More Employers Ask Workers to Sign COVID-19 Waivers, But They May Not Be Legal

As lawsuits against employers continue rising amid the coronavirus pandemic, some businesses are requiring workers to sign waivers absolving them of liability and responsibility should they contract the virus.

Eight percent of executives surveyed by law firm Blank Rome said they would require that their workers sign waivers of liability before returning to the workplace.

While employers are trying to protect themselves from a liability that didn’t even exist a year ago, some human resources legal experts have expressed concerns that they may not be necessary ― and may be unenforceable.

The moves come as employers are wrestling with numerous risks that the pandemic has wrought, and with the U.S. Senate having proposed legislation that would limit the liability of employers for workers who become sick during the pandemic. A number of states have also enacted laws or emergency regulations that make it harder for employees to sue employers for negligence over COVID-19.

COVID-19-spurred employee lawsuits have mostly centered on employers not providing the proper protections for workers, discrimination or for being laid off for refusing to come to work.

Legal experts caution that employers cannot require workers to waive rights they may have, such as access to workers’ compensation benefits or the right to file a complaint with OSHA.

They also say that some employers may consider waivers as a green light to not take precautions against COVID-19, but in such cases the waivers would likely not be legal.

If a worker claims they caught COVID-19 at work and the facts back that up, they would likely have access to workers’ compensation benefits (some states even require it). But if the employer was negligent, the employee could have further legal avenues to pursue besides workers’ compensation, rights that cannot legally be waived, lawyers say.

So even if an employee were to sign a document waiving their right to file a complaint if they feel their employer is being negligent, they may still have recourse.

Requiring workers to sign waivers could present a number of legal issues, according to the law website nolo.com, including:

  • Courts in some states are reluctant to enforce liability waivers in the workplace because of the superior bargaining power of employers over their staff.
  • Workplace morale could suffer if your employees think you are placing your own economic interests above workplace safety.
  • Any waiver employees sign would not protect your firm from lawsuits filed by their families should they contract COVID-19 if staff are infected at work.
  • A waiver might be unnecessary in states that have passed laws granting immunity to employers for claims made by workers infected with the virus.

Another option

While employees who refuse to sign a waiver of their company’s liability may have grounds to challenge their employer, some liability lawyers say that employers instead of a waiver can ask their staff to sign a social contract that requires:

  • The employer to follow Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines and take all necessary precautions to prevent the spread of COVID-19 at work, and
  • The workers to comply with their employer’s requirements on mandates on wearing masks, social distancing and not coming to work if they have symptoms or of they think they have been exposed to someone with COVID-19. 

This type of agreement won’t protect an employer from a lawsuit, but it does spell out that they are following authorities’ recommendation for protecting employees.

While employees who refuse to sign a waiver of their company’s liability could have grounds to sue, those who sign this type of acknowledgment of new workplace rules and government guidance are less likely to be successful if they are fired for not signing. This is because the acknowledgment is not forcing them to give up any of their rights and is rather for their and their co-workers’ protection. 

These social contracts also would provide workers with a list of their responsibilities when working during the COVID-19 pandemic, and outline what their employer is doing to protect them.

Preparing for Open Enrollment During the Pandemic

With the coronavirus showing no signs of slowing, health insurance is likely top of mind for your employees. Many of them will be anxious and it’s likely that they will be more engaged and interested in understanding whether their current coverage is sufficient should they be stricken by the virus.

Not only that, but due to social distancing and with many employees working remotely, employers will need to adjust their open enrollment procedures to make sure they are safe, efficient and a success for both them and their employees.

This year in particular, it’s important that you use a multi-pronged approach that keeps everyone informed and safe.

Comprehensive and simple communications

When you are informing your staff about their benefits and open enrollment procedures, make sure you keep things simple. Don’t delve into too many details that are likely to confuse them, but explain the bigger picture and direct them to other documents and information for the detail.

When explaining the benefits and procedures, don’t get bogged down in insurance jargon. Use everyday language, charts, graphs or infographics, checklists and other tools that make absorbing the information easier.

Use many communication media

Many workplaces are multi-generational and different generations prefer different modes of communication, particularly if you have employees who are working remotely due to the pandemic

To make sure you can reach all of your workforce, blast them information using a number of media. And follow up with phone calls to remote staff that don’t respond.

E-mails and e-mail newsletters

E-mails are an excellent way to communicate important information to employees, and to gather information on what they are opening, reading and forwarding.

You can inform them about open enrollment, provide them documentation on the plan offerings and inform them of upcoming web meetings and other important enrollment information.

Web meetings

Hold webinar meetings with videoconferencing to inform your staff about their benefit choices and what, if any, changes are being made to plans going into the new year.

You should focus on the main topics:  

  • Any increases in health plan premiums,
  • Plan changes like deductibles, out-of-pocket maximums, copays, and more,
  • Network changes,
  • New offerings, and
  • Resources to help your workers choose the right plan.

There will likely be many queries about COVID-19 coverage, so be prepared to answer related questions.

During these web meetings, encourage your staff to ask questions and get answers. Record the meeting for employees that are unable to make it, so they can view it on their own time.

You should require all of your staff to either participate in the actual meeting or view the meeting. Set up a virtual sign-up for them to confirm they attended and received all the information.

Offer benefit support

Not everyone is going to be able to wrap their noodle around everything you went over during the web meeting. And plan documents can sometimes be daunting and confusing to someone who is not experienced in your system or is new to the workforce. 

Additionally, some of your staff may have questions they are not comfortable asking during a group meeting and that would be more appropriately directed at a benefit counselor. This way, they can talk to someone who can guide them in choosing the right plan for them.

Don’t forget text messaging

Since most everyone has a smartphone on their person or nearby at all times these days, sending them text messages is a sure-fire way to get in front of them.

Use texting to notify staff about open enrollment dates, resources about their benefits, upcoming benefit meetings, contact resources, how to access the enrollment and benefit portal, and who to call for assistance.

Company intranet, enrollment portal

Post all of your open enrollment information on your company intranet if you have one, including links to the open enrollment portal. Every time you communicate with your staff, include the link to the open enrollment information.

This page should have all of your enrollment information, including start and end dates, links or pdfs of all plan benefit guides and plan summaries, contact information of key personal and benefit counselors, as well as all other resources they will need to choose their health plan.

The takeaway

By employing a mixture of all of the above strategies, you can conduct a safe and informative open enrollment that can help your staff choose their plan wisely and also feel comfortable about not catching COVID-19 during the process.

A Primer on Changes to 2021 Group Health Plans

While most business owners and executives have been fretting about the COVID-19 pandemic and the effects on the economy and the survival of their business, now is a good time to conduct a review of group health plans in light of changes and new rules for 2021.

Here are some of the main changes that you should consider ahead of the new year:

Out-of-pocket limits – The out-of-pocket limit amounts for 2021 are:

  • $8,550 for self-only coverage.
  • $17,100 for family coverage.

For HSA-compatible high-deductible health plans, the out-of-pocket limits for HDHPs with attached health savings accounts for 2021 are:

  • $$7,000 for self-only coverage
  • $14,000 for family coverage.

New preventative care recommendations

ACA-compliant health plans are required to cover preventative care services with no out-of-pocket costs, and new ones that become effective in 2020 and 2021 include:

  • Perinatal depression prevention.
  • HIV prevention pill for healthy people at risk.
  • Updated recommendation for prevention of BRCA 1 and 2-related cancer.
  • Updated recommendation for breast cancer: medication use to reduce risk.
  • Updated recommendation for hepatitis screening.
  • Updated recommendation for screening for unhealthy drug use in adults.

Flexible spending accounts

This year, the IRS issued a notice that increased the maximum allowable amount of unused funds at year end in FSAs that can be carried over to the next year.

The notice increases the maximum $500 carryover amount for 2020 or later years to an amount equal to 20% of the maximum health FSA salary reduction contribution for that plan year. That means the health FSA maximum carryover from a plan year starting in calendar year 2020 to a new plan year starting in calendar year 2021 is $550.

Additionally, the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES Act) allows employers to remove restrictions that funds in FSAs, health reimbursement accounts and HSAs cannot be used for over-the-counter medications.  This is not a requirement that employers relax this rule for their FSA plans, but it allows them to choose to do so.

Summary of benefits and coverage

There are new Summary of Benefits and Coverage (SBC) materials and supporting documents that must be used for all plans that incept on or after Jan. 1, 2021.

Please remember that any changes to benefits in your group plan must be reflected in the SBC plan document and summary plan description.

The takeaway

2021 is fast approaching and with all the chaos of 2020, it would be wise to get a head start on understanding changes in store for the plans you offer. This would benefit both you and your employees.

Insurers Don’t Have to Pay for Testing Returning Workers: HHS

New guidance from the Trump administration absolves insurers of the responsibility of paying for COVID-19 tests that are required for workers who are returning to the job.

The guidance, released by the departments of Health and Human Services, Labor and Treasury, means that employers will likely either have to foot the bill themselves as they screen workers during the pandemic or pass those costs on to their workers. But in states that require employers to test workers, passing testing costs on to staff is usually not an option.

There had been some confusion about who would pay for the tests after the Families First Coronavirus Response Act required insurers to cover COVID-19 tests without patient cost-sharing. The new guidance has added a new caveat to that rule: that insurers cannot require health plan enrollees to pay for the test if it is deemed “medically appropriate” by a health care provider.

“Testing conducted to screen for general workplace health and safety (such as employee “return to work” programs), for public health surveillance for SARS-CoV-2, or for any other purpose not primarily intended for individualized diagnosis or treatment of COVID-19 or another health condition, is beyond the scope of section 6001 of the [Families First Coronavirus Response Act],” the guidance states.

Resistance from advocacy groups

The guidance was met with resistance from employer and consumer groups, with the advocacy group Families USA arguing that the nation’s workers should not be saddled with additional costs during these economically uncertain times.

Employers can require employees to be tested before returning to work, but the Pacific Business Group on Health said it would be highly unusual for a large employer to require testing for employees without paying for the tests in full.

Democrats have asked the administration to withdraw the guidance, but the White House has said it won’t and that it would like to see Congress come up with a solution in its next economic stimulus package for the coronavirus pandemic.

The HHS has said that states should use the $10.25 billion that lawmakers appropriated for testing to help pay for tests of returning workers.

Insurance companies may opt to pay for such tests anyway, as a precautionary measure. America’s Health Insurance Plans, however, is calling on more government support to cover the costs, which it says could be between $6 billion and $25 billion annually.

Testing Workers for COVID-19 Raises Privacy, Discrimination Issues

Employers whose businesses continue to operate are obviously concerned about the coronavirus spreading through their worksites, so many have started testing their workers.

Recent U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission guidance authorized employers to conduct COVID-19 testing and check temperatures of employees. But doing so could expose a business to a number of employee legal actions from invasion of privacy to discrimination and wage and hour charges, say employment law attorneys.

While the EEOC guidance refers to existing Americans with Disabilities Act regulations requiring that any mandatory medical test of employees be “job related and consistent with business necessity,” it left many questions unanswered.

So, if you decide to start testing workers, you will have to navigate a number of issues, such as:

  • Which tests are appropriate?
  • What are the standards for protecting workers’ privacy?
  • Should employees be paid for the time they wait in line to be tested?
  • Should you get written consent?
  • How will you ensure that the policy is applied consistently?

Employment law experts say there is often a surge in employee lawsuits when new rules or guidance are being issued, and more so with such a sensitive issue as one’s health during a pandemic. 

 The kinds of claims that employers may see as a result of employee testing include:

  • Invasion of privacy
  • Failure to protect employees’ personal health information
  • Discrimination
  • Retaliation
  • Wage and hour actions if waiting for testing takes time.

What you can do

Typically, employers would not be allowed to test a worker’s temperature for a specific disease, but these are unusual times and the threat of infection is too great.

Most lawyers are interpreting the EEOC guidance as meaning that employers may take steps to determine whether employees entering the workplace have COVID-19 because an individual with the coronavirus will pose a direct threat to the health of others. Therefore, an employer may choose to administer COVID-19 testing to employees before they enter the workplace to determine if they have the virus. 

To cover your bases, you should plan your testing in detail, including:

  • How you will be conducting tests (providing at-home test swab kits, testing upon arrival, or offsite).
  • Designate a person who is authorized to conduct tests.
  • Document how you will be administering tests.
  • Plan for how you will account for false positives or false negatives.
  • Decide how often should you be testing.
  • Budget for the testing.
  • What will you do if a worker tests positive or has a fever (if you are just checking temperatures)?
  • Don’t have exceptions to the policy or, if you do, keep them to a minimum. The more exceptions to a policy, the more likely you are to be sued.
  • The policy should comply with guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, such as using non-contact thermometers and ensuring social distancing during the process.

Insurance

The risk of being sued when administering testing is real and you should do everything you can to make sure it’s carried out fairly and consistently. But even if you do everything by the book, you can still be sued.

During bad economic times when people are losing their jobs, employee lawsuits tend to rise and, even if you are eventually found to have acted within the confines of the law, you still have to pay the legal fees.

One type of policy that could step in to protect you is employment practices liability insurance. EPLI will cover awards and legal costs in employee-initiated lawsuits. Each policy is different though, so it’s best to consult with us first.

If you are testing or are considering testing your staff, you may want to consider it.

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.

COVID-19 Changes to Health Plans Must Be Documented, Circulated

A number of plan sponsors have made changes to their group health plans in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, such as covering testing and sometimes treatment without any cost-sharing by the plan enrollee.

But any changes that are made must be followed up by amending the plan and communicating the changes to the enrollees.

Under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act, all health plans are required to deliver a Summary Plan Description (SPD) to enrollees to inform them of the full spectrum of coverage and their rights under the plan.

Whenever a plan sponsor makes a material modification to the terms of the plan or the information required to be in an SPD, they must amend the plan and let participants know about the change through a Summary of Material Modification (SMM).

Material changes

To qualify as “material,” a change must be important to plan enrollees. Examples include adding or eliminating a benefit, changing insurance companies, or changing rules for dependent eligibility.

Plan changes related to the COVID-19 pandemic that would have to be included in the SMM and SPD could include:

  • Offering continuing coverage to staff who would otherwise lose coverage due to a furlough, layoff or reduction of hours.
  • Changing eligibility terms to allow workers who may not have been eligible for coverage before to secure coverage (this could include part-time workers).
  • Covering a larger portion of an employee’s premium share.
  • Adding an employee assistance program to provide counseling for workers who may be undergoing unusual stress.
  • Adding telemedicine coverage.
  • Using funds in health savings accounts (HSAs) and flexible spending accounts (FSAs) to purchase over-the-counter medications.
  • Covering COVID-19 testing with no cost-sharing. 
  • Covering COVID-19 treatment without cost-sharing.

Some of the above changes are required by new laws and health plans must respond accordingly by changing their SMMs and SPDs. For example, the Families First Coronavirus Response Act requires that group health insurance and individual health insurance plans cover coronavirus testing with zero cost-sharing.

And the Coronavirus Aid, Recover and Economic Stabilization Act reverses an Affordable Care Act rule that barred policyholders from using funds in HSAs and FSAs to pay for over-the-counter medications. 

When the plan sponsor adopts these changes, it must also amend its plan summaries.

And SMMs must be delivered to plan participants within 60 days after a change has been adopted. You can deliver the SMM by mail, e-mail or posting it on your company’s intranet site. It’s recommended at this time that you opt for e-mail delivery.

One of the issues that may come up with any changes implemented in response to the COVID-19 outbreak is that some of the changes may be temporary. 

If that’s the case, the plan needs to include the termination date of any benefits that are adopted on a temporary basis.

However, if you don’t know how long the temporary benefits will be in effect, their temporary nature must be communicated in the SMM. Employers need to issue another SMM when the temporary benefit or coverage term ends.

The takeaway

This is an unusual time and unusual times call for unusual measures. It’s unusual for changes to be made to a plan in the middle of a plan year but because of the way the pandemic crash-landed, many plan sponsors have had to make changes. 

That said, you should work with us and your carrier on ensuring that the amended documents are sent out to staff.

As the employer, you should be aware of all the changes that have been made in response to COVID-19 so you can discuss them with any employees that have concerns or questions.

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.

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.

What COVID-19 Services Your Health Plan May Cover

Under two new laws new laws that took effect in March, all health plans must cover testing, preventative services and vaccines for COVID-19 without cost-sharing.

The Families First Coronavirus Response Act requires that group health insurance and individual health insurance plans cover coronavirus testing with zero cost-sharing. This includes deductibles, copayments and coinsurance for items and services provided during a provider visit, whether it is in-person, telehealth-enabled, at an urgent care center, or in an emergency room.

It also waives prior authorization and other “medical management requirements.”

That law was followed up 10 days later by the CARES Act, which requires group plans and individual market plans to cover preventative services and vaccines for COVID-19 without cost-sharing. The coverage applies both to the test itself and to the visit in which the test was administered.

Unfortunately, neither law requires that health plans cover COVID-19 treatment, which would include medication and in-hospital services if you or a member of your family needed to be hospitalized.

Telehealth services

The CARES Act greatly expands the availability of telehealth services beyond diagnosis and treatment for COVID-19 in order to expand access to care. 

As part of the law, the Federal Communications Commission will receive $200 million to provide telecommunications and information services and devices.

Also, restrictions on health savings accounts have been waived to allow high-deductible health plans to cover telehealth services without a deductible. 

The CARES Act also removes the existing requirement that a Medicare beneficiary have a pre-existing patient/provider relationship in order to be treated through telehealth.

The new law also authorizes federally qualified health centers and rural health clinics to be sites for telehealth consultations, and it enhances payments for such telehealth services provided during the emergency period.

The mandate that a number of Medicare services require face-to-face meetings (such as home dialysis patients, home health, and hospice care) has been waived for the duration of the outbreak. The CARES Act also appropriates $25 million for telemedicine and distance learning in rural areas. 

Beware of treatment costs

While most private health plans likely cover most items and services needed to treat complications due to COVID-19, there is no clear federal requirement to do so.

The essential health benefits standard under the ACA defines categories of services to be covered, but it is left to states to designate “benchmark” policies that define specific covered services.

As a result, coverage for at least some services needed to treat COVID-19 ― such as home-delivered care, telemedicine visits, or respiratory therapy visits ― are likely to vary under health insurance plans that are subject to the essential health benefits standard.

Nearly all private health plans use networks of participating hospitals, doctors, laboratories and other providers.

One issue that health plan enrollees have to watch out for is going out of network for coronavirus testing or care.

HMOs, for example, could deny claims for out-of-network services, other than emergency services. Under PPO plans that provide some coverage for out-of-network care, patients can face higher cost-sharing (e.g., patients might be required to pay 20% coinsurance for in-network claims and 50% coinsurance for out-of-network claims.)

In addition, out-of-network care exposes patients to “balance billing,” or the difference between the provider’s undiscounted charge and the amount the health plan considers reasonable. If you are seeking care, make sure you are going to an in-network provider to avoid any undue surprises.