Employees Pick Perks and Benefits Over Pay Raises

Great perks and incentives packages can help attract top-notch talent, maintain employee morale and improve overall engagement and satisfaction with a company.

The coronavirus pandemic has made perks and benefits even more important, particularly in light of so many workers feeling burned out, stressed from working at home or feeling isolated due to closures and shelter-at-home orders.

Recently, retailer Staples surveyed 1,549 employees across the U.S. about their preferences for work perks, asking them to rate how various benefits affected their motivation and if they preferred perks over higher salaries ?and which benefits were most important to them when looking for work.

One of the major perks that employees have coveted in past surveys is the ability to work from home. Well, the coronavirus pandemic has suddenly thrust many workers into that position. But what other benefits and perks do workers look for in an employer?

Perks defined

Employee benefits and perks are a non-wage supplement to salaries and include, among other things:

  • Lifestyle/entertainment perks, such as Netflix/Spotify subscriptions, free coffee and snacks at work, or employee discounts.
  • Continuing education perks, such as tuition reimbursement, student loan repayment, or financial support for receiving professional certifications.
  • Health and fitness benefits, such as gym membership reimbursements, on-site fitness facilities or nutrition classes.
  • Workplace flexibility perks, such as flexible hours, commuter benefits or the ability to work remotely on a regular basis.
  • Family-focused/childcare perks, such as daycare reimbursement or paid family leave.

What is the overall best way to improve employee morale?

  • Higher base salary (37% of respondents)
  • More workplace perks (22%)
  • Performance-based raises (21%)
  • Recognition from supervisors (9%)
  • Team-building initiatives (4%)
  • Requesting employee feedback (4%)
  • Spontaneous holidays (2%)

Must-have perks and benefits:

  • Flexible hours (40% of respondents)
  • Paid health insurance premiums (34%)
  • Paid family leave (29%)
  • Regular remote work (26%)
  • Financial assistance with professional certifications (26%)

Perks and benefits employees deem nice to have, but not essential:

  • Employee discounts (43% of respondents)
  • Free coffee and snacks (42%)
  • Streaming-TV subscriptions (42%)
  • Gym membership reimbursement (35%)
  • Onsite fitness classes (30%)
  • Company car, laptop or phone (30%)

The takeaway

If you are considering expanding your perks and benefits, to attract or retain staff or motivate workers, don’t forget the following before deciding:

  • Four out of five employees feel that workplace flexibility options are the most important employee perk category.
  • Perks that employees say are “must have” include flexible hours, paid insurance premiums, and paid family leave.
  • Because the Staples survey found that half of employees prefer higher salaries while the other half wants more perks, consider polling your workers before making a change.
  • 62% of employees would accept a lower salary in exchange for better workplace perks.

Protecting Your Firm from Employee Benefit Lawsuits

Employment practices and employee benefit-related lawsuits are on the rise – and employers have to be eternally vigilant when it comes to meeting their compliance obligations as plan sponsors.

Take the case of Visteon, a global automotive industry supplier, which outsourced its payroll and enrollment/disenrollment functions to outside plan administrators. 

But because of internal mistakes at the firms that Visteon outsourced these noncore HR functions to, some of its former employees who should have received COBRA eligibility notices after leaving the firm never received them. At first it was just a handful, but ultimately 741 co-workers signed on to a class-action lawsuit

Visteon argued in court that it was not its own mistakes that had caused the error, and that it had made a good-faith effort to hire outside experts to take over this function for them. Payroll and enrollment, after all, are not core competencies for an auto parts supplier, the company said, and it had been relying on the expertise of these other payroll companies to properly execute these functions and provide these notices.

The court didn’t buy Visteon’s argument. Rather, it held the company responsible in 2013 for poor internal tracking systems, negligence in overseeing its third party administrators, and failure to accept responsibility for its COBRA notification efforts.

That exposed them to the statutory penalty of $110 per worker per day for failure to provide notification.

In the end, for doing what tens of thousands of employers are doing nationwide – relying on third party administrators to handle payroll functions that are regulated under COBRA – Visteon was slapped with $1.8 million in penalties.

Employers are frequent lawsuit targets

As much as companies rely on their employees to generate profits, simply having them around and administering their benefit plans potentially exposes employers to significant possible liability.

According to a survey from insurer CNA, employment-related disputes are the fastest-growing category of civil lawsuits in America.

Employers face risk from the potential of lawsuits employees may bring for alleged failure to fulfill their fiduciary duties as sponsors of retirement plans under ERISA, for example, or for accidental or unauthorized leaks of personally identifiable information, which carries significant penalties under HIPAA.

Sponsors of defined contribution pension plans, such as 401(k)s, are particularly frequent targets of lawsuits for various fiduciary failures, errors or omissions.

Protecting your firm from legal action

So how can employers protect themselves against the potential costs of employee benefit-related litigation? You should:

  • Carefully monitor your plan third party administrators. Insist that they document their own compliance practices to you. Don’t take their word for it.
  • Reconcile your own lists of recently departed employees with your payroll company’s COBRA notifications.
  • Understand that your commercial general liability insurance policy usually will not cover you against liability arising from improper administration of employee benefit plans, ERISA, COBRA, USERRA, wage and hour laws, Title VII related lawsuits, and the like.
  • Consider employment practices liability insurance. This coverage will often protect against lawsuits like this and cover legal expenses, and even judgments.
  • Conduct regular reviews with advisers of investments in pension and 401(k) plans. Investments should be reviewed at least annually – and quarterly is not unusual.
  • Ensure that fees paid to 401(k) and other plan administrators are not excessive. You don’t have to go with the cheapest provider (that can be trouble, too). But if you do choose a higher-fee vendor, document why you made that decision so that you can show your reasoning in court and defend your decision-making as sound and prudent.
  • Invest in data security and HR compliance expertise.

How to Open Shop and Bring Staff Back to Work

If your business is preparing to open due to a relaxation of shelter-at-home orders, you should proceed with caution and make sure you have safeguards in place to protect your workers, as well as customers if they are entering your premises.

How can you take that first step back to a semblance of normalcy?

Here are some recommendations from the Los Angeles Department of Public Health and other sources that can apply to any municipality anywhere in the country. The advice mainly applies to establishments that will have customers, but most of the recommendations are relevant across a wide swath of sectors.

Measures to protect employees

  • If someone can continue working from home, let them do so.
  • Tell employees not to come to work if sick.
  • If any employee tests positive for, or has symptoms consistent with COVID-19, you should:

– Ask that they isolate themselves at home, and

– Ask all employees who have come in contact with that colleague to immediately self-quarantine at home.

  • Check employees for symptoms or a fever before they enter the workspace. This must include a check-in concerning cough, shortness of breath or fever and any other symptoms the employee may be experiencing.
    These checks can be done remotely or in person upon the employee’s arrival. A temperature check should be done at the worksite, if feasible.
  • Offer at no cost to your employees cloth face coverings if they are going to have contact with the public during their shift. If they are disposable, masks should be thrown away at the end of every shift. If they are reusable, they should be washed after every shift in hot water.
  • Instruct employees not to touch the exterior of their mask when removing and handling it.
  • Disinfect break rooms, restrooms and other common areas frequently.
  • Place hand sanitizer in strategic locations.
  • Allow employees to take frequent breaks to wash their hands.

Signage

Place signs at each public entrance of your facility to inform all employees and customers that they should:

  • Avoid entering the facility if they have a cough or fever.
  • Maintain a minimum 6-foot distance from one another.
  • Wear a mask for their own protection, as well as for the safety of others.

Controlling crowds, lines

Limit the number of customers in the store at any one time, to allow customers and employees to easily maintain at least 6-foot distance from one another at all practicable times.

Post an employee at the door to ensure the maximum number of customers in the facility is not exceeded. If people are queueing up, mark the ground outside the store to ensure proper social distancing.

If you have a restaurant, encourage people not to crowd and wait outside. Set up a system to alert people by cellphone when they are next.

Spacing between employees

  • Require employees to work at least 6 feet apart. You may need to reorganize your office or workstations to ensure proper spacing.
  • In jobs where workers are on their feet, you can mark spots on the floor where they should stand to ensure social distancing between your staff.
  • Social distancing in break rooms and supply areas (such as device charging stations and packaging supplies) may be addressed temporarily by spacing out tables, chairs and microwaves.
  • Another option is to use partitions made of plexiglass so workers can communicate and make eye contact.
  • In addition, you may want to abandon the popular open workspace concept and revert to using cubicles, which gained popularity in the 1980s and 1990s as a way to increase productivity by putting barriers between office workers. Having that divider will make your staff feel safer and can offer some protection.
  • Reconfigure furniture placement in offices, public seating areas and other non-warehouse or production areas to support physical distancing.

Cleaning and circulation

A recent research study that analyzed superspreading events showed that closed environments with minimal ventilation strongly contributed to a characteristically high number of secondary infections.

If you have fans or air conditioning units blowing, take steps to minimize air from fans blowing from one worker directly at another. Also consider opening windows to improve circulation.

Also important are:

  • Disinfecting frequently touched surfaces in workspaces, as well as doorknobs, buttons and controls. More frequent cleaning and disinfection may be required based on level of use.
  • Providing workers and customers with tissues and trash receptacles.
  • Employees who are cleaning and disinfecting should wear disposable gloves.
  • Cleaning surfaces using soap and water, then using disinfectant.
  • Sanitizing any other personal protective equipment such as hardhats after every shift.

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.

High-Deductible Plans Saddling Workers with Bigger Drug Outlays

A new study has found that high-deductible plans and increased use of coinsurance are exposing health plan enrollees to higher and higher pharmaceutical costs.

One of the big problems for many enrollees in high-deductible plans is that their outlays for drugs may not count towards their health plan deductibles and, if they are enrolled in separate pharmaceutical plans, they may have to pay the full list price until they meet their drug deductible, according to the “2019 Kaiser Family Foundation Employer Health Benefits Survey.”

The report warns of a growing crisis for American workers, more and more of whom are struggling with their health expenditures, be they premiums, deductibles, copays and/or coinsurance.

Workers in small firms face relatively high deductibles for single coverage and many also are saddled with significant premiums if they choose family coverage, according to the study.

The cost of group health insurance is growing at about 4% to 5% a year, reaching $7,188 for single coverage in 2019 and $20,576 for family coverage.

Workers in small firms on average contribute 16% of the premium for single coverage, compared with workers at large firms (19%), according to the report. But small-firm employees contribute 40% on average for family coverage, compared to 26% for staff at larger firms.

That said, 35% of covered workers in small firms are in a plan where they must contribute more than one-half of the premium for family coverage, compared to 6% of covered workers in large firms.

But premium contributions are only part of the story. Eighty-two percent of covered workers have a general annual deductible for single coverage that must be met before most services are paid for by the plan, and that average deductible amount is $1,655. But, the average annual deductible among covered workers with a deductible has increased 36% over the last five years, and by 100% over the last 10 years.

The hidden cost-driver

With all this as a backdrop, the cost of prescription drugs is one of the largest challenges facing group health plan enrollees, especially those who are enrolled in high-deductible health plans, whose out-of-pocket expenses for pharmaceuticals can be especially burdensome. It is the hidden cost-driver in the system.

The Kaiser survey found that about 90% of covered workers are enrolled in plans where the health plan deductible must be met before prescription drugs are covered. But, this number has been shrinking as group coverage pricing increases and employers shift more of the cost burden to employees.

There are a few ways that employees are taking on a significant load with their drug expenditures:

  • First, more workers are enrolled in plans that carve out prescription drugs, meaning that their expenditures on medication do not count towards satisfying their health plan deductibles. About 13% of employees are enrolled in a plan with a separate annual deductible that applies only to prescription drugs.
  • Many people with workers face out-of-pocket costs linked to prescription list prices regardless of the actual net, post-rebate costs. That’s because coinsurance percentages are computed based on the price negotiated between the pharmacy and the plan or pharmacy benefit manager. These negotiated prices are typically close to list prices.

    Even worse, patients pay the entire negotiated price when they are within a deductible and do not enjoy the benefits of rebates that the PBM may have negotiated with drug makers. Patients with these benefit designs do not benefit from rebates, though major brand-name drug makers sell their products at half of the list prices.
  • In the past, health plans had two- or three-tier benefit designs for drugs, mostly for generics and brand-name drugs, with lower copays and coinsurance for the lowest-tier medicines. But as prices have started increasing, many plans have four tiers and sometimes five (the specialty tier).

    The disappearance of two- and three-tier benefit designs have made out-of-pocket expenses especially high for specialty drugs. Plans place therapies for such chronic, complex illnesses as cancer, rheumatoid arthritis, multiple sclerosis and HIV on the fourth and specialty tiers of benefit plan, for which the enrollee has to pay a larger share.

Court Rules ACA Individual Mandate Unconstitutional

The U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals has upheld a lower court’s decision that the individual mandate portion of the Affordable Care Act is unconstitutional because the penalty was set to zero in 2017.

However, the fate of the entire law is still in play after the court remanded the question of whether that means the entire ACA should be declared void back down to the district court.

Proponents of abolishing the ACA say that its lack of a “severability provision” means that if any element of the ACA is found unconstitutional, the entire law must go. However, that would likely create chaos for the health insurance marketplace.

Two of the three judges on the court on December 18 upheld a lower court’s decision that the individual mandate is not constitutional because it cannot be construed as a tax.

The judges wrote: “The individual mandate is unconstitutional because it can no longer be read as a tax, and there is no other constitutional provision that justifies this exercise of congressional power. On the severability question, we remand to the district court to provide additional analysis of the provisions of the ACA as they currently exist.”

The decision prolongs the court process and ensures that the future of the landmark health care law remains uncertain.

There is much at stake in this case. If the entire law is thrown out by courts, it would reverberate through the health care industry, including insurance providers and hospitals, and put the coverage of millions of Americans at stake.

The decision would affect people who buy coverage in the individual market and those with coverage through Medicaid expansion, Medicare and from their employers.

The ruling that the individual mandate is unconstitutional will be appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court by the 20 Democratic states that are now defending the ACA in this court fight against republican states that filed the suit to abolish the law on the grounds that it is unconstitutional.

Some background

The ACA individual mandate provision ― or “individual shared responsibility” provision ― initially required many people to own what the government classifies as solid major medical coverage, or else pay a penalty. Congress passed a tax bill in 2017 that included a provision setting the penalty at zero.

ACA critics challenged the mandate through a case that reached the Supreme Court in 2012.

In a ruling on that case, the Supreme Court held that a federal law that blocks challenges to new taxes protected the individual mandate provision, because the penalty was a tax.

Critics of the provision say that, now the new tax law has set the individual mandate penalty at zero, the individual mandate is no longer a tax and can no longer benefit from the legal protection accorded to federal taxes.

The takeaway

Because of this ruling, the lower court will likely start hearings on whether the entire law should be thrown out based on the elimination of the penalties for not securing coverage.

The other part of the ruling, that the individual mandate is unconstitutional, is destined for appeal to the Supreme Court. It’s unlikely that it would be heard in 2020 and that the issue about the fate of the rest of the law will take years to wind its way through the courts.

Generic Drug Makers Sued over Pricing Practices

One of the country’s largest health insurers has sued a number of pharmaceutical companies, accusing them of running a price-fixing cartel of common generic drugs.

Humana Inc. has accused the companies of colluding on the prices of generics to the detriment of health insurers that have to pay for these drugs. Humana said in its lawsuit that this collusion prevented fair competition among insurers that could have reduced the cost of many of these drugs.

The background

The lawsuit comes after 45 states signed on to a suit last year over an alleged scheme among generic drug manufacturers to fix the price of some 300 medications. The states are seeking unspecified damages for what they say they had to overpay for drugs for Medicaid patients as a result of the alleged cartel. 

Humana accused Teva Pharmaceuticals, the largest generic drug producer in the world, of being the ringleader of the alleged scheme, which fixed, increased or maintained the prices of more than 100 generic drugs.

“They leveraged the culture of cronyism in the generic drug industry to avoid price erosion, increase prices for targeted products, and maintain artificially inflated prices across their respective product portfolios without triggering a ‘fight to the bottom’ among competitors,” Humana wrote in the complaint, which it lodged with the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania.

The lawsuit adds to the troubles faced by generic drug companies. Earlier in 2019, a number of states joined to sue drug makers, including Teva Pharmaceuticals. The suit also named multiple executives from Teva and other generic manufacturers as individual defendants. 

An investigation by multiple states led by Connecticut accused generic drug makers of “illegal collusion,” refuting arguments by the manufacturers that price increases were caused by industry consolidation and Food and Drug Administration-mandated plant closures.

Humana says the drug companies conspired to set market shares and customers for each company, and that they also agreed not to compete with each other for those customers so that each company could maintain or raise the price of its generic pharmaceuticals.

This is the second lawsuit Humana has filed against generic pharmaceutical companies. It filed a similar case in August 2018 against a handful of drug makers, accusing them of price fixing. That case listed far fewer drugs than the latest salvo.

Lawsuit highlights industry chasing profits

The generics industry used to be highly competitive, but over the years, things changed and suddenly allegedly “coordinated price hikes on identical generic drugs became almost routine,” the <i>Washington Post</i> wrote in an article last year that covered the alleged scheme and lawsuit by states.

While generics account for 90% of the prescriptions written, they only account for 23% of the total drug spend in the country, according to the Association for Accessible Medicines. Despite that, there has been a noticeable and inexplicable uptick in the price of drugs in recent years, sparking outrage among consumers, health insurers and states that run their own Medicaid programs.

If the allegations are true, the parties affected run the gamut from consumers ― who have high copays or high deductibles for their pharmaceuticals ― to hospitals and insurance companies.

Get an Early Start on Open Enrollment

As open enrollment is right around the corner, now is the time to make a plan to maximize employee enrollment and help your staff select the health plans that best suit them.

You’ll also need to make sure that you comply with the Affordable Care Act if it applies to your organization, as well as other laws and regulations.

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

Review what you did last year

Review the results of last year’s enrollment efforts to make sure the process and the perks remain relevant and useful to workers.

Were the various approaches and communication channels you used effective, and did you receive any feedback about the process, either good or bad?

Start early with notifications

You should give your employees at least a month’s notice before open enrollment, and provide them with the materials they will need to make an informed decision.

This includes the various health plans that you are offering your staff for next year.

Encourage them to read the information and come to your human resources point person with questions.

Help in sorting 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.

Also, hold meetings on the plans and put notices in your staff’s paycheck envelopes.

Plan materials

Communicate to your staff any changes to a health plan’s benefits for the next 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 have a grandfathered plan, talk to us to confirm whether it will maintain its grandfathered status for the next 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 of next year, the affordability percentage is 9.86% of household income. At least one of your plans must meet this threshold.

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.

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.

Congress, Administration Serious About Tackling Health Care Costs

As more people struggle with their medical bills, Congress has been introducing a raft of new legislation aimed at cutting costs and making pricing more transparent.

The multi-pronged, bipartisan effort targets the lack of transparency in pricing particularly for pharmaceuticals, as well as surprise medical bills that have left many Americans reeling, and there are also other efforts aimed at reducing the cost burden on payers: the general public and employers.

And since consumers are affected regardless of their political affiliation, congresspersons are reaching across the aisle to push through legislation to address this crushing problem.

There are several draft proposals, but word is a number of bills are expected to be introduced soon.

Surprise medical bills

One of the top priorities seems to be surprise medical bills, which are in the administration’s crosshairs. President Trump in January 2019 hosted a roundtable to air the problems people face when hit with what are often financially devastating surprise bills after they venture out of their network for medical services for both emergency and scheduled medical visits.

After the roundtable, he directed a bipartisan group of lawmakers to create legislation that would provide relief. The House Energy and Commerce Committee in May responded by introducing draft legislation that aims to ban surprise medical bills.

Also, Sen. Maggie Hassan (D-N.H.) and Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-La.) have said they hope to introduce legislation to end the practice of surprise bills. With the White House and both sides of the aisle talking the talk, observers say that there are a number of ways legislation could tackle these surprise bills. That could include:

  • Setting caps on how much hospitals and service providers can charge, or
  • Requiring hospitals and service providers to turn to the insurance company (and not the patient) when they are seeking additional reimbursement.
  • Requiring the insurer to share more of the cost burden for the out-of-network services.

At this point legislation is still being formulated, but chances are good that we could see a bipartisan push to fix this problem. The biggest issue will be how to calculate what are “reasonable” costs for out-of-network services.

Pharmaceutical costs, transparency

The Trump administration has also made it a priority to reduce the costs of medications and tackle pricing transparency in the system.

While both Republicans and Democrats have decried the skyrocketing costs of prescription medications, the inflation for which is outpacing all other forms of medical care, so far there has been only one piece of legislation introduced tackling transparency.

Unfortunately, it’s part of a larger bill that aims to preserve the Affordable Care Act and reverse some recent policy decisions by the Trump administration, so the chances of that measure going anywhere in the Senate are slim to none.

The good news is that members from both parties have been talking about cooperating on legislation, and political observers say the chances are good some type of measure will be introduced this summer.

Other costs

Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) in February introduced legislation that would require insurers to tell people what they would have to pay out of pocket for any in-network treatment or prescription drug.

On top of that, the Senate Health Committee will soon introduce a number of bills aimed at reducing frictional costs in the system.

In addition, the Senate Finance and Judiciary committees are both in the process of formulating measures aimed at reducing health care costs, as well as prescription drug prices.