DOL Says No Fine for Failing to Provide Exchange Notices in 2013

Originally posted by Stephen Miller on September 13, 2013 on http://www.shrm.org

U.S. employers were again surprised by another unexpected suspension of a provision of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA or ACA) when, on Sept. 11, 2013, the Department of Labor (DOL) announced there will be no penalty imposed on employers that fail to distribute to workers a notice about available coverage under state- and federal-government-run health insurance exchanges (collectively referred to by the government as the "health insurance marketplace"), scheduled to launch in October 2013.

Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) Section 18B, added to the labor statute by the PPACA, requires employers that are subject to the FLSA to provide all their employees by Oct. 1 of each year (the traditional start of the annual open enrollment season for employee health plans), and all new employees at the time of hiring, a written notice informing them of the following:

  • The existence of the government-run health care exchanges/the marketplace, including a description of the services provided and the manner in which employees may contact an exchange to request assistance.
  • If the employer plan’s share of the total allowed costs of benefits provided under the plan is less than 60 percent of such costs, workers may be eligible for a premium tax credit under Section 36B of the Internal Revenue Code if they purchase a qualified health plan through an exchange.
  • Employees who purchase a qualified health plan through an exchange may lose their employer’s contribution to any health benefits plan the organization offers. All or a portion of this contribution may be excluded from income for federal income tax purposes.

According to the PPACA and subsequent guidance, the notice must be provided to each employee, regardless of plan-enrollment status or part-time or full-time status. Employers are not required to provide a separate notice to dependents or retirees, but an employer's obligation to provide notice may extend to its independent contractors and leased workers, depending on the nature of their relationship with the employer as determined under the FLSA's "economic reality" test.

The PPACA has a $100-a-day penalty for noncompliance with its provisions (unless otherwise specified in the statute), and it had generally been assumed this penalty would apply to employers that fail to distribute the exchange notice, possibly with additional penalties for failure to comply with a provision of the FLSA. However, the penalty provision had not been made explicit in any previous guidance, nor had the regulators described how the penalty would be implemented and enforced.

Then, on Sept. 11, 2013, the DOL posted on its website a new FAQ on Notice of Coverage Optionswhich states:

Q: Can an employer be fined for failing to provide employees with notice about the Affordable Care Act’s new Health Insurance Marketplace?

A: No. If your company is covered by the Fair Labor Standards Act, it should provide a written notice to its employees about the Health Insurance Marketplace by Oct. 1, 2013, but there is no fine or penalty under the law for failing to provide the notice.

DOL Encourages Compliance

Keith R. McMurdy, a partner at law firm Fox Rothschild LLP, commented in a posting on his firm’s Employee Benefits Legal Blog that Section 18B of the FLSA clearly states that any employer subject to the FLSA “shall provide” written notice to current and future employees and that the DOL’s Technical Release No. 2013-02, issued in May 2013, states that Section 18B of the FLSA generally provides that an applicable employer “must provide” each employee with a notice. McMurdy wrote:

My experience with the federal laws and the enforcement of said laws by federal agencies is that when things say “shall” and “must,” there are penalties when you don’t do them. So when the DOL now takes the position that it is not a “shall” or “must” scenario, but rather only a “should” and “even if you don’t we won’t punish you” proposition, I get suspicious. But I also think this confirms what I have said since the beginning about PPACA compliance for employers. It is all about your risk tolerance.” …

So, if you don’t want to send the Oct. 1, 2013 Notice, apparently the DOL “FAQ” says you have no penalties and thus no risk. Me? My risk tolerance is a little lower than that and my experience with regulatory agencies is such that I don’t trust informal “FAQs” posted on the web as much as I trust the clear language of the statutes and prior technical releases. Words like “shall” and “must” usually mean that if I don’t do it I get burned. So I am still recommending that employers comply with the notice requirement. Why? I can almost guarantee that if you send the notice, you won’t face a penalty for not sending it. But if you don’t send one, well, I still say all bets are off.

Christine P. Roberts, a benefits attorney at law firm Mullen & Henzell LLP,commented on her “E is for ERISA” blog, “This information, at this late date, is more confusing than it is helpful to employers who have already invested significant resources in preparing to deliver the Notice of Exchange.” She added this cautionary note:

“Particularly for employers with pre-existing group health plans, the Notice of Exchange potentially could be viewed by the DOL as within the scope of the employer’s required disclosures to participants and thus within the scope of an ERISA audit, or separate penalties could be imposed through amendment to the FLSA or the ACA.”

Model Notices

The DOL’s Sept. 11 FAQ reiterated that the department has two model notices to help employers comply with the Oct. 1 exchange/marketplace notice deadline (which they are strongly encouraged to meet):

Employers may use one of these models, as applicable, or a modified version. The model notices are also available in Spanish and MS Word format at www.dol.gov/ebsa/healthreform.


Compliance Alert – Exchange Notice

Two versions of a model exchange notice have been issued by the Department Of Labor which also include basic directions on the requirements of distributing this notice. The first notice pertains to employers who provide coverage, whereas the other notice is for employers who do not offer coverage. The deadline for administering these notices is October 1st, 2013.

Basic employer information is required for both notices. This information will provide data necessary for the employee if they decide to receive exchange coverage. However, the notice does not need to include state-specific information pertaining to the exchange. For your convenience, the links below offer instructions and information on the model notices; and we will keep you updated with more information next week or as this is updated.

Model Exchange Notice for Employers who provide coverage

Model Exchange Notice for Employers who do Not provide coverage

 

 

 


Regulation Roundup: The Hits Keep On Coming

Source: United Benefit Advisors

The federal government in the past few weeks has kept up the fast pace of pumping out benefits-related guidance -- a trend that started at the end of 2012 --  with a set of final and proposed regulations for the health care reform law, a final HIPAA rule and a compromise on the Obama administration's coverage requirement for contraceptives.

HIPAA: The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) released its HIPAA omnibus final rule in late January. The final rule establishes new rights for individuals to access their health information, calls for updates to business associate contracts, beefs up privacy protections for patients and gives the government more power to enforce the law, according to a HealthLeaders Media article.

Employers should expect tougher policing of HIPAA-related infractions by federal agencies, experts say.

"The 'good old days' of voluntary compliance and 'slaps on the wrist' seem to be a thing of the past," Brad M. Rostolsky, a partner with Reed Smith, LLP, told HealthLeaders Media. "As a result, it's important that regulated businesses, from the top down, are seen to have buy-in to HIPAA compliance efforts."

Contraception Compromise: HHS has tweaked its requirement that religious nonprofit organizations provide their female members coverage for birth control, according to a PPACA Advisor release from United Benefit Advisors (UBA). Instead, insurance companies, after being notified of the employer's objection to the coverage, would be required to provide coverage at no cost to workers through separate policies. If the employer is self-insured, it can use a third party to set up a separate health policy that would provide coverage for contraceptives. The costs for this action may be be offset by the fees that insurers will pay to participate in the government-run health care exchanges, slated to go online in 2014.

Affordability: The IRS finalized a rule that clarified that the health coverage "affordability" requirement (that an employee's premium contribution not exceed 9.5 percent of household income) under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA) will be based on self-only coverage, according to a Business Insurance online report. Employers with plans that fail that test face a $3,000 penalty for each full-time employee who is not offered affordable coverage and instead receives a premium subsidy from the government to purchase insurance in a health care exchange. The proposed regulation left open the possibility that the affordability test might have applied to family coverage, but the IRS removed that scenario with its final rule.

HRAs: A new set of frequently asked questions posted by federal agencies limits the use of health reimbursement arrangements (HRAs) in the coming government-run health insurance exchanges, an online report by the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) notes. The FAQs state that an HRA that is not integrated with a group health plan but instead functions as a "stand-alone" benefit falls under the PPACA provision that limits the annual amount an individual is required to spend on health care coverage. The report points out that this restriction means funds from stand-alone HRAs can't be used to buy individual coverage through the online exchanges, slated to open in 2014.

Timothy Jost, a professor at Washington and Lee University School of Law, told SHRM that many employers were hoping to offer employees "a fixed-dollar contribution" through an HRA. Such a move "would permit the employee to take advantage of the tax subsidies currently available through HRA coverage but get the employer out of the health insurance business." For many employers, this now will not be possible.

Minimum Coverage: A proposed PPACA rule clarifies what types of services would be considered "minimal essential coverage," UBA reports. Services such as on-site clinics, limited-scope dental and vision, long-term care, disability income and accident-only income would not qualify as employer-sponsored minimal essential coverage. More details can be found in the Federal Register: http://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/FR-2013-02-01/pdf/2013-02141.pdf

Exchange Notice Delay: Employers who were concerned about a fast-approaching deadline to distribute notices on the exchanges can relax for a few more months. The Department of Labor (DOL) has pushed the date (originally March 1) to late summer or early fall. The DOL is preparing model language for the notice, and a final date will be announced later, the agency said.

 


Exchange Notice Requirements Delayed

The Affordable Care Act (ACA) requires employers to provide all new hires and current employees with a written notice about ACA’s health insurance exchanges (Exchanges), effective March 1, 2013.

On Jan. 24, 2013, the Department of Labor (DOL) announced that employers will not be held to the March 1, 2013, deadline. They will not have to comply until final regulations are issued and a final effective date is specified.

This Power Group Companies Legislative Brief details the expected timeline for the exchange notice requirements.

Exchange Notice Requirements

In general, the notice must:

  • Inform employees about the existence of the Exchange and give a description of the services provided by the Exchange;
  • Explain how employees may be eligible for a premium tax credit or a cost-sharing reduction if the employer's plan does not meet certain requirements;
  • Inform employees that if they purchase coverage through the Exchange, they may lose any employer contribution toward the cost of employer-provided coverage, and that all or a portion of this employer contribution may be excludable for federal income tax purposes; and
  • Include contact information for the Exchange and an explanation of appeal rights.

This requirement is found in Section 18B of the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), which was created by the ACA. The DOL has not yet issued a model notice or regulations about the employer notice requirement.

When do Employers have to Comply with the Exchange Notice Requirements?

Section 18B provides that employer compliance with the notice requirements must be carried out "[i]n accordance with regulations promulgated by the Secretary [of Labor]." Accordingly, the DOL has announced that, until regulations are issued and become applicable, employers are not required to comply with the exchange notice requirements.

The DOL has concluded that the notice requirement will not take effect on March 1, 2013, for several reasons. First, this notice should be coordinated with HHS's educational efforts and IRS guidance on minimum value. Second, the DOL is committed to a smooth implementation process, including:

  • Providing employers with sufficient time to comply; and
  • Selecting an applicability date that ensures that employees receive the information at a meaningful time.

The DOL expects that the timing for distribution of notices will be the late summer or fall of 2013, which will coordinate with the open enrollment period for Exchanges.

The DOL is considering providing model, generic language that could be used to satisfy the notice requirement. As a compliance alternative, the DOL is also considering allowing employers to satisfy the notice requirement by providing employees with information using the employer coverage template as discussed in the preamble to the Proposed Rule on Medicaid, Children's Health Insurance Programs and Exchanges.

Future guidance on complying with the notice requirement under FLSA section 18B is expected to provide flexibility and adequate time to comply.