If you were one of the millions of professionals who were out of the office between Dec. 24 and Jan. 3, welcome back to the grind.
As it turned out, while you were enjoying your year-end time off, lawmakers and federal regulators in Washington were busily at work. At least half a dozen new benefits-related laws, rules and other forms of guidance were issued during the last 10 days of 2010. Here’s a wrap-up of what you may have missed:
- Rate hikes exceeding 10%. The Department of Health and Human Services proposed rules Dec. 21 that would require health insurers to justify to the HHS any rate increases in the small and individual markets exceeding 10%. (Note that PPACA does not grant HHS the authority to approve or reject such increases.) The limit would not apply to large plans. Over time, HHS would issue a unique threshold for each state.
- Nondiscrimination rules delayed. In IRS Notice 2011-1, issued Dec. 23, the IRS said it will not require insured plans to comply with PPACA’s nondiscrimination rules until it issues further guidance. Under PPACA, the rules were to have applied to plan years beginning on or after Sept. 23, 2010. The IRS also asked for comments on numerous issues that are likely to be addressed in future regulations.
- HCTC extended. On Dec. 30, President Obama signed legislation extending the Health Coverage Tax Credit for six weeks — through Feb. 12, 2011 — and increasing the benefit from 65% to 80% of the cost of health insurance purchased by unemployed individuals who lost their jobs due to foreign competition. The credit is also available to pension plan participants age 55 and over whose plans have been taken over by the PBGC.
- Value-based design. On Dec. 28, officials at the Departments of Treasury, Labor and Health and Human Services jointly issued a request for public comments on VBD in connection with preventive care benefits. As PPACA’s regulatory mandates continue to unfold, the federal regulators are seeking a deeper uunderstanding of how VBD can promote clinically effective and evidence-based preventive care.
- Debit cards and OTC drugs. On Dec. 23, the IRS issued Notice 2011-5, which clarified that health FSA and HSA debit cards can be used to purchase OTC drugs. (Under PPACA, a prescription is now needed for OTC medications.) The Notice sets standards for the use of the debit cards to purchase OTC medications at drug stores, pharmacies and other vendors.
- Transportation benefits. On Dec. 23, the IRS announced that for 2011, the income exclusion limit for qualified parking and commuting expenses remains $230 a month. The benefits, which were to have expired on Dec. 31, were extended for one year under the tax relief legislation signed into law on Dec. 17.
Looking ahead, Rep. Eric Cantor (R-VA), the new majority leader in the House of Representatives, has scheduled a Jan. 12 vote on repealing PPACA. If the measure is approved by the House, it will face staunch opposition in the Democrat-controlled Senate.
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