Insurers Will Pay Record Amount of Rebates to Small Group Plans

While most businesses rarely get rebate checks from their group health insurer, this year may be different as insurance companies are expected to pay back record excess premiums, as required by the Affordable Care Act.

The landmark insurance law requires that insurers spend at least 80% of their premium income on medical care and medications, but expected payouts in 2018 came in way below expectations. That means they have to pay out rebates for the overcharge.

Analysts expect that insurers will pay out $1.4 billion in rebates, $600 million of which would be paid to small and large group health plans, according to a report by the Kaiser Family Foundation.

The reason for the sizeable expected rebate is that insurers raised rates substantially for 2018, which was right after Congress had passed a law that eliminated the individual mandate penalty, as well as uncertainty about the law after the Trump administration introduced regulations to expand the use of short-term health plans and association plans.

As mentioned, plans must spend 80% of premiums they collect on medical claims or quality improvements if they are in the individual or small group market. The threshold is 85% in the large group market. The rest can be spent on claims administration, marketing and other overhead, as well as set aside for profit.

Rebates to small group plan and large group plan members have typically overshadowed rebates to those who purchase plans individually on government-run exchanges. In 2017, according to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, insurers paid out nearly $707 million in ACA rebates, as follows:

  • $132.5 million to individual market enrollees.
  • $309.4 million to small group market enrollees.
  • $264.8 million to large group market enrollees.

But this year, rebates to the individual market are expected to be $800 million, while the remaining $600 million would be paid to enrollees in group plans.

The premium increases that many insurers pushed through led to much higher rates – benchmark premiums were up 34% going into 2018 – because of market uncertainties, such as:

  • In October 2017, the Trump administration ceased payments for cost-sharing subsidies, which led some insurers to exit the market or request larger premium increases than they would have otherwise.
  • The administration reduced funding for advertising and outreach.
  • Congress repealed the individual mandate penalty, effective for 2019.
  • The administration introduced regulations extending the time people could be on short-term plans, and also introduced association health plans as an alternative for the small group market.

But the insurers’ fears didn’t materialize. Despite payments per enrollee growing 26% to $559 in 2017 on exchanges, per person claims increased only 7% to $392 year over year.

Also, the repeal of the penalties and increased premiums did not drive younger, healthier consumers out of the marketplace as had been expected.

How to disburse rebates

If you are one of the employers whose health plan gets to receive a rebate, the big question that always comes up is “how do you distribute the funds?”

ACA regulations require insurers to pay rebates directly to the group health plan policyholder, who will be responsible for ensuring that employees benefit from the rebates to the extent they contributed to the cost of coverage.  

But remember, since you as the employer also contributed to the premiums, you are entitled to your portion of the rebate. Your take should be in the same proportion as the premium you pay compared to your employees.

The way that you disburse the rebate is up to you, but whatever you do, it must be in accordance with ERISA’s general standards of fiduciary conduct.

Typically, if the rebate works out to be small for each participant, it would likely not be worth your time to cut each employee a check.

The preferred method in most cases is to provide the rebate in the form of a premium reduction or discount to all employees participating in the plan at the time the rebate is distributed.

New Rule Allows Employers to Pay Workers to Buy Their Own Health Coverage

The Trump administration has issued new rules that would allow employers to provide workers with funds in health reimbursement accounts (HRAs) that can be used to purchase health insurance on the individual market.

The rule reverses a long-standing part of the Affordable Care Act that carried hefty fines of up to $36,500 a year per employee for applicable large employers that are caught providing funds to workers so they can buy insurance.

The rule was put in place to keep employers from shunting unhealthy or older workers from their group health plans into private insurance and government-run marketplaces.

Under the rules issued by the Departments of Health and Human Services, Labor and Treasury, employers would be authorized to fund, on a pre-tax basis, health reimbursement funds that to buy ACA-compliant plans. The new rules take effect Jan. 1, 2020.

With the final rules written in a way to keep employers from trying to reduce their group benefit costs by sending sicker and older workers into the individual market, HHS noted in a press release announcing the rule that it would closely monitor employers to make sure this type of adverse selection doesn’t occur.

Typically, HRAs have only been allowed to be used to reimburse workers for out-of-pocket medical expenses. This rule allows them to also be used to pay for health insurance premiums for coverage that a worker may secure on their own.

’Integration’ conditions

The regulation permits an HRA to be “integrated” with certain qualifying individual health plan coverage. In order to be integrated with individual market coverage, the HRA must meet several conditions:

  • Any individual covered by the HRA must be enrolled in health insurance coverage purchased in the individual market, and must substantiate and verify that they have such coverage;
  • The employer may not offer the same class of individuals both an HRA and a “traditional group health plan”;
  • The employer must offer the HRA on the same terms to all employees in a “class”;
  • Employees must have the ability to opt out of receiving the HRA;
  • Employers must provide a detailed notice to employees on how the HRAs work;
  • Employers may not create a class of employees younger than age 25, whom they might want to keep in their group plan because they’re healthier.
  • For employers with one to 100 employees, a class cannot have less than 10 employees; for employers with 100 to 200 employees, the minimum class size is 10% of the workforce; and for employers with 200 or more employees, the minimum class size is 20 employees.

While the HRA money can be used mostly for buying plans that meet ACA requirements, employers under the rule can establish a special type of “excepted benefit” HRA for employees who want to buy less expensive short-term plans that do not comply with the ACA.  The contribution for such plans would be capped at $1,800 a year.

Under the ACA, employers with 50 or more full-time workers (applicable large employers) must provide their employees with health insurance that covers 10 essential minimum benefits and must be “affordable.”

Under the new rule, an applicable large employer could meet their obligation if they provide adequate HRA contributions for employees to buy individual coverage.

DOJ Files Brief Asking Court to Throw Out ACA

The stakes for the future of the Affordable Care Act just got higher after the U.S. Department of Justice filed a brief with a federal appeals court to strike down every facet of the landmark legislation.

The DOJ’s filing in the case states that the law is unconstitutional in its entirety and should be struck down. The filing concerns a case that had been brought by Texas and other Republican-led states that challenged the constitutionality of the law.

The trial judge in the case had ruled the entire law had been nullified after Congress in December 2017 passed legislation that jettisoned the individual penalties for not securing health coverage.

A group of 21 Democratic-led states, headed by California, immediately appealed the judge’s ruling. The appeal will be heard by the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans. The DOJ’s brief urges the Fifth Circuit to uphold the trial judge’s ruling.

U.S. District Judge Reed O’Connor of the Northern District of Texas ruled in December 2018 that a congressional tax law passed in 2017 which zeroed out the penalty imposed by the ACA’s individual mandate rendered the entire health care law unconstitutional. The ACA remains in effect pending the outcome of the appeal.

Most legal pundits expect that the lower court’s ruling will be overturned. The decision not to appeal the ruling by the Trump administration had been foreshadowed, but still had many legal observers surprised that the DOJ would choose not to defend the law of the land.

Others have pointed out that if Congress’s intent had been to nullify the ACA when it got rid of the penalties for individuals who don’t abide by the individual mandate, it would have written that into the legislation. But the only part of the ACA that was addressed in the tax bill was the individual mandate penalty, and not any other parts of the law.

So what’s likely to happen?

It’s too early to know how this will all shake out. But even if the Fifth Circuit upholds the lower court verdict, the ruling would be appealed to the Supreme Court. If the Fifth Circuit overturns the lower court’s ruling, the Supreme Court may not even take up the case since it has already ruled twice before in favor of the ACA.

There are also widespread concerns over any sudden overturning the law. The effects would be widespread, especially in the individual market, and uncertain for many employees who now get coverage from their jobs thanks to the employer mandate portion of the law.

Regulators Take Steps to Help Grandfathered Plans

Regulators are in the early stages of creating rules that make it easier for health plans that were grandfathered in before the Affordable Care Act took effect to continue providing coverage.

The number of workers enrolled in plans that were in effect before the ACA was enacted in 2010 has been shrinking, and as of 2018, some 16% of American workers who were enrolled in group health plans were in grandfathered plans.

Under the ACA, those plans do not have to abide by the same regulations as plans that took effect after the law’s implementation.

In February 2019, the Internal Revenue Service, the Employee Benefits Security Administration and the Health and Human Services Department issued a request for information from grandfathered plans. The goal is to determine whether there are opportunities for the regulators to assist plans to preserve their grandfathered status in ways that would benefit employers, employees, and their families.

While the effort will only affect a small amount of employer-sponsored plans, the move is significant as it looks like the ultimate goal is to further loosen rules for grandfathered plans.

A plan is considered grandfathered under the ACA if it has continuously provided coverage for someone (not necessarily the same person, but at all times at least one person) since March 23, 2010 and if it has not ceased to be a grandfathered plan during that time.

Grandfathered plans have certain privileges that other group health plans that were created after that date do not have, as the latter are all required to comply with all of the rules under the ACA.

Under the ACA, grandfathered plans do not have to comply with certain provisions of the law.

These provisions include coverage of preventive health services and patient protections (for example, guaranteed access to OB-GYNs and pediatricians).

Other ACA provisions apply to grandfathered plans, such as the ACA’s waiting period limit.

Grandfathered status

Grandfathered health plans may make routine changes to their coverage and maintain their status.

However, plans lose their grandfathered status if they choose to make significant changes that reduce benefits or increase costs for participants.

Some of the questions that the three departments are asking plan administrators are:

  • What actions could the departments take to assist group health plan sponsors and group health insurance issuers to preserve the grandfathered status of a group health plan or coverage?
  • What challenges do health plans and sponsors face regarding retaining the grandfathered status of a plan or coverage?
  • What are your primary reasons for retaining grandfathered status?
  • What are the reasons for participants and beneficiaries remaining enrolled in grandfathered group health plans if alternatives are available?
  • What are the costs, benefits and other factors when considering whether to retain grandfathered status?
  • Is preserving grandfathered status important to group health plan participants and beneficiaries? If so, why?

Responses to the request for information are due by March 27.

DOJ Tells Court to Nullify ACA; What’s Next?

After a period of relative stability, the future of the Affordable Care Act has once again been thrown into uncertainty.

In a surprise move, the Department of Justice announced that it would not further pursue an appeal of a ruling by U.S. District Court Judge Reed O’Connor, and instead asked the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to affirm the decision he made in December 2018.

O’Connor had ruled that Congress eliminating the penalty for not complying with the law’s individual mandate had in fact made the entire law invalid.

But, even though the DOJ won’t be pursuing defense of the law and challenging the ruling on appeal, a number of states’ attorneys general have stepped up to fight the ruling.

What this means for the future of the employer mandate is unclear, as the court process still has a long way to go. The ruling could be overturned on appeal and invariably whatever the 5th Circuit decides, the case will likely be appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Already there has been fallout in the private health insurance market since the individual mandate penalty was eliminated, but the employer mandate, which requires that organizations with 50 or more full-time or full-time-equivalent workers offer health coverage to their employees, remains intact.

As the case winds on, it will be some time before anything changes. The 5th Circuit has not yet scheduled arguments. The DOJ has asked for a hearing date for July 8, and Democratic states’ attorneys general agreed.

Despite the DOJ’s announcement, the law stands and applicable large employers must continue complying with its requirements.

Analysis

The move was surprising because in the past President Trump had signaled that he wanted to keep parts of the ACA, particularly the barring of insurers from denying coverage based on pre-existing conditions. If the entire law is scrapped, so will that facet – as well as other popular provisions, like allowing adult children to stay on their parents’ policy until the age of 26.

Trump said his administration has a plan for something much better to replace the ACA.

Democrats have introduced some legislation to try to stabilize markets and improve on some ACA shortfalls. Their legislation aims to cut premiums for individuals buying on exchanges by expanding premium tax credits. Another bill would reaffirm the pre-existing condition protections, and restore enrollment outreach resources, which have been cut back under the Trump administration.

But with a divided Congress, the likelihood of anything reaching Trump’s desk are slim to none.

Meanwhile, the success of the ACA has been spotty. In some parts of the country, usually in areas with high population density, competition among plans ensures lower prices for people shopping on exchanges. But in smaller regions, cost increases are rampant.

A new analysis by the Urban Institute, a liberal-leaning think-tank, finds that more than half (271) of the country’s 498 rating regions have only one or two insurers participating in the ACA marketplace. Those regions are disproportionately in sparsely populated areas.

Regions with little competition tend to have much higher premiums. In a region with only one insurer, the median benchmark plan for a 40-year-old nonsmoker is $592 a month. That compares to $376 for the same consumer in a region with at least five plans.

Regulators Take Steps to Help Grandfathered Plans

Regulators are in the early stages of creating rules that make it easier for health plans that were grandfathered in before the Affordable Care Act took effect to continue providing coverage.

The number of workers enrolled in plans that were in effect before the ACA was enacted in 2010 has been shrinking, and as of 2018, some 16% of American workers who were enrolled in group health plans were in grandfathered plans.

Under the ACA, those plans do not have to abide by the same regulations as plans that took effect after the law’s implementation.

In February 2019, the Internal Revenue Service, the Employee Benefits Security Administration and the Health and Human Services Department issued a request for information from grandfathered plans. The goal is to determine whether there are opportunities for the regulators to assist plans to preserve their grandfathered status in ways that would benefit employers, employees, and their families.

While the effort will only affect a small amount of employer-sponsored plans, the move is significant as it looks like the ultimate goal is to further loosen rules for grandfathered plans.

A plan is considered grandfathered under the ACA if it has continuously provided coverage for someone (not necessarily the same person, but at all times at least one person) since March 23, 2010 and if it has not ceased to be a grandfathered plan during that time.

Grandfathered plans have certain privileges that other group health plans that were created after that date do not have, as the latter are all required to comply with all of the rules under the ACA.

Under the ACA, grandfathered plans do not have to comply with certain provisions of the law.

These provisions include coverage of preventive health services and patient protections (for example, guaranteed access to OB-GYNs and pediatricians).

Other ACA provisions apply to grandfathered plans, such as the ACA’s waiting period limit.

Grandfathered status

Grandfathered health plans may make routine changes to their coverage and maintain their status.

However, plans lose their grandfathered status if they choose to make significant changes that reduce benefits or increase costs for participants.

Some of the questions that the three departments are asking plan administrators are:

  • What actions could the departments take to assist group health plan sponsors and group health insurance issuers to preserve the grandfathered status of a group health plan or coverage?
  • What challenges do health plans and sponsors face regarding retaining the grandfathered status of a plan or coverage?
  • What are your primary reasons for retaining grandfathered status?
  • What are the reasons for participants and beneficiaries remaining enrolled in grandfathered group health plans if alternatives are available?
  • What are the costs, benefits and other factors when considering whether to retain grandfathered status?
  • Is preserving grandfathered status important to group health plan participants and beneficiaries? If so, why?

Responses to the request for information were due March 27.

Despite Ruling That ACA Is Invalid, the Law Stands for Employers

A ruling by a U.S. District Court judge in December 2018 that the Affordable Care Act is unconstitutional is not expected to stand but, if it does, the moves that have been made in the health insurance space to reduce costs, deliver better care outcomes and make the system more efficient would be expected to stay.

For those employers that were offering health coverage to their employees before the ACA and have continued since, the marketplace dynamics would likely not change much if the ruling were not overturned on appeal.

Additionally, since there has been some success in the employer-sponsored health care space in keeping cost inflation relatively tame, there would likely be no incentive for health insurers and providers to abandon those efforts.

The more likely outcome is that a higher court (and eventually likely the U.S. Supreme Court) overturns U.S. District Judge Reed O’Connor’s ruling that because Congress eliminated the individual mandate portion of the ACA, the rest of the law is also invalid and cannot stand. That means all aspects of the law, including health care exchanges, the employer mandate, and the requirement that policies cover 10 essential benefits, and much more. The individual mandate was repealed at the end of 2017.

Several states such as Massachusetts, New York and California have since intervened to defend the law. They argue that, if Congress wanted to repeal it, it would have done so. The Congressional record makes it clear Congress was voting only to eliminate the individual mandate penalty in 2019; it indicates that they did not intend to strike down the entire ACA.

The original lawsuit against the ACA was brought by 20 attorneys general from Republican states, and now 17 attorneys general led by California’s Xavier Becerra have filed a notice of appeal with the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans.

Interestingly, the Trump administration filed a brief early in 2018 encouraging the court to uphold the ACA but strike down the provisions relating to guaranteed issue and community rating.

There have been more than 70 attempts to invalidate the ACA in courts across the country, and two of those cases made it to the Supreme Court. The last time the ACA was upheld was in 2012 and all five justices who voted at that time to uphold the law are still on the bench today.

Additionally, the ACA is an extremely expansive piece of legislation, which has been on the books since 2010. Legal pundits say it’s unlikely the Supreme Court would want to strike down a law that affects millions of people in the country. In fact, because of this the court may decide not even to take up the case if the 5th Circuit has overturned O’Connor’s ruling.

Employer effects

While this case is under appeal the law will stand, meaning that all parts of it, except the individual mandate, will remain. That means all employers who are considered “applicable large employers” under the ACA, will be required to continue offering health insurance to their workers.

If you are one of them, you need to continue complying with the law of the land as it stands. And remember, while Congress eliminated the penalties associated with not complying with the individual mandate, the penalties for not complying with the employer mandate are still very much in place. Fines can be severe for non-compliance.

This ruling is not expected to affect those penalties, reporting requirements, or any other applicable ACA requirement at this time.