doctor and patient

Pandemic Causing Many to Lose Employer-Sponsored Health Coverage

Many small businesses have suffered due to the implications that the coronavirus pandemic has placed on them. Many of those struggles are rooted in financial instability during this time which has caused many to stop paying health insurance premiums. Read this blog post to learn more.


The COVID-19 pandemic forced many small businesses to stop paying health insurance premiums to insurers, leaving their employees without group health care coverage. Even more workers could find themselves without health insurance if businesses can't afford to renew their group plans for 2021, when premiums are expected to trend slightly higher.

If the coronavirus spikes again across the U.S. and a "second wave" further restricts business operations, more employees could find themselves uninsured.

We've rounded up articles from trusted news sources on the loss of employer-sponsored health insurance and what might be coming.

Employers No Longer Able to Afford Coverage

Health insurance coverage is a major expense for employers, especially for small businesses. As they struggle with the economic fallout of the pandemic, many may face end-of-year renewal deadlines that are harder to afford.

Thousands of small businesses that had always expressed difficulty in providing employee health insurance under the Affordable Care Act are now in far worse trouble because of the pandemic.

While estimates vary, a recent Urban Institute analysis of census data says at least 3 million Americans have already lost job-based coverage, and a separate analysis from Avalere Health predicts some 12 million will lose it by the end of this year. Both studies highlight the disproportionate effect on Black and Hispanic workers.

"The odds are we are on track to have the largest coverage losses in our history," said Stan Dorn, the director of the National Center for Coverage Innovation at Families USA, a Washington, D.C., consumer group.
(New York Times)

Race-Based Disparities in Coverage Loss

Overall, 8 percent of Americans reported in September that they had lost their health insurance specifically due to the pandemic, according to a series of surveys conducted by data research firm Civis Analytics and global communications firm Finn Partners. That figure was higher among Black Americans, with 10.4 percent reporting they had lost their health insurance because of the pandemic. In contrast, 6.8 percent of white Americans said in September they had lost their health insurance because of the coronavirus outbreak.

Overall, among Black Americans, 26 percent were uninsured in September, up from 17 percent in February. Among white Americans, 12 percent were uninsured in September, up from 11 percent in February.
(ValuePenguin)

Small Businesses Under Pressure

Small businesses, defined as those employing fewer than 500 workers, are under extreme pressure to cut costs. But in spite of across-the-board cost-cutting, a survey of small U.S. businesses in late June found only 5 percent had resorted to cutting health insurance benefits for their employees.

However, nearly one-third of survey respondents indicated they were not sure they could keep up with premium payments beyond Aug. 15.

To examine whether federal financial assistance enabled businesses to maintain health insurance coverage, researchers compared health care offer rates to employees by businesses reporting they had been approved for federal Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) funds with rates for those not approved, as of June 15. The firms that received PPP funds were much less likely to drop coverage than firms that did not.

The PPP stopped accepting loan application requests in early August.
(NEJM Catalyst)

Indiana's Experience

In April, Indiana saw about 560,000 residents losing employment, according to Mark Fairchild, director of public policy at the nonprofit Covering Kids & Families of Indiana. At the start of September, the number had fallen below 400,000 and is trending downward.

"We've recovered dramatically, but that still is going to leave over 10 percent of Hoosiers without a job," Fairchild said. "And related to that, of course, the insurance that goes with that impacts not just them, but their family members, too."

Counting the spouses and children who may have been covered by family plans, he estimates that upwards of a million Indiana residents may have lost employer-sponsored health coverage during the pandemic.

The loss of health insurance doesn't fall equally on everyone, as some sectors of the economy, like hospitality and service jobs, have been hit harder than others.
(Side Effects/WFYI Indianapolis Public Media)

DOL Temporarily Extends COBRA Sign-Up Deadlines

In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) temporarily extended the period in which eligible employees can elect COBRA health insurance continuation coverage and the deadline for them to begin making COBRA premium payments.

The final rule extended most COBRA deadlines to beyond the "outbreak period," defined as from March 1, 2020, to 60 days after the end of the declared COVID-19 national emergency, or another date if provided in future guidance.

"Any COBRA premiums due during the outbreak period will not be considered delinquent if the COBRA premiums are paid within 30 days following the end of the outbreak period," said Paul Yenerall, a Pittsburgh-based attorney with Eckert Seamans Cherin & Mellott.

Employers may require individuals to pay for COBRA continuation coverage. The premium that is charged cannot exceed the full cost of the coverage, plus a 2 percent administration charge. That cost is not affordable for many newly unemployed workers.

During the pandemic, however, some employers are choosing to pay for a former employee's COBRA coverage if the person has been laid off, or to do so for current employees who lost group health plan coverage when they were furloughed or had their hours reduced.
(SHRM Online)

SOURCE: Miller, S. (01 October 2020) "Pandemic Causing Many to Lose Employer-Sponsored Health Coverage" (Web Blog Post). Retrieved from https://www.shrm.org/resourcesandtools/hr-topics/benefits/pages/pandemic-causing-many-to-lose-employer-sponsored-health-coverage.aspx


New direct primary care rules are a tough pill for HSAs

For many Americans, direct primary care has taken control of medical costs, which has cut through many frustrating options and has created a peach of mind when it comes to both health and its costs. Read this blog post to learn more


As an employee benefits attorney and compliance consultant, last summer’s executive order on “improving price and quality transparency in American healthcare to put patients first” piqued my interest. In particular, I honed on in section 6(b), aimed at treating expenses related to direct primary care arrangements as eligible medical expenses.

As someone dealing with a complicated medical history, digging into the order and digesting the resultant proposed IRS rule was more than my job – it was and is part of my life.

Several years ago, I decided to give direct primary care a try. For about $100 a month, I gained direct access to and the undivided attention of a physician who knows me and my unique medical needs. I pay a flat, upfront fee and my doctor coordinates and manages my treatment, which isn’t always smooth sailing for someone dealing with a complex connective tissue disorder. My primary care physician serves as the coach and quarterback of my medical care, directing tests, meds, and visits to various specialists like rheumatologists or neurologists. If I have a common cold or infection, she’s readily available to prescribe treatment and set my mind at ease.

Since arriving on the scene in the 2000s, direct primary care has grown in popularity and availability. In the age of skyrocketing monthly premiums and a multitude of confusing options, more Americans are flocking to direct primary care to supplement their existing coverage. Some employers are even looking at it to drive down costs.

Now, direct primary care only covers, well, primary care, so I’ve paired it with a high-deductible healthcare plan and a health savings account to pay for my many additional medical expenses. I’m not alone: more than 21 million Americans are following the same path.

However, rather than making direct primary care more accessible, the proposed regulations actually make it virtually impossible for all of us with HSAs. Remember, by law, to qualify for an HSA, individuals must be covered by a high deductible health insurance plan. The rationale for this is consumers with more on the line are more responsible in controlling their health care costs and thus rewarded with the tax-advantaged benefits of an HSA.

Here’s the problem: the proposed regulations define direct primary care as a form of insurance – one that is not a high-deductible health plan and would therefore disqualify me from having access to an HSA.

Regulators point out that direct primary care arrangements provide various services like checkups, vaccinations, urgent care, lab tests, and diagnostics before the high deductible has been satisfied. According to the preamble to the proposed regulations, “an individual generally is not eligible to contribute to an HSA if that individual is covered by a direct primary care arrangement.”

Keep in mind, 32 states consider direct primary care a medical service rather than a health plan and exempt it from insurance regulation. Even the Department of Health and Human Services shares that view, noting in a March 12, 2012, final exchange rule that “direct primary care medical homes are not insurance.” In addition, the proposed rule itself includes some contradictory language and implications when it comes to defining direct primary care relating to other factors.

By its very nature, direct primary care is a contract between patient and physician without billing a third party. In cutting out the insurance companies, it seems obvious that direct primary care is not a competing insurance plan, but instead, a valuable service that can accompany existing coverage.

Furthermore, there is no clear justification for painting direct primary care as disqualifying medical insurance for those with HSAs. The IRS has more than enough flexibility and discretion to determine that direct primary care does not count as insurance. Regulators could do so while still treating direct primary care as a tax-deductible medical expense, which seems to be the intention of the proposed rule in the first place.

For millions of Americans, direct primary care has been a godsend in taking control of medical care, cutting through frustrating options, and gaining peace of mind when it comes to both health and healthcare costs. In short, direct primary care is everything primary care should be and was supposed to be. It’s an option that individuals should be permitted to access to complement (not compete with) high deductible health insurance plans and HSAs.

Although the comment period for the proposed regulations is now over, I am hopeful with a few tweaks and small changes they can better align with the stated purpose of the executive order, empowering patients to choose the healthcare that is best for them. If not, the new rules would likely be a hard pill to swallow for the entire direct primary care community.

SOURCE: Berman, J. (26 August 2020) "New direct primary care rules are a tough pill for HSAs" (Web Blog Post). Retrieved from https://www.employeebenefitadviser.com/opinion/new-direct-primary-care-rules-are-a-tough-pill-for-hsas


pill bottle/money

What employers are missing in their workforce data

If employers don't analyze their data thoroughly, they may be missing valuable information that could save their establishment of many costs. Read this blog post to learn more.


Employers are missing out on valuable healthcare information and cost-saving opportunities if they don’t analyze their data thoroughly, panelists at the annual Disability Management Employer Coalition digital conference said.

According to professionals from an insurance company in Portland, Ore., many employers have access to three types of data: healthcare, absence and productivity. HR departments are typically tasked with collecting and analyzing this data, but rarely do they use all three together. But maximizing these findings can help employers better inform their benefit decisions, the panelists said.

“Most employers want to know how much they’re spending on healthcare, but they can learn so much more than that,” said Case Escher, managing partner of the insurance company in Portland, “Very few [employers] use it to explore how health of the workforce is affecting productivity.”

“By comparing health data and absence, you can see if a health condition is causing an employee to miss more work than usual,” said Brycie Repphun, account executive at the insurance company in Portland. “You can use this information to help better inform that person about the services available to them to help them be successful at work.”

Employers can also use their productivity data to help determine if individual employees, or an entire team, are struggling, Escher said. Since productivity is measured differently at every company, and in various positions, employers have to exercise their own judgement about how to interpret it, he said.

“Obviously, if it’s a sales position, and one of your top performers is out because of medical issues, or another personal reason, the productivity of that team is going to suffer,” Escher said. “And if that person is going to be out for a while, the data will likely show that the rest of the team is getting burned out faster to compensate for being understaffed.”

Since the majority of the nonessential workforce is working from home due to the pandemic, Repphun recommends that employers start looking at their data to see how employees are coping.

“Health conditions can definitely impact work performance, but we’re finding that this is happening because of the current work from home situation,” Repphun said. “People aren’t working in ideal conditions, and many have children learning at home as well.”

Escher said self-funded employers are better positioned to make use of their workforce data because they don’t have to go through multiple third-party providers to access all of it. But other employers can still benefit from the information if they’re willing to put in the time and effort to retrieve the reports. While employers can certainly survey their workforce to gauge how working remotely is affecting their productivity, Escher and Repphun said they can get a clear answer by looking at all three data points.

“There’s an indisputable link between health and productivity,” Escher said. “As an employer, you can take this information and use it to make smart decisions to help your employees continue to be successful.”

SOURCE: Webster, K. (31 August 2020) "What employers are missing in their workforce data" (Web Blog Post). Retrieved from https://www.employeebenefitadviser.com/news/what-employers-are-missing-in-their-workforce-data


5 ways to prepare for open enrollment during COVID-19

As open enrollment draws near, it's time to critically prepare for it especially during the crazy time that the coronavirus pandemic has brought to many families. Read this blog post to learn more.


The COVID-19 pandemic has focused consumer attention on health care, germs and the impact a single illness can have on their lives, livelihoods and loved ones. With the fall open enrollment season just months away, you have the opportunity to think more critically about the specific plans you choose for yourself and your family, as well as any voluntary benefits that may be available to you, including childcare, elder care and critical illness. In a world where it feels like health is out of the individual’s control, we all want, at the very least, to feel control over our coverage.

As we know all too well, there’s a lot to consider when it comes to choosing and using health care benefits. The most important piece of becoming an informed health care consumer is ensuring you have access to — and understand — the benefits information you need to make smart health care choices. Here are five tips to keep in mind as you prepare for and participate in open enrollment.

1. Prepare for COVID-19 aftermath

As if dealing with the threat of the virus (or actually contracting it) wasn’t enough, consumers must consider the unexpected consequences. Quarantines, stay-at-home orders and business shutdowns have resulted in missed preventive care visits — including annual immunizations. For instance, many children will have missed their preschool vaccinations, which could result in an uptick in measles, mumps and rubella. If school is conducted virtually, the risk of catching one of these highly contagious diseases is somewhat reduced, though consumers should still proceed with caution as states reopen. In fact, with continued waves of COVID-19 expected well into the school season, you and your children may have to wait even longer to get vaccinations due to pent up demand and possible shortages.

Don’t forget that preventive care is covered by most plans at 100% in-network regardless of where that care is received. Schedule your appointments as soon as possible (and permissible in their area), and research other venues for receiving care, such as pharmacies, retail clinics and urgent care facilities. Most are equipped to provide standard vaccinations and/or routine physicals.

Unfortunately, there are also the long-term implications of COVID-19 to consider. Research suggests that there are serious health impacts that emerge in survivors of COVID-19, such as the onset of diabetes and liver, heart and lung problems. And many who were able to ride out the virus at home are finding it’s taking months, not weeks, to fully recover. As a result, you should prepare for the possibility that you, or a loved one, may be ill and possibly out of work for an extended period of time. Be sure to evaluate all of the plans and programs your employer offers to ensure your family has the financial protections you need. For some, a richer health plan with a lower deductible, voluntary plans such as critical illness or hospital indemnity insurance, and buy-up life and disability insurance may be worth investigating for the first time.

2. Re-evaluate postponed elective procedures

Many employees or their family members have postponed or skipped elective procedures — either from fear of exposure to COVID-19 at hospitals and outpatient facilities, or because their hospitals and providers cancelled such procedures to conserve resources to treat COVID-19 patients. As a result, an estimated 28.4 million elective surgeries worldwide could be canceled or postponed in 2020 due to the virus.

As hospitals reopen, it may be difficult to schedule a procedure due to scheduling requirements and pent up demand. A second opinion may be in order if your condition stabilized, improved or worsened during the delay; there may be other treatment options available.

A delay in scheduling also provides an opportunity to “shop around” for a facility that will provide needed care at an appropriate price — especially if you are choosing to go out-of-network or have a plan without a network. Researching cost is the best way to find the most affordable providers and facilities with the best quality, based on your specific needs.

Many medical plans offer second opinion and transparency services, and there are independent organizations who provide “white glove,” personalized support in these areas. Read over your enrollment materials carefully, or check your plan’s summary plan description, to see what your employer offers. If nothing is available, ask your employer to look into it, and don’t hesitate to do some research on your own. Doing so can often result in substantial cost savings, without compromising on quality of care.

3. Confirm your caregivers

Because so few elective procedures were performed during the initial phases of the pandemic, many hospitals sustained huge financial losses. As a result, many small hospitals are closing, and large hospitals are using this opportunity to purchase smaller, independent medical practices that became more financially vulnerable during the pandemic. Further, many physicians have opted to retire or close their practices in light of the drastic reductions to their income during local shutdowns.

Be sure to check up on your preferred health care providers — especially those you might not see regularly — to confirm they are still in business and still in network (if applicable). If you live in a rural area, you may have to travel farther to reach in-network facilities. If you’re currently covered by an HMO or EPO, you may want to evaluate whether that option still makes sense, if your preferred in-network providers are no longer available.

4. Look at ALL the options

Voluntary coverages — such as critical illness, hospital indemnity, buy-up disability, and supplemental life insurance — may help ease your concerns about how you will protect your and your family’s finances if you become ill. Pandemic aside, these benefits can provide a substantial safety net at a relatively low cost. Investigate your employer’s offerings — many employers are offering virtual benefit fairs where vendors can provide more information about these benefits while remaining safe from large social gatherings.

When was the last time you changed your medical plan? If you’ve been keeping the same coverage for years, it might be time to look at what else is available. Your employer may have introduced new plans, or you may find that a different plan makes more sense financially based on how often you need health care. Don’t forget — the cheapest plan isn’t always the one with the lowest premiums.

5. Uncover every resource available

Besides your health coverage (medical, dental and vision), many employers offer other plans and programs to support your health. While you’re already focused on benefits, take the time to learn about what else is available to you. These offerings may range from the previously mentioned advocacy and transparency services and voluntary benefits, to personalized, one-on-one enrollment support, to telemedicine services and an Employee Assistance Program (EAP). Also, many employers made temporary or permanent plan changes to address COVID-19 regulations and concerns. Be sure to familiarize yourself with these changes — and when they might expire.

You may also want to consider setting aside funds in a health savings account or health care flexible spending account (if available). If your employer offers a wellness program, this might be an opportunity to start adopting better health habits to ensure you’re better equipped physically and mentally to deal with whatever lies ahead.

While open enrollment may seem daunting, devoting an hour or two to reviewing your plan options, the programs available to support you and your family physically, mentally and financially, and how to get the most from the coverages you do elect, can go a long way towards providing peace of mind as we face the unknowns of 2021.

SOURCE: Buckey, K. (17 August 2020) "5 ways to prepare for open enrollment during COVID-19" (Web Blog Post). Retrieved from https://www.employeebenefitadviser.com/list/5-ways-to-prepare-for-open-enrollment-during-covid-19


3 ways to support workplace well-being during COVID-19

The coronavirus has created many struggles for employees to deal with, and some of the struggles will continue even after measures become lifted. Read this blog post to learn more.


Personal and professional worlds are colliding in ways that have never been seen before, leading employees and employers to navigate new challenges in uncharted waters. As employees continue to struggle with balancing work and personal obligations at home, they are dealing with emotional, physical and financial consequences from the pandemic. Some of these struggles will remain even after social distancing measures are lifted and the economy stabilizes, and they could have a lasting impact on people’s overall wellness.

While many companies are rightfully focused on the bottom line and maintaining business operations throughout the pandemic, it is equally important that they take steps to ensure their employees are supported throughout this tumultuous time. Employee well-being is directly tied to business health, which is why it is so important for organizations to optimize their benefits and deliver the right health and wellness offerings for their workers.

 Reassess employee benefit programs

The pandemic is raising awareness that total wellbeing, not just physical health, is a key component to success for businesses and the economy. Employees that are facing at home pressures or feeling financially insecure may be less productive or distracted during the workday, which can impact company success. COVID-19 has hit companies hard. Many are looking for places to trim costs, but benefits and wellbeing programs are not an area they can afford to cut.

Diabetes, depression, mental health and financial stress are on the rise with the majority of employees dealing with unprecedented challenges like childcare, caring for family members who are sick or otherwise impacted by COVID-19 and general anxiety about their future. Cutting benefits programs now may save a few thousand dollars today only to spend tens of thousands of dollars on healthcare costs tomorrow.

Employers who understand the value of employee benefits programs will fare much better than those that guess which programs will be effective. This is an ideal time for businesses to re-assess their current well-being offerings to ensure the programs they are investing in align with the needs of their workforce. It’s also essential that employers make sure employees are aware of the wellness offerings available to them and how to use them. Therefore, it’s important for businesses to increase their communications to employees around wellbeing programs that can help provide physical, mental and emotional support through the pandemic and beyond.

Evaluate current and future employee needs

Not all people are the same, which is why one-size-fits-all programs fail. A successful well-being program should be personalized to best meet employees’ current and future needs. This can be difficult, especially when considering environmental and lifestyle factors, but with the right partner it can be done effectively. Many large employers are working with a partner that leverages social determinants of health data such as household composition, purchasing habits, education and income level and more, to identify individual employee needs.

Employers should also evaluate new types of resources to accommodate the “new normal”. Case in point: we have seen double digit increase in engagement with financial wellbeing and EAP resources. Telehealth and remote condition management programs are on the rise as well as stress management and resilience programs. For example, “Linda” has diabetes, so she needs to know the COVID-19 risks associated with her condition. She may also need extra support to ensure she is keeping up with her healthy eating and exercise regimen during quarantine. Connecting her with a remote diabetes program like Livongo or Virta Health can help Linda feel valued and stay on track. Or, “Tom” has been having severe back pain and his doctor recommends he have surgery to correct a spine-related issue. But not all health systems are offering elective surgeries right now, so he is better off with a telehealth pain management program like Telespine or Hinge Health, Physera and Simple Therapy.

This information allows employers to personalize the health and wellness plans they offer to employees and provide them with the right tools to make their healthcare journeys easier as they navigate this new way of life. Employers will also see the benefits in healthier, happier employers, increased productivity and potentially lower long-term healthcare costs.

Have a solid strategy for returning to work

COVID-19 return to work programs will require an increase in spending for heightened safety measures, such as enhanced cleaning and disinfection practices, employee daily temperature checks (which are now required by some states) and developing and implementing policies and procedures that address preventing, monitoring for and responding to an emergence or resurgence of COVID-19 in the workplace.

As businesses begin reopening workspaces, it is critical for leaders to have a solid employee engagement plan in place to keep workers safe. Be sure to clearly and effectively communicate new safety protocols to employees, so they can feel safe going to work as offices reopen. Invite employees to discuss any concerns they may have in an open forum or via a survey and involve them in problem-solving. Listen to their needs both personally and professionally as our lives will be complicated for months, and possibly years to come. It sounds cliché to say that people are companies most valuable assets. However, it could not be more true right now. It’s time for businesses to make employees’ wellbeing a priority and step up to the challenge of evolving their programming to meet current and future needs. Both the business and its employees will benefit.

SOURCE: Hinkle, C. (19 August 2020) "3 ways to support workplace well-being during COVID-19" (Web Blog Post). Retrieved from employeebenefitadviser.com/opinion/3-ways-to-support-workplace-well-being-during-covid-19


Supplemental Benefits With Russ Goldner

August 3, 2020

Dear Valued Client,

I hope this letter finds you well.  It has been a very interesting year to say the least.  Times are ever evolving, but our goal at Saxon remains unchanged to ensure you have the best benefit experience possible.  In working with over 600 groups, we find this comes in many forms and fashions.

The one aspect of benefits that Saxon has provided through direct to carrier relationships is the supplemental benefit arena.  Supplemental benefits are plans many folks use to help offset the cost of a major medical procedure or the recent rise of deductibles.  In response to the more frequent request for these plans, I am excited to announce Saxon has decided to step into this arena to assist our clients directly.

Russ Goldner has joined Saxon as our Director of Supplemental Benefits.  With 15 years of experience in this discipline, Russ can assist in developing a supplemental benefits program that fits the needs of your company and, most importantly, the needs of your employees.

Supplemental benefits are an excellent means of complimenting your major benefit lines because they further enhance a benefit lineup assisting in both recruiting and retention.  These lines are voluntary, allowing your employees to opt for coverage that is best for them and their families, especially in filling potential gaps in their deductible funding or costs of living while recovering from a medical malady.

Russ will be following up with you to further discuss the advantages of providing supplemental benefits to your employees.  If you want to reach out to Russ prior to, he can be reached via email at rgoldner@gosaxon.com or via phone at (513) 317-8412.

Respectfully,

Jamie Charlton


Spotlight Value of Benefits Package During Open Enrollment


The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the importance of helping employees maintain physical, mental and financial health, making this year's open enrollment period a critical time for employers to think about the benefits they're providing and to communicate the value of these offerings to employees.

"This is not a typical year," said Hope Manion, senior vice president for Fidelity Investments' workplace consulting division. "We cannot simply default our benefits like we may have done in previous years."

She advises employers to encourage employees to spend more time during this year's enrollment period reviewing their benefits, learning about all of their offerings and asking questions. "Given that so many have experienced financial and health crises this year, now is the time to ensure they don't overlook benefits that could impact their future health and financial well-being," she noted.

Employees Rush Through Enrollment

Nearly three-quarters of employees—73 percent—spend less than an hour, and 41 percent invest less than 30 minutes, reviewing their benefits at enrollment time, according to a March study of 1,200 U.S. consumers on behalf of life and accident insurer Colonial Life. Because the pandemic has changed the way millions of workers live and work, simply rushing through their annual benefits enrollment won't do this year.

"If this year has taught us anything, it's the importance of our health and the value in taking every opportunity to protect it," said Richard Shaffer, senior vice president of field and market development at Colonial Life. "As we head into enrollment season this fall, workers across the country need to take time to ensure they're protecting their families, finances and futures against unexpected events."

Surprisingly, those who are the least confident in their knowledge of the benefits available to them are most likely to rush through the enrollment process. Nearly 90 percent of employees who reported not understanding their benefits "at all" said they plan to spend less than an hour on enrollment this year.

"Especially in today's environment, offering benefits isn't enough," Shaffer said. "To make the investment pay off, employers must ensure employees take the time to understand, value and participate in the benefits enrollment process."

Showcasing How Benefits Are Vital

A new Fidelity report, Uncovering the Real Value of the Benefits You Offer, shows that employees are often unaware of their benefits options and frequently don't take advantage of them. The findings are from a survey of nearly 9,500 participants in Fidelity-administered benefit plans.

For instance, only 61 percent of employees could report whether telemedicine was offered to them. "In this case, if you are offering a benefit low in awareness, you may need to go back to basics and increase promotional efforts that emphasize availability, what it is, and how to use it," the report points out.

Health saving accounts (HSAs) are a different story. While 92 percent of employees surveyed knew whether an HSA was available, many chose not to opt for a high-deductible health plan (HDHP), which is a requirement to contribute to an HSA. However, 89 percent of account-holders who used an HSA reported that it had a positive effect on their lives. "In this case, awareness about availability isn't the issue, but employees may not understand the value a benefit brings," the report stated.

Approaching Open Enrollment

Fidelity's Manion suggested that open enrollment communications encourage employees to consider the following when selecting benefits for the year ahead:

  • Health insurance. Consider your finances, family health status, and preferred health care providers and hospitals when choosing health care coverage. Review deductibles and out-of-pocket maximums. To take advantage of an HSA, enroll in an HDHP.
  • HSAs and flexible spending accounts (FSAs). Take the time to learn how each of these accounts can be used, reviewing eligibility guidelines and updates to coverage, including services like telemedicine and over-the-counter medications.
  • Retirement savings. Consider increasing your 401(k) retirement savings plan contribution if the company reduced or suspended its match as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Other benefits may not require an employee to enroll and so are often overlooked despite their value, Manion noted. Be sure to highlight information regarding:

  • Telemedicine. Among Fidelity clients, 76 percent saw an increase in telemedicine use since the COVID-19 pandemic began. This benefit will continue to be important, and employees should understand how it works.
  • Employee assistance programs (EAPs). As the pandemic caused many people to experience anxiety, mental health and counseling services, such as those offered through an EAP, saw a 39 percent increase in use. This is a benefit that is impactful to employees' overall well-being when offered.
  • Wellness programs. Wellness programs are much appreciated when used, but 30 percent of employees surveyed did not know whether their employer offered them.

With millions of employees still working at home, effective benefits communication is more challenging than ever, Colonial Life's Schaffer said. He advised business and HR leaders to "ensure they're providing opportunities for employees to learn basic information and ask questions, even in a virtual environment."

5 Questions to Kick-Start Open Enrollment Planning

For employees dealing with physical, emotional and economic setbacks due to the pandemic, "this will be the year to reevaluate insurance and financial safety nets, so keep this in mind as you communicate about medical plans, disability insurance, flexible spending accounts and other financial wellness benefits," blogged Megan Yost, vice president and engagement strategist at communications consultancy Segal Benz in San Francisco.

She advised open enrollment managers to ask themselves five questions:

  • What will make this year's open enrollment a success?
  • How will the COVID-19 pandemic impact my goals and outreach strategy?
  • What barriers could prevent my employees from taking action?
  • What might I need to do differently from last year?
  • Who do I need to include to help make open enrollment a success?

"Even if you don't have all your plan design changes finalized just yet, planning ahead can help make everything go more smoothly and minimize unnecessary stress," Yost observed. "Lay your foundation now—and fill in the details when you have them."

SOURCE: Miller, S. (10 August 2020) "Spotlight Value of Benefits Package During Open Enrollment" (Web Blog Post). Retrieved from https://www.shrm.org/resourcesandtools/hr-topics/benefits/pages/spotlight-benefits-value-during-open-enrollment.aspx


Actions on Payroll Taxes and Unemployment Benefits Promise Relief, Raise Questions

Due to the amount of job losses caused by the coronavirus, President Trump has signed a series of executive orders to provide financial relief. Read this blog post to learn more.


On Aug. 8, President Donald Trump signed a series of executive orders and memorandums intended to provide financial relief to employees and those who have lost their jobs due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

These declarations included a Memorandum on Deferring Payroll Tax Obligations in Light of the Ongoing COVID-19 Disaster, which directed the Treasury Department to defer collection of the employee portion of Social Security FICA taxes—part of required payroll tax withholding—from Sept. 1 through the end of 2020. The deferred taxes may have to be subsequently repaid unless Congress enacts legislation stating otherwise.

Trump cited his authority to postpone certain tax deadlines by reason of a presidentially declared disaster. Democrats, however, are expected to challenge that claim in court. Nevertheless, it is prudent for employers and payroll managers to stay aware of developments and prepare to move quickly if the directive and upcoming guidance are not blocked or superseded by enactment of a comprehensive relief bill.

Payroll tax relief, as outlined in the president's directive, would require employers to take steps to ensure compliance, including working with their payroll administrators to adjust their systems by Sept. 1. Employers would also need to explain to employees that while their take-home pay may go up in the short term, they may be required to repay these deferred taxes at a future date.

Details on employer requirements, however, would depend on Treasury Department guidance, expected to be issued shortly.

The other presidential actions authorized a weekly supplemental federal unemployment benefit of up to $400, reduced from the $600 weekly supplement that expired July 31; continued student loan payment relief; and called for measures to prevent residential evictions and foreclosures resulting from financial hardships due to COVID-19.

 

Reduced Unemployment Insurance Supplement

Republicans in Congress argued that the initial $600 federal supplemental payment disincentivized recipients from seeking jobs, since many were collecting more money unemployed than employed. Some wanted the program reduced to $200 per week, while Democrats argued the program should be renewed at the original $600 per week.

Questions were raised about funding for the $400 unemployment insurance boost, which would pull from FEMA's Disaster Relief Fund to pay for a portion of the supplemental benefits while asking states to fund the remainder. Because states may not use the unemployment program to pay benefits unless they are authorized by Congress, they may have to set up a new system to pay their portion of the supplement.

Unemployment experts were also unsure about how funds will be distributed, who will qualify for benefits and how long the benefits will last, pending regulatory guidance.

FICA Taxes

Social Security and Medicare payroll taxes are collected together as the Federal Insurance Contributions Act (FICA) tax. FICA tax rates are statutorily set and are not adjusted for inflation.

Social Security is financed by a 12.4 percent payroll tax on wages up to employees' taxable earnings cap—$137,700 for 2020—with half (6.2 percent) paid by workers and the other half paid by employers. There is no earnings cap on the Medicare portion of FICA, for which employers and employees separately pay a 1.45 percent wage tax.

The COVID-19-related payroll tax relief only applies to the Social Security portion of FICA.

The Payroll Tax Directive

Section 2302 of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, enacted in March and implemented through IRS Notice 2020-22 and a series of IRS FAQs, allows eligible employers to defer the deposit and payment of the employer's share of Social Security FICA taxes for the period beginning March 27, 2020, through Dec. 31, 2020. The deferral also applies to 50 percent of the equivalent taxes incurred by self-employed persons. The deferred payments must subsequently be paid to the Treasury Department, with half due by Dec. 31, 2021, and the other half by Dec. 31, 2022.

The CARES Act provision and related guidance did not apply to employees' share of the Social Security tax.

Under the new presidential directive:

  • The secretary of the treasury is authorized to defer the withholding, deposit and payment to the Treasury of employees' portion of Social Security payroll taxes on applicable wages or compensation paid from Sept. 1, 2020, through Dec. 31, 2020. This provision does not apply to the Medicare portion of FICA taxes.
  • The deferral is to be made available to employees whose earnings during any biweekly pay period is generally less than $4,000, calculated on a pretax basis, which would cover salaried employees earning $104,000 or less per year.
  • Social Security taxes for these employees will be deferred without any penalties, interest, additional amount or addition to the tax.
  • The secretary of the treasury is directed to issue guidance to implement the president's memorandum and to explore avenues, including legislation, to eliminate the obligation to pay the taxes deferred under the implementation of the memorandum.

Josh Blackman, a constitutional law professor at the South Texas College of Law Houston, blogged that HR lawyers will have until Sept. 1 "to figure out the details." Because the policy terminates on Dec. 31, 2020, "President Trump, or President Biden, will be forced to decide whether to continue this program," he wrote.

A Controversial Move

"By providing this tax relief, American families will have more cash on hand during these critical next few months," according to a White House statement.

White House economic advisor Larry Kudlow said that "we will take any steps possible to forgive this deferral," so employees will not be required to pay back the amounts deferred through Dec. 31, The Hill reported. However, doing so would require new legislation by Congress.

Presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden charged that Trump would try to make the cuts permanent if re-elected and said doing so would "undermine the entire financial footing of Social Security."

Prepare to Adjust Systems and Notify Employees

For now, HR payroll managers should:

  • Discuss with their payroll administrators steps to adjust their payroll systems to exclude employees' share of FICA Social Security taxes beginning Sept. 1, pending the issuance of Treasury guidance.
  • Prepare to notify employees that possibly less of their pay will be subject to payroll withholding, although the reduction in payroll taxes may have to be paid back in the future.
  • Expect questions from employees who may be confused about current and future paycheck adjustments.

Employers' Questions Await Guidance

The president's executive memorandum "leaves open a number of questions and issues, some of which will likely be addressed by guidance from Treasury," according to a legal alert by Adam Cohen, Mary Monahan and Robert Neis, partners at law firm Eversheds Sutherland in Washington, D.C. Issues to be addressed, they said, include:

  • Whether the deferral is voluntary on the part of employers, and whether an employer may deposit and pay employees' deferred taxes at any time prior to the applicable due date.
  • Whether employers will be required to withhold all of the deferred amounts from the first paycheck on or after January 2021, or if there be an extended time for collection and deposit? "A lump sum repayment could cause significant financial hardship for some employees, particularly if it is required right after the holiday season," Cohen, Monahan and Neis noted.
  • What to do with respect to employees who terminate employment before Jan. 1, 2021. "To the extent the employee portion of [Social Security payroll taxes] was deferred, an employer may want to withhold it from paychecks prior to termination of employment, unless there is guidance permitting the employee to pay the deferred portion on their federal income tax return or by other means," the attorneys explained. "For lower-paid employees, this may eliminate one or more paychecks at the end of their tenure. In some situations, the employer may end up bearing the cost of the taxes as a practical matter."
  • Whether an employer can use the deferral with respect to some groups of qualifying employees, but not others, where that may be desirable for payroll administration or other reasons.
  • How overtime pay or other variable pay, such as commissions and bonuses, should be taken into account in calculating the $4,000 threshold. "It appears that base pay or wages may be the proper metric in most cases, but further elaboration by Treasury is needed," Cohen, Monahan and Neis said.

A Wait and See Approach

Melissa Ostrower and Robert Perry, principals in the New York City office of law firm Jackson Lewis, "recommend that employers continue to monitor applicable guidance, but not make any changes to their payroll withholding processes at this time."

They added, "We realize that changes to payroll systems require lead time, but given the uncertainty surrounding how the deferral will be implemented and whether it actually will become effective, we think this is the most prudent course at this time."

SOURCE: Miller, S. (10 August 2020) "Actions on Payroll Taxes and Unemployment Benefits Promise Relief, Raise Questions" (Web Blog Post). Retrieved from https://www.shrm.org/resourcesandtools/hr-topics/compensation/pages/actions-on-payroll-taxes-and-unemployment-benefits-promise-relief-raise-questions.aspx


Benefits Consideration for Onboarding Furloughed and Laid Off Employees

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to create obstacles for the workplace, many professionals are still having to continue with their day-to-day work lives which include having hard discussions with furloughed and laid-off employees. Read this blog post to learn helpful tips on re-enrolling employees into their benefits.


COVID-19 continues to throw us curveballs. While some states that were continuing on their path to recovery are having to backtrack, others have managed to temporarily halt the progression of COVID-19 and are proceeding as planned.

Amidst all this uncertainty, one thing is certain: human resource professionals continue to face overwhelming obstacles. Below, we outline issues that human resource professionals are likely to face as they onboard furloughed and laid-off employees.

Onboarding Furloughed Employees

HEALTH AND WELFARE PLANS

For employees enrolled in one or more employer sponsored health and welfare plans and receiving coverage during the furlough period:

  • Payroll deductions for required employee contributions for the plan generally resume upon return from furlough, subject to any changes in employment status that may affect eligibility.
  • To the extent repayment of employee contributions advanced during the furlough period is required, consider how to collect the employee contributions (e.g., through payroll deduction or otherwise), keeping in mind state law requirements related to payroll deductions.
  • Consider the extent to which election changes may be made upon return from furlough.

For employees not enrolled in an employer-sponsored health and welfare plan during the furlough period (or enrolled in COBRA continuation coverage):

  • Determine when eligibility for the plan resumes in accordance with plan terms (e.g., immediately or after a waiting period), subject to any impact on eligibility due to changes in employment status.
  • Consider the process for enrolling employees and the extent to which election changes may be made upon return from furlough, including any HIPAA special enrollment rights.

In addition:

  • Evaluate the impact of the furlough on employees' full-time status under the Affordable Care Act's (ACA's) lookback measurement period and stability period requirements.
  • Evaluate the impact of return from furlough on participation in wellness program activities and eligibility for wellness program incentives.
  • To the extent employees will have staggered work schedules, consider entitlement to benefits based on reduced hours (full time/part time) or new job requirements and whether any plan amendments are needed.

401(K) PLANS

Generally, employee and company contributions resume upon return from furlough; however, changes in job titles or positions may affect eligibility:

  • Determine whether employee and company contributions will resume immediately upon return from furlough based on elections in place immediately before the furlough period or whether new elections will be required.
  • Determine the extent to which legally required notices relating to plan participation must be provided.
  • Address the treatment of loan repayments upon return from furlough.
  • Determine the extent to which the period of furlough must be counted for purposes of plan eligibility, vesting and the right to allocation of contributions.

PENSION PLANS

  • Consider whether changes in job titles or positions may affect eligibility for continued participation upon return from furlough.
  • Review plan terms to determine the extent to which the period of furlough must be counted for purposes of plan eligibility, vesting and benefit accrual.

OTHER BENEFITS

  • Consider the impact of return from furlough on any commuter benefits (parking and transit).
  • Consider the impact of return from furlough on vacation and holiday accrual.

Onboarding Laid-Off Employees

HEALTH AND WELFARE PLANS

  • Treat rehired employees who have been laid off as new hires who must complete new hire paperwork for health and welfare plan eligibility.
  • Consider the impact of the termination of employment and rehire on the employee's status as a full-time employee under the ACA's lookback measurement period and stability period requirements.

QUALIFIED RETIREMENT PLANS

  • Defer to plan terms and break-in-service rules for purposes of determining the impact of the layoff on plan eligibility, vesting and benefit accrual.
  • Review plan terms and procedures for enrolling rehired employees in a 401(k) plan, including application of the plan's auto-enrollment feature, if any.

SOURCE: Pepper, T. (29 July 2020) "Benefits Consideration for Onboarding Furloughed and Laid Off Employees" (Web Blog Post). Retrieved from https://www.shrm.org/resourcesandtools/hr-topics/benefits/pages/benefits-consideration-for-onboarding-furloughed-and-laid-off-employees.aspx


Benefits fair cancelled? 6 strategies for remote benefits communication

Even as states begin to reopen from COVID-19-related closures and many employees return to their places of work, employers can’t rely on past approaches to communicate benefits information during open enrollment and to educate employees about their benefits. It’s unlikely that employers will be hosting large events like benefits fairs, a staple of open enrollment in past years, soon. In addition, some employees may continue to work remotely for an extended period, which means in-person benefits communication can’t be the only strategy.

Employers can consider several alternatives to craft an open enrollment and benefits education and engagement strategy that addresses these issues. For many employers, the solution will be to combine several of these approaches to ensure they are effectively communicating important benefits information and providing employees with more than one way to learn about their benefits and get answers to any questions that may arise.

Before developing a strategy, consider surveying employees to find out how they would prefer to receive information about benefits. Some people find email or printed materials effective, others prefer videos or interactive webinars, while others may be more responsive to receiving information via text message. Once you know your employees’ preferences, you can tailor your approach to increase the likelihood that your employees will use the tools you provide and have a positive experience.

  • Recast your benefits fair as a virtual event. If you want to gather employees together and explain benefit options, how the open enrollment process will work this year and provide them with the opportunity to interact with benefit vendors, you could create a virtual event modelled on the in-person benefits fair. Depending on your organization’s size, the number of employees you need to reach, and where they are located (for example office employees, warehouse or field employees, and remote employees), your approach to hosting a virtual benefits fair will vary. A growing number of IT service vendors offer virtual event planning and execution services that include setting up the technology needed to conduct the event, handling invitations and registrations of participants, working with benefits vendors to set up virtual booths and arranging educational webinars as part of the event.
  • Use your employee intranet, portal, or app. Regardless of whether you host a virtual event, you can use your employee website, portal or app and upload all the informational and educational material employees will need to make benefit choices. This approach can also include a secure portal that employees use to complete benefits forms. Another good feature to include is a chat, which can be either live chat or a chatbot, where employees can get answers to frequently asked questions and assistance with completing open enrollment forms.
  • Host webinars. Webinars not only give you the ability to communicate information about benefits, they also give employees the chance to directly ask the HR and Benefits team questions. In addition to the live webinar, you can record the event and post it on your organization’s employee site or send a link via email so that employees who were not able to attend can still hear your message firsthand.
  • Mail printed materials home. Some employees still prefer to receive benefits and enrollment information and forms in a printed format. It can provide a resource that they can easily refer back to when making their benefits sign up decision. Mailing these materials to employees’ home addresses rather than using your business address ensures that all employees, those who have returned onsite and those who are working remotely, have access to the information they need.
  • Use texts and calendar reminders. To help employees stay on top of enrollment deadlines, send text messages and add reminders to their work calendars. Text messages can also be used to send links to more in depth information resources so employees can access information when required.
  • One-on-one support is key. Employees are bound to have more complicated or confidential questions about their benefits choices, e.g. the need for information about coverage for cancer treatment or labor and delivery. Providing one-on-one phone and chat support from the HR and Benefits team gives employees a way to get answers to questions they don’t want to ask in a more public forum such as a webinar.

A benefits plan is only valuable if employees are knowledgeable about what benefits they have and how to access them. Many of these approaches can also be used on an ongoing basis to provide education on and drive engagement with benefits so employees and employers both get the most out of their plans.

SOURCE: Varn, M. (27 July 2020) "Benefits fair cancelled? 6 strategies for remote benefits communication" (Web Blog Post). Retrieved from https://www.benefitnews.com/opinion/benefits-fair-cancelled-6-strategies-for-remote-benefits-communication