How to Handle Group Health Coverage for Laid-off, Furloughed Staff

As the COVID-19 pandemic wears on, many employers have had to lay off or furlough staff due to a tremendous drop-off in business. Besides the loss of income they face, these workers will often also lose their employer-sponsored health insurance.

With this in mind, many employers have been wondering if they can permit coverage to continue during the time the staff is temporarily laid off or furloughed due to the COVID-19 outbreak. If you are looking at options for keeping these employees on your group plan, you’ll need to read your policy to see if it’s possible and explore all of your options.

The options

Most group health plans will define what constitutes an eligible employee. Typical requirements include working at least 30 hours a week. The policy may also address how long an employee can be absent from work before they lose eligibility for the plan. Some policies allow coverage to continue for a furloughed employee, but not for someone who is laid off.

Another option is to approach your group health plan provider and ask them to amend policy language to allow for laid-off or furloughed staff to continue coverage. If your policy doesn’t address these workers or prohibits keeping them on the plan, you will need to approach the insurance company about this.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, several states have issued orders requiring or encouraging insurers to let employers make changes to their eligibility requirements.

Some states have extended grace periods to give employers and workers more time to make their premium payments if they are under financial duress. You can check with your state’s insurance department to see what accommodations are available.

If you maintain health insurance for furloughed employees, you need to decide if you will require them to continue paying for their share of the premium. Some employers allow employees to defer their contribution until they are working again.

Whatever you decide, you will need to have the appropriate documentation and administrative procedures in place.

COBRA and exchanges

Most employers who have staff they cannot keep on the group health plan, will be required to offer them and their covered beneficiaries continuation coverage through COBRA.

But COBRA can be expensive, and most workers are better off purchasing coverage on an Affordable Care Act insurance exchange. 

They can qualify for a premium tax credit if they have seen their income fall or disappear, and shop for a plan that will likely cost them less than COBRA continuation coverage. If any employee is laid off, they qualify for a special enrollment period to sign up on the exchanges.

Additionally, about a dozen states have also opened up special enrollment periods during the coronavirus crisis for people who are suddenly uninsured to sign up for coverage.

The dangers

Whatever you do, you should not try to game the system by continuing to keep laid-off or furloughed staff on the group health plan if the plan prohibits it. Some of the risks you would face include:

  • Your plan potentially losing its tax-exempt status (health benefits are usually not taxed). This would cause both you and your employees to potentially be saddled with back taxes.
  • The insurance company could deny claims for employees it determines were ineligible to participate in the plan.
  • COBRA violations, in particular for failing to send out notices to laid-off staff who are no longer eligible for the group plan.
  • A possible fiduciary breach under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act) if plan assets were used to pay for benefits of non-eligible individuals.

Getting a Head Start on Open Enrollment

As open enrollment is right around the corner, now is the time to gear up to maximize employee enrollment, help them make the best selections for their own personal circumstances, and stay compliant with relevant laws and regulations.

It’s a lot to take in as uncertainty has been a constant during the last many years with the onset of the Affordable Care Act, and now that its future is hazy at best.

Still, since health coverage and other employee benefits are an important part of your compensation package – and your competitive edge for talent – it’s important that you get it right.

Here are some pointers to make open enrollment fruitful for your staff and your organization.

Review what you did last year

Review the results of the previous year’s open enrollment efforts to make sure the process and the perks remain relevant and useful to workers. How effective were various approaches and communication channels, and did people give any feedback about the process itself?

Start early with notifications

You should give your employees notice at least a month before open enrollment to let them know it’s coming, as well as provide them with information on the various plans you are offering. Encourage them to read the information and come to your human resources point person with questions.

Help them sort through plans

You should be able to help them figure out which plan features fit their needs, and how much the plans will cost them out of their paycheck. Use technology to your advantage, particularly any registration portal that your plan provider offers. Provide a single landing page for all enrollment applications.

That said, you should hold meetings on the plans and also put notices in your employees’ paycheck envelopes.

Plan materials

Communicate to your staff any changes to a health plan’s benefits for the 2019 plan year through an updated summary plan description or a summary of material modifications.

Confirm that their open enrollment materials contain certain required participant notices, when applicable – such as the summary of benefits and coverage.

Check grandfathered status

A grandfathered plan is one that was in existence when the ACA was enacted on March 23, 2010 and is thus exempt from some of the law’s requirements. If you make certain changes to your plan that go beyond permitted guidelines, the plan is no longer grandfathered.

If you have a grandfathered plan, talk to us to confirm whether it will maintain its grandfathered status for the 2019 plan year. If it is, you must notify your employees of the plan status. If it’s not, you need to confirm with us that your plan comports with the ACA in terms of benefits offered.

ACA affordability standard

Under the ACA’s employer shared responsibility rules, applicable large employers must offer “affordable” plans, based on a percentage of the employee’s household income. For plan years that begin on or after Jan. 1, 2019, the affordability percentage is 9.86% of household income. At least one of your plans must meet this threshold.

Out-of-pocket maximum

The ACA’s out-of-pocket maximum applies to all non-grandfathered group health plans. The limit for 2019 plans is $7,900 for self-only coverage and $15,800 for family coverage.

Make sure your plan is in line with these figures.

Other notices

Consider also including the following notices:

  • Initial COBRA notice
  • HIPAA notice. This may be included in the plan’s summary plan description
  • Notice of HIPAA special enrollment rights
  • HIPAA privacy notice
  • Summary plan description
  • Medicare Part D notices
Get spouses involved

Benefits enrollment is a family affair, so getting spouses involved is critical. You should encourage your employees to share the health plan information with their spouses so they can make informed decisions on their health insurance together.

Also, encourage any spouses who have questions to schedule an appointment to get questions answered.