For plan sponsors, 2013 is a year of crossing Ts and dotting Is on PPACA compliance for their health care plans and strategizing for next year, when the employer mandate and public exchanges go into effect. The health care reform law has many moving parts and a great deal of regulations yet to come, which will keep benefits professionals on their toes all year.

"Employers have never experienced this complexity and oversight in compliance for their health plans. Employers are used to a compliance-rich environment around their retirement plans, but they need an equally robust and hands-on approach to managing the compliance of their health plans," says Mike Thompson, a principal in the human resources services practice of PricewaterhouseCoopers. He adds that "the rules, regulations and level of enforcement have never been greater."

Thompson believes "2013 is a period of strategic re-evaluation of whom the employer will provide benefits to in light of the changes in the individual market allowing guaranteed issue and subsidies for lower- and middle-income Americans."

He believes that employers will also transition around financing as "more employers look at community-type programs with the interest of moving away from their own programs and potentially contributing towards a private exchange or facilitating access to coverage in the open market."

To help employers keep all their compliance ducks in a row while managing and determining long-term strategies for their plans, EBN asked legal and health care experts for top issues to keep in mind for 2013 and beyond.

 

1. Preparing for the 2014 employer mandate

"At the top of the list is the interpretation of employer responsibility provisions that includes what constitutes minimum essential coverage that employers have to provide or be subject to penalties. Along with that, there are very important issues around the minimum value of the coverage they provide as well as who they have to provide it to," says Paul Dennett, senior vice president of health care reform at the American Benefits Council.

The employer mandate applies only to large employers. Whether an employer is defined as large under PPACA (generally companies with 50 or more employees) depends on the number of its full-time equivalent employees. Companies with 50 or more full-time workers (averaging at least 30 hours per week) must offer minimum health care coverage that is affordable.

In 2013, an employer ought to be determining whether it is a large employer and, therefore, subject to the mandate. "If they offer coverage in 2014, the coverage must meet the minimum value standards and the contributions the employer requires of employees cannot be so high the coverage is unaffordable relative to the employee's household income," says Jean C. Hemphill, practice leader of Ballard Spahr's health care group.

To determine the minimum value, fully insured plans will rely on their insurance carrier for information on whether they meet the minimum value of 60% for their plan. Self-insured plans can turn to an actuary or determine their value with the aid of a government-provided calculator or government-provided checklists.

When it comes to determining the affordability of the plan, an employer cost-sharing arrangement must be affordable relative to the employees' household income, as stated under PPACA. So, "the employee's contribution and cost-sharing obligations can't exceed 9.5% of their household income," says Hemphill.

However, the IRS acknowledges that employers don't know workers' household income, and suggests employers use W-2 wage information instead to determine their plan's affordability.

Hemphill expects more guidance on this issue since employees' contributions are typically much greater for dependents coverage than their own. An employee offered otherwise qualifying coverage by their employer can't use the public exchange unless they prove their employer-sponsored coverage is unaffordable.

The affordability issue may be of greater concern to employers with fairly low-income workforces or for employers not offering comprehensive plans to employees or all employees, such as the mini-medical plans sometimes offered in the retail industry. Employers only need to offer one affordable plan with minimum value to satisfy the rules, however mini-medical plans will be illegal after 2014.

Actuarial experts predict that most high-deductible health plans with deductibles in the $2,000-$3,000 range will most likely qualify, however those with much higher cost-sharing may not meet the minimum value.

While sponsors can vary the deductible and coinsurance amount of HDHPs, they should remember that the higher the deductible, the lower actuarial value of the plan.

"There are variables that can be adjusted in the plan design, but the most important one is where to set the amount of the deductible," says Dennett. He adds that guidance so far has indicated employer contributions toward HSAs or credits toward HRAs will count toward the minimum value. The question is whether the amount contributed is counted 100% to the plan or if it is discounted in the actuarial value formula that HHS would use in the calculation of actuarial value coverage.

Overall, "the Affordable Care Act was designed so employers don't need to make too many plan design changes to their plan," says J.D. Piro, national practice leader for Aon Hewitt's health and benefits legal department. "They may need to open it up to more employees but, generally speaking, they should be able to meet the affordability and minimum value requirements."

 

2. Public exchanges

Employers are required to provide employees with notice alerting them of the existence of public insurance exchanges. It is thought that the government will issue a model notice for this purpose. At press time, the government had yet to produce this model notice or other guidance about the notice requirement. The March 1 notification deadline has been extended until "late summer or fall," according to a recent FAQ announcement from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.

"There may still be unanswered questions about whether the state exchanges, partnership exchanges or the federal exchanges are really at an operational readiness stage to be able to go live as of October 2013," says Dennett.

Assuming the exchanges are on track and sponsors receive the guidance they need, they should expect many questions from workers about how the process affects them.

"While most major employers will continue to offer coverage to employees, there will be some confusion around the availability of coverage in the public exchanges and what the implications are [for employees] getting coverage from their employer, says Thompson.

He suggests employees will primarily want to know:

* Do I still have coverage through my employer?

* Am I eligible to get coverage through the exchange?

* Can I potentially get subsidies through the exchange?

* Is it in my best interest to go through the exchange?

 

3. Waiting periods

Another design-related issue employers must factor into their plans is that under PPACA, waiting periods for health care coverage cannot exceed 90 days. The 90-day period begins when the employee is otherwise eligible for coverage. Employers with a high-turnover workforce that currently have long waiting periods will have to shorten them.

If an employer requires employees to work a minimum number of hours to qualify for coverage, it may need to monitor workers' timesheets in 2013 to determine if and when coverage needs to be offered in 2014; this may be complicated for seasonal employees and other employees with variable hours.

Thompson believes this is part of a larger question of meeting qualifications for providing coverage.

"It's part of a package in my mind," he says. "Employers must evaluate employee classes when looking at whether they meet the minimum threshold of providing coverage to full-time employees. Seasonal, temporary, or contract workers are classes that need to be evaluated in order to avoid or at least understand what the penalties might be."

 

4. Pre-existing and non-discrimination prohibitions

"The non-discrimination rules are new for insured plans in 2014," says Hemphill. Even though these prohibitions should already be in effect, government agencies have delayed enforcement until they release regulations.

"It will be an important issue because right now there is no requirement to offer coverage to part-time employees, but with the definition of full-time employees as an average of 30 hours per week and new non-discrimination testing rules, the employer obligation may be different," she says.

Either way, employers can expect notice and guidance well before implementation because, "it is a big plan design issue," says Edward I. Leeds, counsel in the employee benefits and executive compensation group at Ballard Spahr.

 

5. Wellness programs

PPACA includes rules that prohibit plans from discriminating against individuals based on a range of health-related factors. Plans cannot impose restrictions on eligibility or increase employee costs for coverage based on these factors.

"When the government issued guidance under ACA, they actually revised the HIPAA regulations. So now the ACA and HIPAA rules ... will be the same," says Leeds. "By and large the rules follow HIPAA with some changes, the most significant of which is that the potential reward for meeting requirements under the wellness programs will increase as of January 1, 2014."

The potential reward for meeting a wellness requirement will increase from 20% of cost of coverage to 30% of cost of coverage. Incentives related to tobacco cessation will increase up to 50%. (For more details, read "Regs increase wellness rewards," page 28.)

 

6. Upcoming fees and taxes

Patient-Centered Outcomes Research Institute, established by PPACA, will collect and publish information about clinical effectiveness of treatments for patients. It will be paid for through fees assessed against insurers and self-funded plans equal to $2 ($1 in the first year) per covered life. The assessment will last seven years and eventually be adjusted for inflation. Employers with self-funded plans will need to report and pay these fees starting in July 2013.

The Transitional Reinsurance Program aims to stabilize the individual health insurance market as insurers provide coverage, starting in 2014, to large numbers of individuals who do not currently have coverage and present uncertain risks. The program will provide reinsurance payments to insurers that take on high-risk individuals. The program is funded through a three-year tax (expected to be $63 per covered life in the first year.)

The Additional Medicare Tax, in effect this year, is an additional 0.9% tax applied to high-income individuals. Employers are responsible for withholding the tax from wages or compensation it pays to an employee in excess of $200,000 in a calendar year.

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