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Healthcare

New Law Requires COVID-19 Paid Sick Leave, FMLA Benefits

Legislation signed into law by President Trump will extend sick leave benefits for workers who are sickened by the coronavirus, as well as provide for additional weeks of time off under the Family Medical Leave Act so they can be guaranteed of being able to return to their jobs afterwards.

Public and private employers alike need to pay extra attention to the added paid sick leave and FMLA provisions of this new law. Both sections apply to employers with fewer than 500 employees.

Paid sick leave

Employees are entitled to two weeks (80 hours) of paid sick time for coronavirus-related issues. Eligible workers will receive their regular pay, up to $511 per day and $5,110 total. Those caring for someone subject to quarantine due to COVID-19, and parents of kids who can’t go to school or daycare, will receive two-thirds of their regular pay, up to $200 daily with a $2,000 cap.

The emergency sick leave benefit can be used immediately, regardless of how long the worker has been employed with you. It can be used when they cannot work or telecommute for any one of the following reasons:

  • The employee is subject to a government quarantine or isolation order related to COVID-19;
  • The employee has been advised by a health care provider to self-quarantine due to COVID-19;
  • The employee has symptoms of COVID-19 and is seeking a medical diagnosis;
  • The employee is caring for an individual subject to quarantine due to COVID-19;
  • The employee needs to care for a child whose school or place of care is closed or whose childcare provider is unavailable due to coronavirus.

The law does not require certification of order by the government or a health care provider. But employers can require reasonable notice procedures, such as not announcing in the middle of a shift that they take COVID-19 sick leave. But they cannot require the employee to find a replacement worker to cover the shifts they will miss. Employers must post the law’s requirements “in conspicuous places.”

Employers are not allowed to discipline a worker who takes this sick or FMLA leave for coronavirus purposes and, if an employer refuses to provide the leave, they can be ordered to pay both back pay and statutory damages that are equal to the back pay the employee is owed.

This law provides payroll tax credits to offset all costs of providing these paid leaves.

FMLA

The FMLA portion of the law provides for 10 additional weeks of FMLA leave, but only for those who must stay at home to care for a child whose school is closed or their childcare provider is unavailable due to COVID-19-related issues.

These 10 weeks will be paid at two-thirds the employee’s regular rate of pay, up to $200 per day with a cap of $10,000. They will also receive 12 weeks of leave with job protection, though employers of health care or emergency care providers can exclude such employees.

The employee would likely use up their two weeks of paid sick leave before applying for FMLA benefits, which unlike traditional FMLA (which is unpaid), are paid leaves after the first 10 days under the new law. 

Employees who have been working for more than 30 days are eligible, and the employer can require them to provide reasonable notice that they are taking leave.

A final word

This law only applies to employers with fewer than 500 workers, so it leaves uncovered those people who work for larger companies.

Also, employers need to make financial plans, as the credit cannot be claimed until after the employer pays their payroll taxes.

A bigger issue is that the law requires that workers be paid the sick leave even if they are not sick, but have been ordered to self-isolate. In states that have ordered workers to self-isolate, such as California, employers could be faced with an avalanche of paid sick leave claims all at once.

This law sunsets on Dec. 31, 2020.

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Healthcare

New Accumulator Programs Can Surprise Employees at Pharmacy Counter

An ongoing tense relationship between insurers and drug companies is spilling over and hitting enrollees in group health plans, by saddling them with additional out-of-pocket expenses.

Some insurers have started adopting copay accumulator programs — sometimes called accumulator adjustment programs — that change the way a patient’s out-of-pocket medication costs are added up (accumulated) when there is some type of drug company financial assistance for the health plan enrollee. 

These accumulator programs do not count the drug company assistance (in the form of coupons or copay cards) that defray the employee’s out-of-pocket expenses.

Unfortunately, many group plan enrollees often do not know that their group health plan has changed its policy to be an accumulator program. This is because they did not read the plan summary when they renewed their policy during open enrollment, or they read about it and didn’t understand how it works.

For most employees, the change will not make much of a difference, if any at all, if they are low users of their health benefits and rarely need prescription medications.

But, for heavy users and those with chronic health problems, the change could mean hundreds, if not thousands of dollars more out of pocket for their medicines. For patients who need expensive medications, drug makers will often provide copay assistance in the form of coupons or copay cards, which the enrollee shows the pharmacy when buying the drugs.

Essentially, accumulator programs block patients from using any third party monies toward their deductibles and out-of-pocket maximums.

How it works

To understand how an accumulator program works and how it may affect your employees, take the example of a patient who needs $15,000 worth of medications a year with a pharmaceutical out-of-pocket maximum of $7,000 on their health plan:

  • Traditional plan with no copay assistance: Employee pays $7,000 and the insurer pays $8,000.
  • Typical plan that allows copay assistance: Employee pays $4,000, copay assistance pays $3,000 and insurer pays $8,000.
  • Plan with copay accumulator: Employee pays $7,000, copay assistance pays $3,000 and insurer pays $5,000.

Insurers that have instituted the practice say they did so because they want to steer health plan enrollees toward generic medicines and away from pricier brand-name drugs.

They say that these copay cards and coupons are an incentive for pharmaceutical companies to inflate list prices for drugs, then offer copay assistance that spares the patient, but shifts more of the costs to the insurer.

Lawmakers in a number of states have taken note and are trying to address the practice legislatively. They have introduced legislation that would ban insurers from using accumulator policies when there’s no generic version of the drug available.

However, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services in February 2020 proposed a rule allowing insurers to impose copay accumulator policies.  

What you can do

Many health plan enrollees do not know that their health plan has a copay accumulator program until they get to the pharmacy counter after they think they’ve reached their out-of-pocket limit and still have to pay for their medications. 

If they haven’t had this experience in the past with their plan, it’s maybe because they didn’t realize that it had switched to an accumulator program.

Come your company’s next open enrollment, you should stress to your staff that if any of them are large users of prescription medications, they need to carefully read their current plan’s summary of benefits as well as other plan documents.

If you have concerns that any of your staff might run into issues, you can call us to go over your current plans to identify those with or without accumulator programs.

This is especially important during open enrollment, as those enrollees that require expensive prescriptions should be given options, including at least one plan that does not use an accumulator program.

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Healthcare

Substance-Abuse Benefits under Affordable Care Act

One less-touted aspect of the Affordable Care Act is that it provides employers more tools for assisting employees with substance-abuse problems to seek help.

According to a study by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, 10% of America’s workers are dependent on one substance or another. The study also found that 3.1% have used illegal drugs either before or during a shift. 

Also, 79% of heavy alcohol users have jobs, and 7% of them say they’ve had drinks while on duty. 

Drug use and abuse have been on the rise — both illegal drugs and prescription painkiller abuse, the latter of which led a more than a 500% increase in people seeking treatment for addiction to doctor-prescribed opioids between 2007 and 2017.

As an employer, the costs are great if you have someone on staff who has a substance-abuse problem. It behooves you to ensure that the group health plan you offer your workers is comprehensive amid this growing problem. 

Far-reaching costs

Addicted workers have been found to have:

  • Lower or lack of workplace productivity;
  • Higher health care costs;
  • Increased absenteeism and presenteeism;
  • Diminished quality control;
  • More disability claims;
  • Increased workplace injuries;
  • Lower morale;
  • Higher job turnover; and
  • Employee theft.

Some employers have tried to help employees tackle their addictions or abuse problems by implementing workplace prevention, wellness and disease-management strategies. These programs improve health, which lowers health care costs and insurance premiums and produces a healthier, more productive workforce.

Under the ACA, anybody covered by a health plan has access to substance-abuse treatment. That’s because the law makes such treatment one of 10 benefits insurance plans must offer.

The ACA requires health plans to pay for prevention and early intervention. 

Health care plans also have to comply with a “parity” law, which requires them to treat mental health issues the same way they do physical diseases.

What else can you do?

  • You can start by adding addiction to your prevention, intervention, treatment and disease-management strategies.
  • Use confidential screenings and assessments. There are a number of screening, brief-intervention and referral-to-treatment modules available to help people confront their drinking or drug use and get the help they need. 
  • Review your policy for coverage. If you have coverage for substance-abuse treatment, employees with addictions will be more apt to seek out help knowing the cost is at least partially covered.

And, importantly, make sure your substance-abuse benefit is robust, and that it covers a full continuum of care. 

A strong benefit would include:

  • Inpatient care;
  • Residential treatment programs; 
  • Outpatient care; and
  • Continuing care for those in need of treatment.
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Healthcare

Concerns Rise Over Letting Employers Fund HRAs for Individual Health Plans

Employers, health insurers, regulators and hospitals are all raising concerns about the Trump administration’s rules issued last year that allow employers to fund health reimbursement arrangements (HRAs) that their workers can use to purchase health plans on the open market.

The Centers for Medicaid and Medicare Services, IRS and the Department of Labor issued the final rules in late 2019. They reverse one of the major pinch-points of the Affordable Care Act, which bars employers from paying employees to buy their own health insurance either on publicly run health insurance exchanges or on the open market.

The fine for breaching this part of the law is a hefty $36,500 annually.

The rules continue to receive pushback from small business groups, insurers, regulators and others, who say that employers who want to go this route are facing a bureaucratic nightmare.

And one of the biggest concerns is that employers will use the opportunity to move older and sicker workers from their group health plans to exchanges, in order to reduce the cost burden on their plans.

Complexity a major issue

The National Federation of Independent Business has said that small businesses that want to offer workers an HRA integrated with an individual-market health plan are facing a lot of complexity.

“NFIB recommends that your departments plan to release… a publication that explains in plain English, step-by-step, how small businesses can establish, administer, and comply with the rules,” the group wrote.

HRAs are tax-sheltered accounts funded employers that typically are offered to reimburse employees for out-of-pocket medical expenses. This rule expands how those HRAs can be used. HRAs have been tax-advantaged only if they are coupled with an ACA-compliant group health plan. They cannot be used now to pay premiums for individual-market health insurance.

Under the rule, employers could provide an HRA that is integrated with individual health insurance coverage. The rule does include provisions to prevent employers from steering workers or dependents with costly health conditions away from the employer group plan and toward individual coverage.

Employers also could offer a different type of HRA, funded up to $1,800 a year, that could be used by employees to pay premiums for short-term plans that don’t comply with ACA consumer protections.

Employers could not offer the same employees the choice of either a traditional group plan or an HRA-funded individual-market plan. But they could offer a group plan to certain classes of employees, such as full-time workers under age 25, and an HRA plan to other classes, such as part-time employees.

Fears many may be shunted from group plans

Other concerns that are being raised include those by the American Academy of Actuaries that self-insured employers, in particular, may use the rule to shunt less healthy employees out of their group health plans, which in turn could result in worsening the ACA individual-market risk pool.

The Federation of American Hospitals expressed concern that the proposal would shift people out of the employer group market into the less stable individual market, which offers thinner benefits and less support for consumers.

The conservative National Federation of Independent Business supports the new rule but is concerned that it will be a complex process to set this type of arrangement up, especially for small businesses.

The liberal Center on Budget and Policy Priorities said the proposal to let a special type of HRA be used to buy short-term plans could be challenged legally, because the ACA and the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) prohibit group plans from discriminating based on health status, as short-term plans are allowed to do.

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Healthcare

More Employers Expand Mental Health Benefits

American workers are more stressed than ever, and an increasing number of people are also struggling with mental health issues. 

Sadly, the number of people dying from drugs, alcohol and suicide hit record levels in 2019. 

When someone is battling addiction or has mental health issues, it affects all aspects of their life, including work. Stress can have a significant adverse impact on business. It costs employers an average of $300 billion a year in stress-related health care and missed work, according to a Harris Poll conducted for Purchasing Power.

That’s why more employers are stepping up to provide their workers with benefits to support behavioral health and emotional well-being. 

Employee assistance programs

One of the most common ways that businesses have offered support is through employer-paid employee assistance programs (EAPs), which offer a set amount of free mental health services sessions, typically topping out at five to eight per year. But for many people who are experiencing mental health issues, this may not be enough.

Some larger employers have started offering mental health benefits that cover a higher number of therapy sessions and a wider range of treatment options, including therapy and mental health coaching. 

Additionally, studies have found that offering a mix of online services such as digital lessons and in-person or virtual therapy can lead to lower therapy dropout rates, plus higher rates of abstinence for clients with substance abuse issues.

As a result, some employers are offering programs that cover a spectrum of behavioral health care options, such as:

  • Self-care apps for employees experiencing occasional stress
  • In-person therapy sessions
  • Virtual therapy sessions 
  • Prescription medication to treat common, diagnosable conditions such as anxiety or depression. 

Companies usually offer EAPs at no cost to their employees. Most employers operate their EAP through a third party administrator, which can be crucial to the success of your EAP.

Employees have to feel comfortable discussing professional and personal problems with the EAP administrator, and if your business administers your EAP, it could prevent employees from coming forward and asking for the help they require. 

That said, it’s up to you to make sure your staff understands that they can talk about mental health without fear of it affecting their jobs. You should train management and supervisors on the importance of confidentiality and job protection if one of your staff asks for assistance or raises mental health concerns. 

Don’t forget your health insurance

There is an extensive list of mental health services your health plan should provide your staff. These services include outpatient and inpatient treatment, telemedicine, medication and counseling. Each of these attributes can be vital for treating mental illnesses.

Of course, there will likely be some out-of-pocket costs for your employees that use these services under their group health plans. 

One service that is growing and improving success rates is the continuing evolution of telemedicine. According to the benefits news site BenefitsPro, telemedicine can make getting care anonymous and convenient, so patients can receive it where they’re most comfortable. This is especially valuable when dealing with the sensitive matter of mental health.

Other options

American workers are more stressed than ever, and some may not need counseling services from an EAP to reduce their life stress. Besides offering an EAP, there are other benefits that you can extend to your workers that can help them better deal with the ordeals of life and work, including: 

Parental leave — Becoming a new parent is extremely stressful. If you don’t offer parental leave, and instead require parents to take unpaid time off, such as under the Family and Medical Leave Act, this stress is compounded. Paternal leave is paid time off for new parents, either mom or dad, after the birth or adoption of a child. It gives parents the opportunity to take care of their new child without the stress of work getting in the way. 

The benefit to the employer is that when the worker returns from their leave, they are more productive, sooner. Consider offering this to both male and female employees. 

Paid time off — PTO combines sick leave and vacation time. It gives employees a set bank of time off at the beginning of each year. Employees can then choose whenever and however they want to use this time off. 

Flexible work — Flexible work is a great way to help employees with mental health issues. This benefit can include flexible hours (selecting hours they will work), flexible schedule (selecting when they work) and flexible location (like telecommuting).

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Healthcare

Congress Eliminates the ‘Cadillac’ and Other ACA Taxes

Congress before the new year passed legislation repealing the so-called “Cadillac tax” on generous group health plans, as well as two other taxes, finally putting to bed an issue that has plagued the Affordable Care Act since its inception.

Although it had not yet been implemented, employers didn’t like the Cadillac and labor unions came out against it as well. It was so unpopular that Congress voted twice to delay implementation, which was originally set to start in 2018. The latest start date had been pushed until 2022.

The Cadillac tax, an enacted but not yet implemented part of the ACA, is a 40% levy on the most generous employer-provided health insurance plans — those that cost more than $11,200 per year for an individual policy or $30,150 for family coverage. It was designed to only tax the portion of the premium that was above the threshold.

Effect of repeal on group plans

The tax would have been levied on health plans, which are legal entities through which employers and unions provide benefits to employees. It would have been paid by employers, but its impact on employees would be indirect and would have depended on how firms and health plan managers responded to the tax in offering and designing benefits.

None of these issues now need to concern employers offering group plans.

The tax was eliminated as part of a $1.4 trillion year-end budget bill that President Trump signed in order to keep the government open. Here are all the ACA-related taxes that the legislation eliminated:

  • The Cadillac tax, which had been expected to raise $197 billion over 10 years.
  • Starting in 2021, the health insurance tax, which had been projected to raise $150 billion over the next decade, and
  • The 2.3% excise on the sale of medical devices, which had been expected to generate $25.5 billion in the next 10 years.
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Finance, Healthcare

Reference Pricing Can Reduce Medical Outlays, Costs

In an effort to coax health plan participants to use price-shopping behavior when deciding on where to have a procedure, more insurers are starting to roll out a system known as “reference pricing.”

With reference pricing, the health insurer imposes a limit on the amount it will pay for a particular procedure – a limit that is reasonable and allows access to care for patients. The price is usually a median or average price in the local market.

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