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.

CARES Act Helps Coronavirus-affected Employers, Employees Alike

The $2 trillion Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act stimulus law to help American workers and businesses weather the outbreak has a number of provisions that employers and their workers need to know about and can take advantage of during this crisis.

The CARES Act includes provision for:

  • Extended unemployment benefits.
  • Requiring health plans to cover COVID-19-related costs.
  • Small Business Administration (SBA) disaster loans.
  • Loans for large corporations.

Parts of the CARES Act will likely benefit your organization and employees in some way. Here’s what you need to know:

Extended unemployment

The CARES Act extends unemployment insurance benefits to workers, as long as they lost their jobs due to the outbreak.

Unemployment benefits under the CARES Act also apply to furloughed employees.

Depending on your state, workers will be able to collect both state unemployment and federal unemployment through the CARES Act, which was designed to augment any unemployment benefits workers may receive in your state.

The Pandemic Emergency Compensation program funded by the CARES Act will provide an additional $600 per week on top of state unemployment benefits, through July 31. 

The law extends state-level unemployment by an additional 13 weeks. For example, whereas most of California’s unemployment benefits last 26 weeks, the bill extends state benefits to 39 weeks. The extended benefits will last through Dec. 31.

Health plan changes

Under the CARES Act, employer-sponsored group health plans must provide for covered workers – without cost-sharing or out-of-pocket expenses – the cost of COVID-19 testing, treatment and vaccinations when and if they become available.

SBA loans

In response to the Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, small business owners are eligible to apply for an Economic Injury Disaster Loan advance of up to $10,000.

This advance will provide economic relief to businesses that are currently experiencing a temporary loss of revenue. Funds will be made available following a successful application. This loan advance will not have to be repaid.

This program is for any small business with fewer than 500 employees (including sole proprietorships, independent contractors and self-employed persons) as well as private non-profit organization affected by COVID-19.

And the law’s The Paycheck Protection Program offers 1% interest loans to businesses with fewer than 500 workers.

Borrowers who don’t lay off workers in the next eight weeks will have their loans forgiven, along with the interest.

These loans are designed to provide a direct incentive for small businesses to keep their workers on the payroll. If small businesses maintain payroll through this economic crisis, some of the borrowed money via the PPP can be forgiven – the funds will be available through June 30. Act fast.

Mid-sized employers

Under the CARES Act, the Secretary of the Treasury is authorized to implement financial assistance programs which specifically target mid-size employers with between 500 and 10,000 employees.

Loans would not have an annualized interest rate higher than 2% and principal and interest will not be due and payable for at least six months after the loan is made. But unlike loans under the PPP, these are not forgivable.

Large employers

The CARES Act provides $500 billion to the Treasury Department’s Exchange Stabilization Fund for loans and other funding for large companies and corporations affected by the outbreak.

  • $454 billion is set aside for loans, loan guarantees.
  • Companies that receive funds are prohibited from using them for stock buybacks.
  • Loans include terms limiting employee compensation and severance pay.

Like loans for mid-sized employers, they are not forgivable.

Workers Getting Squeezed by Higher Health Plan Costs

While health insurance premiums aren’t going up as much as they used to, both employers and their workers are still struggling with higher health care costs.

According to the “2018 Health and Voluntary Workplace Benefits Survey,” published by the Employee Benefit Research Institute together with Greenwald & Associates, roughly half of all workers experienced an out-of-pocket cost increase in their workplace health insurance plans.

That’s roughly the same percentage as in 2017, but lower than the 61% who saw cost increases passed on to them from their employers in 2014.

And employees are feeling the pinch: About 28% of all workers affected by reductions in employee contributions to health care plans have decreased their own contributions to retirement plans such as IRAs, 401(k)s, 403(b)s and 457 plans.

Nearly half have cut back on other savings as well, to cover their rising share of health care costs.

The troubles don’t end there, though: About 25% of respondents reported they had trouble paying for basic necessities like shelter, rent and heat, and 36% reported difficulty with paying other bills.

About 27% told researchers they had already used up all or most of their savings, while about one-third have increased their level of credit card debt. Thirty percent have delayed retirement, and 21% have been forced to drop other insurance coverage. Twelve percent have taken a withdrawal or loan from a retirement plan.

The increased out-of-pocket costs on workers seem to be having some effect on consumer behavior as well, as more individuals are taking steps to control overall costs. For example, 73% are trying to control health care costs by taking better care of themselves.

One-quarter of respondents said they had not skipped prescription drugs to save money, while half reported delaying going to the doctor.

Employees like their plans

That said, half of workers surveyed expressed satisfaction with their own company health plans.

But price remains a sore spot: Only 17% of respondents said they were extremely satisfied or very satisfied with the cost of their health insurance plan, while just 15% reported satisfaction with the cost of health care services excluded by their plans.

However, only 12% reported that they were unsatisfied with their own health plan.

The takeaway

While workers are generally happy with the plans currently on offer from employers, they are anxious about what the future may hold for them and their families.

While nearly half of workers surveyed said they were very confident or extremely confident that they could get needed treatments today, only about one in three expressed confidence about being able to get needed medical care over the next 20 years.

For employers, that means providing better education and working with employees to provide them with specific voluntary benefits like long-term care insurance in case they suddenly have a medical emergency that will keep them laid up for some time.

You can also work with us to see where you can save money and pass those savings on to your employees, while at the same time improving their benefits package. If you are concerned about what employees are feeling, call us and we can go over your current benefits package to see where you can make improvements.