and guidance, as well as OSHA workplace safety rules and guidance. With that in mind, employers mulling mandatory vaccination policies need to consider:

  • How to decide if such a policy right for the company,
  • How they will enforce the policy,
  • The legal risks of enforcing the policy, and
  • Employer responsibilities in administering the policy.

Proceed with caution

A number of law firms have written blogs and alerts on the subject of mandatory vaccinations, and the overriding consensus recommendation is to proceed with caution. 

In 2009 pandemic guidance issued during the H1N1 influenza outbreak, the EEOC stated that both the Americans with Disabilities Act and Title VII bar an employer from compelling its workers to be vaccinated for influenza regardless of their medical condition or religious beliefs – even during a pandemic.

The guidance stated that under the ADA, an employee with underlying medical conditions should be entitled to an exemption from mandatory vaccination (if one was requested) for medical reasons. And Title VII would protect an employee who objects due to religious beliefs against undergoing vaccination.

In these cases, the employer could be required to provide accommodation for these individuals (such as working from home).

Additionally, the employer would have to enter into an interactive process with the worker to determine whether a reasonable accommodation would enable them to perform essential job functions without compromising workplace safety. This could include:

  • The use of personal protective equipment,
  • Moving their workstation to a more secluded area,
  • Temporary reassignment,
  • Working from home, or
  • Taking a leave of absence.

One issue that employment law attorneys say may not have any legal standing is if an employee objects to inoculation based on being an “anti-vaxxer,” or someone who objects to vaccines believing that they are dangerous. In this case, depending on which state your business is located, you may or may not be able to compel an anti-vaxxer to get a vaccine shot.

Protecting your firm

To mount a successful defense of a vaccination policy if sued, you would need to be able to show that the policy is job-related and consistent with business necessity. And that the rationale is based on facts, tied to each employee’s job description and that you enforce the policy consistently without prejudice or favoritism. 

Also, you must ensure that any employee who requests accommodation due to their health status or religious beliefs does not suffer any adverse consequences. In other words, you cannot punish someone that is covered by the ADA or Title VII for refusing a vaccine.

Also, you will need to project and safeguard your employees’ medical information, under the law.

The takeaway

A number of employment law experts say that once a vaccine is widely available, most employers will likely have the right to require that workers get it, as long as they heed the advice above about the ADA and Title VII. Until then, you may want to consider following the 2009 guidance.

If you do implement a policy requiring vaccination, consider:

  • Fully covering vaccine costs if they are not fully covered by your employees’ health insurance.
  • Allowing employees to opt out entirely if they have medical or religious objections.
  • In the event of a medical or religious objection, you must engage in an interactive process to determine whether the individual’s objections can be accommodated.
  • Including safeguards for keeping your employees’ medical information confidential.
  • Not abandoning your other efforts to keep your workplace safe, such as the use of social distancing, regular cleaning and disinfecting, and the use of personal protective equipment.
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Uncategorized

Uncertainty Weighs on Group Plan Cost Expectations

U.S. employers are expecting their group health insurance costs to climb 4.4% in 2021, despite the ravages of pandemic and a likely uptick in health care usage next year, according to a new survey.

The expected rate increases are on par with much of the last few years, when insurance premium inflation has hovered between 3% and 4%. Despite the expected increase, employers do not plan to cut back on benefits for their employees, according to the Mercer “National Survey of Employer-Sponsored Health Plans 2020.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has injected a large dose of uncertainty into the marketplace. Overall, health care expenditures have plummeted since the pandemic started, which at first seems counterintuitive. But many hospitals postponed elective and non-emergency surgeries and procedures, while fewer individuals were seeking care either out of fear of going in for it or because they could not get appointments.

For example, the first three months after the pandemic had gotten a foothold in the U.S., according to the Willis Towers Watson “2020 Health Care Financial Benchmarks Survey,” monthly paid claims per employee dropped as follows:

  • April: 21%
  • May: 29%
  • June: 14%

“So far, the additional medical costs associated with the testing and treatment of COVID-19 have been more than offset by significant reductions in utilization across many service categories,” the insurance industry research firm recently wrote in its report.

Additionally, the Mercer report predicts that a significant portion of the deferred care will never be realized. And, for those people who have deferred care, when they eventually decide to come for the care will also depend on the course of the pandemic, hospital capacity and whether people feel safe to go in for the treatment.

“Different assumptions about cost for COVID-related care, including a possible vaccine, and whether people will continue to avoid care or catch up on delayed care, are driving wide variations in cost projections for next year,” Tracy Watts, a senior consultant with Mercer, said.

Employer reactions

Despite the expected cost increases, Mercer found that few employers plan to make any changes to their benefits this year, as they seek to keep things stable for their staff. The survey found that:

  • 57% will make no changes at all to reduce cost in their 2021 medical plans (up from 47% in the prior year’s survey).
  • 18% will take cost-saving measures that shift more health care expenses to their employees, including raising deductibles and copays.

Employers are also adding benefits, some of them prompted by the pandemic and shifts in how health care is accessed. For example:

  • 27% are adding or improving their telemedicine services (telemedicine for episodic care, artificial-intelligence-based symptoms triage, ‘text a doctor’ apps and virtual office visits with a patient’s own primary care doctor).
  • 22% are adding or improving their voluntary benefits (critical illness insurance or a hospital indemnity plan).20% are boosting their mental health services coverage.
  • 12% are offering targeted health services, like for diabetes and other chronic conditions.
  • 9% are offering more support for complex cases.
  • 4% are offering services to limit surprise billing.

The takeaway

Mercer noted the following trends going into 2021:

Keeping the status quo – A majority of employers surveyed are avoiding making any changes to their health plans, including increasing employee cost-sharing, even if premiums increase. Instead they are focused on providing a stable source of health insurance for their staff and supporting their workers as they deal with stress and effects of the pandemic.

Digital migration – More employers are offering digital health resources like telemedicine, tele-health apps and virtual office visits, for their convenience, safety, efficiency and cost-effectiveness.

Costs uncertain – Due to the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, cost projections are uncertain at best. The avoidance of medical care could translate into a higher utilization in 2021 and hospitals may start charging more to recoup lost revenues from 2020. Or people may have forgone a lot of that care forever. It’s too early to tell.

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Uncategorized

How to Distribute Group Health Plan Rebates to Your Staff

Group health plan insurers are paying out $689 million in rebates to plan sponsors this year, as required by the Affordable Care Act’s “medical loss ratio” provision.

The provision requires insurance companies that cover individuals and small businesses to spend at least 80% of their premium income on health care claims and quality improvement, leaving the remaining 20% for administration, marketing and profit.

The MLR threshold is higher for large group insured plans, which must spend at least 85% of premium dollars on health care and quality improvement.

Employers who sponsor health small and large group health plans around the country in the last few months have received notices of rebates from their insurers. For those who have received one for the first time, there’s always a question of what they should do with the surprise funds. 

MLR rebates are based on a three-year average, meaning that 2020 rebates are calculated using insurers’ financial data in 2017, 2018 and 2019.

You received a rebate…now what?

Health insurers may pay MLR rebates either in the form of a premium credit (for employers that are still using the insurer) or as a lump-sum payment. More than 90% of group plan rebates come as a lump-sum payment.

Once an employer receives this money, it is their responsibility to distribute the rebate to plan beneficiaries appropriately within 90 days, or risk triggering ERISA trust issues. 

How the employer distributes the check will depend on how much their employees contribute to the plan, if at all. Here are the basic rules for employers handling their MLR rebate checks:

  • If you paid 100% of the premiums, the rebate is not a plan asset and you can retain the entire rebate amount and use it as you wish.
  • If the premiums were paid partly by you and partly by the participants, the percentage of the rebate equal to the percentage of the cost paid by participants must be distributed to the employees.

If you have to distribute funds to the plan participants, the Department of Labor provides a few options (if the plan document or policy does not already prescribe how they should be distributed):

  • The funds can be used to reduce your portion of the annual premium for the subsequent policy year for all staff who were covered by all of your group health plans.
  • The funds can be used to reduce your portion of the annual premium for the subsequent policy year for only those workers covered by the group health policy on which the rebate was based.
  • You can provide a cash refund to subscribers who were covered by the group health policy on which the rebate is based.

How it works (example)

  • Total premiums paid to an insurance company for a plan with 100 covered employees during 2019 = $2,000,000.
  • Total participant contributions during 2019 = $500,000 (25% of total plan premiums for the year).
  • The employer receives a $30,000 rebate from the carrier in 2020.
  • A total of $7,500 is considered plan assets and must be distributed to the employees (25% of the $30,000).

Tax treatment of cash refunds

If your employees paid for their share of the health premium with pre-tax earnings, the refund would also have to be taxed. But if they paid for their premiums post-tax, they would not be required to pay taxes on the refund (unless they deducted the premiums on their income tax returns). 

You must distribute rebates to your staff within 90 days of receiving them.

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Uncategorized

Helping Your Older Workers Transition to Medicare

As health insurance costs rise and our workforce ages, fewer employers are providing retiree health insurance benefits to their older workers, and are instead asking them to sign up for Medicare.

It’s a delicate situation as some older workers may resent being pushed to Medicare, especially if they’ve worked for their employer a long time. But employers obviously want to keep their staff happy and not risk losing them just because they are asking them to move to Medicare.

The share of people aged 65 to 74 in the workforce has been steadily rising for years. It’s projected to reach 30% in 2026, up from 27% in 2016 and 17% in 1996, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. And among those 75 and older, the share projected to be working in 2026 is 10.8%, up from 8.4% in 2016 and 4.6% in 1996.

While some employers opt to keep their Medicare-eligible workers on their group health plans, the majority do not. With the Kaiser Family Foundation estimating that only 29% of employers are keeping their Medicare-eligible employees on their company health plans, how can they support transitioning from their employer health plans to Medicare plus supplemental coverage?

If you have employees who will soon be eligible for Medicare and you want to transition them, you can help them and be there for them as a trusted source of information. Here’s what you can do to help workers who are nearing retirement to enroll:

Consider group Medicare Advantage coverage – There are a number of Medicare Advantage insurers that offer group Medicare coverage, which will help provide a transition from regular group health insurance. The nice thing about Medicare Advantage group health coverage is that often the premiums are quite low compared to regular health plans.

We can help you get set up with a Medicare Advantage group carrier that can take the administrative burden off you. We can send plan materials and other resources directly to your Medicare group members.

You can also choose to have Medicare group members billed directly for their premiums, or you as their employer can be billed.

Some carriers will let you customize your group Medicare Advantage plan with different deductibles, coinsurance and copayment amounts.

Help with the ‘donut hole’ – All Medicare plans have a coverage gap (known as the “donut hole”) for medicines. The coverage gap begins after an enrollee and their drug plan (or Medicare Advantage plan) have spent a certain amount for covered drugs. While they are in the coverage gap, which starts after they and their plan have spent $4,130 on pharmaceuticals in a given year, they will pay 25% of the cost of most drugs.

Seniors can’t get a plan on their own that offers help through the coverage gap. Retirees can only skip the coverage gap through an employer-sponsored plan. That’s where you come in.

By offering your retirees a prescription drug plan with coverage through the gap, you’ll help ease the financial burden that the coverage gap can present.

Make it user-friendly -For years your employees have been used to the top-shelf open enrollment system you have had in place for your workforce, with support like a hotline and access to plan information, such as lists of provider networks and formularies, as well as many different mediums for accessing enrollment information (like e-mail and mobile phone apps).

A recent study found that nearly 70% of workers who are 60 years or older find plan comparison tools and plan guidance tools valuable as they make health care decisions. Since this is what they are used to, you can provide the integrated, consumer-oriented experiences to help facilitate their enrollment in a Medicare Advantage plan.

Educate them about supplemental coverage – Medicare enrollees have access to an average of 28 Medicare Advantage plans, which means they will have a wider array of plans to choose from than they may be used to under their employer’s group plan.

They will also likely be bombarded with offers from various plans by mail and e-mail. It’s often confusing for many people to sift through the plans and find the one that’s best for their life and health circumstances. Many Medicare beneficiaries will seek out an advisor to help them choose the right plan.

In this case, a thoughtful employer would contract with an advisor to help their senior employees choose the best plan for them.

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