3 alternative ways clients can use an HSA

HSAs get hailed as a boon to retirement savers, offering rare triple-tax advantage status to dollars deposited within. But these accounts, offered in tandem with high-deductible health insurance coverage, are far more versatile than they get credit for.

Typically thought of and discussed primarily as a way to help clients meet medical bills today or in their future retirement, HSAs can provide assistance beyond this narrow scope, with funds eligible for use to pay Medicare or COBRA premiums, long-term care, and non-medical expenses — all without jeopardizing that special tax treatment.

Medicare and COBRA premiums

Once clients enroll in Medicare they can no longer contribute to their HSA, but they can do something they could never do on a high-deductible plan: use the money they’ve already stashed in it to cover their premiums.

HSA funds can pay for Medicare Parts A, B and D as well as copays for Part D. Medicare HMO, Medicare Advantage, and MAPD plan premiums are also eligible expenses for reimbursement. However, HSAs cannot help with Medicare Supplement Plan or Medigap premiums, says Paul Fronstin, director of the Employee Benefit Research Institute's health research and education program.

Married couples may run into trouble when they go to reimburse themselves for such premium expenses if the account owner isn’t also the spouse who is going onto Medicare or they are not yet 65, warns Roy Ramthun, founder and president of HSA Consulting Services and a former health care policy advisor for President George W. Bush. That’s because, while HSA’s can normally be used to pay expenses incurred by the account owner’s spouse or dependent, Medicare premiums aren’t considered an eligible expense unless the account holder is 65. This means couples with any age gap need to consider whose name the HSA should be under or each open their own HSA so that the older partner doesn’t have to wait until the younger turns 65 to take advantage of this rule. (Opening two separate HSAs will also allow clients age 55 or older to make duel $1,000 catch-up contributions on top of the usual annual limits.)

Clients who reach Medicare age but opt to delay enrolling because they’re still working can also use their HSA money to pay for their employer-sponsored health care as well as continue funding an HSA. They can do this even if their spouse is on Medicare, as long as they’re on a HDHP.

And finally, clients who lost their jobs this year will likely be relieved by another HSA premium exception. If a person has health care continuation coverage, such as with COBRA, or is collecting unemployment compensation under federal or state law then they can use their HSA to pay the premiums for their health insurance, says Fronstin.

“HSA funds will frequently be used by clients to pay premiums in situations where there are little or no alternatives,” says Justin Rucci, a financial planner at Tustin, California-based Warren Street Wealth Advisors. “In a situation where a client was laid off from work, has a hefty HSA balance, and has expensive COBRA premiums, this could be a prime candidate. Alternatively, a wealthy client with a large HSA balance beyond what they would use for out of pocket medical expenses can be a good candidate for this.”

Long-term care

Like with Medicare and COBRA, HSA funds can be used to cover premiums for purchasing long-term care insurance — if it’s the right policy.

To qualify, a policy must provide coverage for only long-term care services and kick in if you need assistance with at least two daily living activities or if you suffer cognitive impairment.

“Honestly, I don’t know how many policies do not meet these requirements,” says Ramthun. “But there may be some out there and clients will want to make sure it is the right kind or else they’re going to have a bad day when they find out it isn’t.”

If your client is unsure, have them verify with their insurer that their policy is tax-qualified before considering such a move or else they could be on the hook for income tax and a penalty.

The amount a client can take from the HSA to pay the premium depends on their age. For 2019, clients 40 or younger can withdraw $420 annually to pay this expense, but those between 41 and 50 can direct almost double, $790, to their long-term care insurance policy. Those between 51 and 60 can withdraw $1,580; 61 to 70 year-olds can take out $4,220 and people 71 and older can withdraw $5,270. (The IRS has not released the limits for 2020, but they usually rise slightly each year. Ramthun expects the new figures will be out in January.)

Alternatively, clients who do purchase long-term care insurance but pay premiums out of their own pocket each year can save those receipts and then withdraw a sum equal to that annual permitted outlay at any time in the future.

Those who would prefer to go without insurance and self-fund possible long-term care costs can tap HSA assets to pay for such expenses as they occur, allowing them to better take advantage of the potential tax-free growth that comes with saving in an HSA. However, not all long-term care costs are reimbursable, warns Ramthun.

Typically long-term services that are needed to handle daily functions if you’re chronically ill or disabled count, as do those required by a plan of care prescribed by a doctor. But those who require help with more maintenance tasks like laundry or cleaning to stay in their home can’t usually use HSA funds as they aren’t considered a medical service. Nursing home costs can also be tricky for this reason as certain medical care or assistance provided at the facility may be eligible for reimbursement but other associated expenses, like room and board or meals, often are not, even at the highest level of dependent care, says Ramthun.

Non-medical expenses

While clients may have the best intentions to save their HSA funds for future medical expenses in retirement, a year like 2020 can derail such plans. If someone needs additional funds, for, say, living expenses after a job loss or an unexpected car repair, they can withdraw funds from their HSA without triggering taxes or a penalty. The catch? They must have unreimbursed past healthcare expenses.

As long as the client had an open HSA when they incurred the medical expense and hasn’t yet tapped it to cover that cost, an amount equal to that bill can be withdrawn at any time and used for any purpose they want. Clients can claim back funds for expenses dating all the way back to 2004, when HSAs were first introduced, provided they had an account. Receipts should be on hand to prove their story in case the IRS comes checking.

One thing that can trip up clients planning to use this feature is a low or empty current HSA balance. That’s because if the account balance remains at zero for 18 months, the IRS considers the HSA closed and any medical expenses you incurred before that time will no longer be reimbursable, even if you open and fund a new HSA. “

“They essentially lose that original HSA establishment date,” says Ramthun.

Financial institutions may also act before the IRS rule kicks in, closing zero balance accounts after 15 months or earlier, again negating the ability to claim back any previous medical expenses.

Clients who move off high-deductible health plans or change employers and can no longer fund an HSA are most likely to fall victim, Ramthun adds, as a withdrawal for a medical cost or fees may empty the account without them being able to do anything to rectify it.

In desperation, clients may opt to pull more from their HSA than they have in past medical bills, but this move will cost them dearly, triggering income tax and a 20% penalty on the amount unmatched to those unreimbursed health care expenses.

Turning age 65, however, lessens this pain, as withdrawals no longer need to be paired with a medical expense to avoid that 20% tax penalty. Income tax, however, will still be owed on any funds removed for non-healthcare expenses, similar to how distributions from a traditional IRA or 401(k) are treated.

SOURCE: Renzulli, K. (04 December 2020) "3 alternative ways clients can use an HSA" (Web Blog Post). Retrieved from https://www.employeebenefitadviser.com/news/3-alternative-uses-for-an-hsa-include-cobra-premiums-long-term-care-non-medical-expenses


How benefit advisers can hold healthcare plans accountable for their prices

Brokers and consultants already know that much of the growth in health benefit costs is not driven by insurer and TPA rate increases, but rather by the increase in the price and volume of healthcare services. While some of these costs are due to growing survivability rates for serious diseases and therapeutic improvements, much are avoidable, such as expenses associated with unnecessary care and unnecessarily expensive care. Evidence of variability of costs is found in the fact that unit cost and utilization can vary wildly from health system to health system, even within the same market.

Read more: 4 drivers of healthcare costs — and what advisers should do

Just because macro healthcare economics is the primary driver of overall health costs, doesn’t mean that health plans are powerless to control price increases. Even though health plans can and do negotiate rates directly with health systems in their networks, too often they don’t do everything they can to offer exceptional value to their customers. They don’t ask the right questions of health systems, they don’t practice thorough utilization management, and they don’t contract exclusively with providers who focus on high-value care. In other words, they don’t work hard enough to eliminate unnecessary costs or to bring prices down. Instead, they treat them as a given and pass those costs on to their customers.

Too often, benefit advisers take the whole healthcare market as a given, especially due to the popularity of broad preferred provider organization (PPO) networks, which include almost every system in an area. But the reality is that economics vary dramatically from system to system, so employee benefit advisors need to understand local economics in order to effectively evaluate network differences and find value. They can do this by:

  • Heavily and skeptically questioning carriers and TPAs to understand their networks and participating providers. Examples of questions to ask include: Tell me your opinion about different health systems in your network? How much do negotiated fees vary for outpatient services, professional services, etc.? Why is a specific expensive provider part of your narrow / high-performance network?

It’s also important to ask when a contract with a specific health system is up and if it will be renegotiated soon, since a new contract could include very different rates from the current one. Note that some of the time, carriers will discuss rates as a function of Medicare, but because Medicare DRG rates can vary dramatically from hospital to hospital, an adviser needs to understand Medicare base rates.

  • Analyzing claims. Every adviser has plenty of these available to them, and they should be analyzing those claims to determine which providers are lower cost and which are higher cost. In particular, it’s important to look at outpatient rates, facility rates, and professional rates, by specialty. It’s also important to compare the same diagnosis codes across providers. For example, claims could reveal that a hypothetical Dr. Jones operates on 100 patients out of 100, while a hypothetical Dr. Smith operates on only 50 patients out of 100 with the same condition. To figure out why this discrepancy exists, we would have to dig deeper since some doctors or practices may cater to only high-risk patients. Claim data can help shed light on health plan information that is not typically available to the public as health plan rates are often proprietary but appear on claims.

Taking all of these steps will help benefit advisers achieve something essential: holding health plans accountable for their prices. If a health plan doesn’t aggressively hunt for high value providers and reward them, you should ask why. And if you don’t like their answer, you probably identified a plan that isn’t a good fit for your clients because it doesn’t deliver on what matters most: quality care offered at an affordable price without compromising coverage.

SOURCE: Cohen, A. (04 November 2020) "How benefit advisers can hold healthcare plans accountable for their prices" (Web Blog Post). Retrieved from https://www.employeebenefitadviser.com/opinion/how-benefit-advisers-can-hold-healthcare-plans-accountable-for-their-prices


Here's your employee checklist for open enrollment

 


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 almost here, 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.

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. Here are five tips to keep in mind as you prepare for and participate in open enrollment.

 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.

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 prepre 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.

 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.

 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.

 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.

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.

SOURCE: Buckey, K. (21 October 2020) "Here's your employee checklist for open enrollment" (Web Blog Post). Retrieved from https://www.employeebenefitadviser.com/list/heres-your-employee-checklist-for-open-enrollment

Top 10 year-end tax planning tips

Another year is coming to a close, which only means a season of taxes is slowly approaching. Tax time can often be one of the most stressful times of the year for businesses, employees, and even clients, but that just means helping clients with a less stressful year-end planning session more crucial than ever. Read this blog post for helpful tips.


Between the upcoming presidential election and the COVID-19 pandemic and its attendant stimulus packages, this year has seen more than its share of uncertainty around tax — which makes helping clients with year-end planning all the more crucial.

“Year-end tax planning is more important than ever this year,” said Renato Zanichelli, national managing partner of tax services at Grant Thornton, in a statement. “Businesses both large and small have been dealt a tough hand. Having the right tax strategy will help businesses navigate this time of historic disruption and put them on the right track as a new year begins.”

“Lawmakers dedicated trillions of dollars to keep families and businesses afloat, but those provisions may also require quick action, in many cases by the end of this year,” added Dustin Stamper, managing director in the firm’s Washington National Tax Office. “The government wants to get money in the hands of those who need it, and many of the most generous provisions are tax changes that provide welcome liquidity for businesses and timely relief for individuals.”

With that in mind, the Top Eight Firm has put together a list of 10 key tax considerations for year-end planning for both individuals and businesses (below); for more see their year-end tax planning guides.

FOR INDIVIDUALS: 1. Use above-the-line charitable deduction
Everyone is entitled to a charitable deduction this year. The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act doubled the standard deduction while repealing or limiting many itemized deductions, leaving millions fewer taxpayers claiming actual itemized deductions. Typically, there is no tax benefit for giving to charity unless you itemize deductions. However, the CARES Act created an above-the-line deduction of up to $300 for cash contributions from taxpayers who don’t itemize. To take advantage of this provision, taxpayers should make sure to donate before the end of the year.
2. Understand the impact of that stimulus check
The CARES Act directed the IRS to issue stimulus checks of up to $1,200 per taxpayer and $500 per qualified child dependent earlier this year. The payments were paid based on 2018 or 2019 return information, but are actually structured as advances of 2020 tax credits. The credits phase out for higher-income taxpayers, so taxpayers want to understand the implications if the check they received based on 2018 or 2019 won’t match the amount of credit they will calculate on the 2020 return. If the 2020 credit calculation is less than they received, there is no clawback. If they received less than the credit calculated for 2020, they can claim it as an additional refund.
Opportunity zones are one of the most powerful incentives ever offered by Congress for investing in specific geographic areas. In certain scenarios, not only can an investor potentially defer paying tax on gains invested in an opportunity zone until as late as 2026, but they only recognize 90 percent of the gain if they hold the investment for five years. Additionally, if they hold the investment for 10 years and satisfy the rules, they pay no tax on the appreciation of the opportunity zone investment itself. If they’re worried about capital gains rates going up under a new administration, this may provide an excellent tax-free investment. There are more than 8,000 opportunity zones throughout the United States, and many types of investment, development and business activities can qualify.
4. Make up a tax shortfall with increased withholding
COVID-19 created cash-flow problems for many individuals. Taxpayers should make sure their withholding and estimated taxes align with what they actually expect to pay while they have time to fix a problem. If they find themselves in danger of being penalized for underpaying taxes, they can make up the shortfall through increased withholding on their salary or bonuses. A larger estimated tax payment at the end of the year can still expose them to penalties for underpayments in previous quarters, but withholding is considered to have been paid ratably throughout the year, so increasing it for year-end wages can save them in penalties.
5. Leverage low interest rates and generous exemptions before they’re gone
The historically low interest rates and lifetime gift and estate tax exemptions present a powerful estate-planning opportunity. Many estate and gift tax strategies hinge on the ability of assets to appreciate faster than the interest rates prescribed by the IRS. In addition, the economic fallout of COVID-19 is depressing many asset values. There’s a small window of opportunity to employ estate-planning techniques while interest rates are still low and the lifetime gift exemption is at an all-time high. The current gift and estate tax exemptions are set to expire in a few years, and a new administration in the White House could accelerate that timeline.
FOR BUSINESSES: 6. Accelerate AMT refunds
When the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act repealed the corporate Alternative Minimum Tax, it allowed corporations to claim all their unused AMT credits in the tax years beginning in 2018, 2019, 2020 and 2021. The CARES Act accelerates this timeline, allowing corporations to claim all remaining credits in either 2018 or 2019. This gives companies several different options to file for quick refunds. The fastest method for many companies will be filing a tentative refund claim on Form 1139, but corporations must file by Dec. 31, 2020, to claim an AMT credit this way.
7. Use current losses for quick refunds
The CARES Act resurrected a provision allowing businesses to use current losses against past income for immediate refunds. Net operating losses arising in tax years beginning in 2018, 2019 and 2020 can be carried back five years for refunds against prior taxes. These losses can even offset income at the higher tax rates in place before 2018. Companies should consider opportunities to accelerate deductions into a loss year to benefit from this rate arbitrage and obtain a larger refund.

Accounting method changes are among the most powerful ways to accelerate deductions, but remember any non-automatic changes a company wants to make effective for the 2020 calendar year must be made by the end of the year. C corporations make NOL refund claims themselves, but passthrough businesses like partnerships and S corporations pass losses onto to owners, who will make claims.

The fastest way to obtain a refund is generally by filing a tentative refund claim, but these must be filed by Dec. 31, 2020, for the 2019 calendar year. If losses will be in 2020, the business should start preparing to file early, because they cannot claim an NOL carryback refund until they file their tax return for the year.

8. Retroactive refund for bonus depreciation
The CARES Act fixed a technical problem with bonus depreciation, a generous provision that allows companies to immediately deduct the full cost of many types of business investments. The legislation expands bonus depreciation to apply to a generous category of qualified improvement property. QIP is commonly thought of as a retail and restaurant issue, but it is much broader and applies to almost any improvement to the interior of a building that is either owned or leased. The fix is retroactive, so businesses can fully deduct qualified improvements dating back to Jan. 1, 2018, which may offer relatively quick refunds. Taxpayers who filed 2018 and 2019 returns before the law changed can choose whether to reflect the additional retroactive deduction entirely in the 2020 year with an accounting method change, or amend both the 2018 and 2019 returns to apply bonus depreciation for QIP in each of those years.
9. Claim quick disaster loss refunds
A sign reminding people to social distance stands at Louis Armstrong Park in New Orleans, Louisiana.

Sophia Germer/Bloomberg

Tax rules allow businesses to claim certain losses attributable to a disaster on a prior-year tax return. This is meant to provide quicker refunds. President Donald Trump’s COVID-19 disaster declaration was unprecedented in scope, designating all 50 states, the District of Columbia and five territories as disaster areas. This means essentially every U.S. business is in the covered disaster area and may be eligible for refunds from certain types of losses. Under this provision, a business could claim a COVID-19 related disaster loss occurring in 2020 on a 2019 amended return for a quicker refund. The provision may potentially affect losses arising in a variety of circumstances, including the loss of inventory or supplies or the closure of offices, stores or plants. To qualify, the loss must actually be attributable to or caused by COVID-19 and satisfy several other requirements.

10. Consider the timing of payroll tax deduction
The CARES Act allows employers to defer paying their 6.2 percent share of Social Security taxes for the rest of 2020. Half of the deferred amount is due by Dec. 31, 2021, with the other half due by Dec. 31, 2022. This provides a great liquidity benefit, but taxpayers should consider the impact on deductions before the end of the year. Businesses generally cannot deduct their share of payroll taxes until paid. For most businesses, the value of deferring the actual payment is worth also deferring the deduction, but there may be some benefits for paying early to take the deduction in 2020, such as increasing an NOL for the rate arbitrage benefits discussed above. Some taxpayers using specific methods of accounting may also be able to pay the taxes as late as 8-½ months into 2021 and still claim the deduction for 2020.
BONUS: Re-evaluate the company’s tax function
Many tax departments at even the largest and most sophisticated companies still dedicate most of their time to basic number-crunching and repetitive processes. These kinds of inefficiencies make it hard to meet deadlines, present audit and tax risks, and cost businesses money — especially during unprecedented times like the COVID-19 pandemic where teams may be lean and struggling to keep up. Data analytics and automation can help mitigate these problems and enable a business’ tax function to focus more on strategic, value-added solutions — shifting away from a compliance-only role.
SOURCE: Employee Benefit Advisors. (08 October 2020) "Top 10 year-end tax planning tips" (Web Blog Post). Retrieved from http://employeebenefitadviser.com/list/top-10-year-end-tax-planning-tips


Tackle growing healthcare costs with earned wage access

As open enrollment begins to trickle in, advisors are looking for new and improved ways to help employees to leverage out of pocket costs on the year that is upon them. For both and employers and employees, healthcare strategies are an integral part of workforce management. Read this blog post to learn more.


It’s that time of year when we all learn that health care costs are going up (again).

As the nonprofit Business Group on Health reported, the average employee will be hit with $15,500 in out-of-pocket costs next year, and the average employer will pick up about two-thirds of that tab. Even with shared responsibility, those are big hits for both employer and worker, which is why health care strategy must be integral part of workforce management.

However, benefits managers may not be aware of a tool that may help keep health care costs down for both employers and workers, and which lets employees more fully participate in the economy they helped create.

Earned Wage Access (EWA), sometimes known as on-demand pay, is a revolutionary benefit that I wrote about back in May. It comes at no cost to employers, and is available to workers at little or even no cost, depending on the provider.

Earned Wage Access allows workers to access a portion of their earned wages that they have not yet been paid on. Depending on the provider, those wages can be immediately accessed on the provider’s payroll card, or just about any debit card.

What does on-demand pay have to do with health care?

When employees receive medical services, payment is often required up front. If employees only get their paycheck every two weeks, they may not have access to liquidity to pay for those services. The result is that an employee may be forced to delay a necessary visit or procedure, and if they are suffering from an acute condition, their health may be severely compromised.

However, with immediate access to the money employees have earned, but not yet been paid on, they have access to health care in the moment. Waiting rooms are bad enough. Waiting periods for basic health care are unnecessary and harmful.

There’s another reason why on-demand pay is critical to your health care strategy. There is a stealth health care crisis brewing in America. Millions have delayed preventative and necessary care due to the COVID-19 situation.

Every delayed preventative screening, test or check-up can result in a failure to discover a serious medical condition that requires treatment. That raises treatment costs down the line for both company health plan and employee.

By wrapping earned wage access into your health care strategy, you can encourage workers to utilize preventative and maintenance care at any time — not just on payday. Doing so also eliminates a common impediment: some people just don’t like to go to the doctor. If they have the excuse not to go, they’ll use it. EWA removes that psychological obstacle.

The same goes for access to medications. High cholesterol, high blood pressure, anxiety/depression, and many other chronic conditions require regular doses of prescribed drugs. Missing even a single day of some of these medications can significantly increase risk of adverse consequences in patients.

Earned wage access allows employees to refill medications when they need to. Waiting can be deadly. Some EWA providers even offer prescription discounts with their smartphone app.

Physicians encourage timely health care for obvious reasons. Employers should encourage it as well, not only out of concern for workers, but because timely health care can result in lower health care costs. However, it’s one thing to encourage timely health care visits. It’s another to offer timely pay to workers so they can meet that request. Earned wage access creates immediate health care access.

On-demand pay usually comes at no cost to employers. Some providers are already integrated with the largest payroll services, and others are integrated with dozens of them. The cost of earned wage access varies by provider, but certain ones offer the service at no cost for employees who use the provider’s payroll card. Other services have costs that are extremely low.

Adding earned wage access to your benefit plan will benefit your overall health care strategy, and your employees.

SOURCE: Meyers, L. (05 October 2020) "Views: Tackle growing healthcare costs with earned wage access" (Web Blog Post). Retrieved from https://www.employeebenefitadviser.com/opinion/tackle-growing-healthcare-costs-with-earned-wage-access


5 open enrollment communication strategies for your remote workforce

As the employee benefits workforce continues to stay remote in a majority of places, it's important for them to strategize their communication especially as open enrollment season is coming around the corner. Read this blog post for helpful tips.


Even before the COVID-19 pandemic forced many employers to switch from a mostly onsite workforce to a remote or dispersed workforce, employers were faced with effectively and consistently communicating benefits to employees who were located in different locations, whether that meant offices in different cities or countries; work from home employees; employees working in warehouses, factories, and distribution centers; or employees working at different branches of retail or service businesses.

This communication is important because when employees are unaware of what benefits are available or don’t know how to access their benefits, utilization can drop significantly, so neither employees nor employers are getting value from the benefit offerings. In addition, when employees aren’t using or aware of their benefits, satisfaction with employers decline, which can impact both productivity and retention.

The goal is to both effectively and continuously communicate with employees and build awareness and understanding of available benefits, not just during open enrollment, but all year long. Of course, each communication strategy will be shaped by the organization’s culture, but there are several tools that employers should consider including in their benefits communication toolkit.

Diversify your benefits communication tools
Before developing your benefits communications plan, determine how employees prefer to receive this information by surveying them. In most organizations, there will be several different approaches that appeal to employees because of differences in employee ages, locations (office vs. warehouse or delivery truck), and comfort level with technology.

In the past, standard benefits communications were printed materials that were either distributed at work or mailed home. And while this tool is still effective and gives employees something they can use as a reference throughout the year, there are several other tools that employers should consider using to reach their diverse employee audiences.

Dedicated benefits websites and/or mobile apps broaden access to information
Unlike printed materials, with an online benefits site and mobile app employees can access the content wherever they are, whenever they want, and employers can update the information frequently without incurring printing costs. The site can also serve as a convenient way for employees to ask benefits questions, which can be answered by email from an HR team member, a benefits vendor’s support team or for simple, frequently asked questions, by a chatbot.

Email or text?
Employers will most likely need to include both emails and texts in their plans, but these tools may be used in different ways and with different audiences. For example, texts are a good way to reach employees who are younger or more tech savvy as well as those who are on the road a great deal or don’t work at a desk. These messages will be shorter and will focus on prompting employees to take specific actions, such as enrolling in benefits, updating beneficiaries or submitting receipts for reimbursement under an FSA, HSA, or HRA. They can also be used to remind employees about underutilized benefits to drive participation.

Emails can communicate more detailed information and directly link employees to benefits websites and other resources. However, emails should be kept as succinct as possible to ensure that employees are not overwhelmed with information and skip reading the communication.

Open channels for two-way communication
Providing benefits information to employees is only one part of the communication equation. Employees also need frequent opportunities to ask questions and share their thoughts on what they want and need from their benefits plan. That can be harder to make happen for a dispersed workforce, but video-based webinars, town hall meetings and “ask me anything” sessions with members of the benefits team can be effective approaches.

To ensure everyone has access to information regardless of location or job type there should be multiple sessions for different time zones and schedules, and the sessions should be recorded, posted on the company employee site and include the opportunity to email or text in questions for employees who cannot attend a live event.

Try out-of-the-box communication tools to engage employees
In addition to more traditional communication tools, consider trying different formats that make information more digestible and engaging, such as quizzes, polls, short videos, infographics and storytelling. The goal is to keep employees interested in what their benefits offer and what’s new to help them get the most out of their plans.

SOURCE: Varn, M. (14 September 2020) "Views 5 open enrollment communication strategies for your remote workforce" (Web Blog Post). Retrieved from https://www.employeebenefitadviser.com/list/5-open-enrollment-communication-strategies-for-your-remote-workforce


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


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


A health insurance primer for your employees during Open Enrollment

The end of open enrollment season is quickly approaching. During open enrollment, employees have the chance to choose a benefits plan or change from the plan they currently have. Read this blog post for a few things employees should consider when choosing a plan.


Now is the time to choose the best health plan for you and your family. During open enrollment season, employers and the Health Insurance Marketplace (or Exchange) let you choose a plan or change from the plan you have. Making the right choice can impact your health and your wallet.

Even if your current coverage seems satisfactory, your employer or the Exchange may offer new options that better suit your needs. It is important to compare costs and to understand differences in benefits, networks and other rules. In some states, plans available outside the official Marketplace offer attractive, low premiums but may have dollar limits on benefits, or may not provide coverage for childbirth, mental health and other services mandatory for plans that qualify under the Affordable Care Act (the “ACA” or “Obamacare”). Review and compare such plans’ terms carefully.

The time for your decision is limited. Employers generally provide a month or more to make your selection. Open enrollment for the federal Marketplace runs only from November 1, 2019, to December 15, 2019. Exceptions may be made for life changes like the birth of a child or loss of coverage under a spouse’s plan, but if you miss open enrollment season, you will probably have to wait another year to enroll. Here are some things to think about when choosing a plan.

Costs

The first cost to consider is the premium — the payment, usually monthly, to maintain coverage. If you get your plan through your job, your employer may pay all or part of the premium. If you choose a Marketplace plan, you may qualify for a premium tax credit to reduce the premium.

Other insurance costs are known as cost sharing, because you share the cost of care with your plan. They may take the form of a copay (a fixed dollar amount for each service), coinsurance (a set percentage of the cost of a service) or a deductible (the amount you must pay before your plan starts paying for services). If you select a Marketplace plan, you may qualify for cost-sharing reductions to lower those expenses.

In principle, it would be nice if all the costs were as low as possible. But usually, low-cost sharing comes with a high premium. High-deductible health plans may offer lower premiums but you will pay more out-of-pocket before your insurance pays anything.

In shopping for a health plan, consider how high a premium you are willing to pay for the level of cost sharing you would like. For example, if you or a family member have a chronic illness, you may need regular treatment and may be at risk for hospitalization. In that case, you may be willing to pay a higher premium for low-cost sharing. But if you are a healthy, young, single adult who rarely sees a doctor, you might accept a high deductible in exchange for a low premium.

Bear in mind that if you have a high-deductible health plan, you might be eligible to set up a health savings account (HSA). An HSA provides tax savings that stretch the dollars you contribute to the account to help pay for qualified medical expenses.

Choice of Doctors

If you like your current doctors and want to keep seeing them, make sure they and their facilities belong to the network of providers who have contracted with the plan you are considering. Check the plan’s online provider directory to make sure those doctors and their facilities are listed in its network. Even if you do not have a regular doctor, make sure the network includes providers close to where you live and work.

If you want to choose freely among many providers, a plan with a broad network might be for you. That may be more expensive than a plan with a narrow network, which may cost less but has a more limited choice of providers.

Out-of-Network Coverage

As good as a plan’s network might be, you may still wish to consult providers outside the network from time to time. If so, consider a Preferred Provider Organization (PPO) or Point of Service (POS) plan; each provides out-of-network benefits. With such plans, you will still spend more for out-of-network than in-network care, but at least you will have some coverage. Two other types of plans, Health Maintenance Organization (HMO) and Exclusive Provider Organization (EPO), typically will not pay for out-of-network care except for emergencies.

Who’s in Charge of Your Care?

In HMO and POS plans, you choose a primary care physician (PCP) who acts as a form of “gatekeeper” for your care. Unless it is an emergency, when you need medical treatment, you go to the PCP first. The PCP either treats you personally or refers you to specialists in your network. If you like having a PCP’s guidance, this arrangement might work for you. But if you prefer choosing specialists directly, you might opt for a PPO or EPO.

ACA-Compliant versus Association and Short-Term Plans

Whatever plan you choose, it is important to consider whether it covers all the types of healthcare you might need and whether it limits the dollar amount of your coverage. Plans that comply with the ACA are comprehensive because they have to cover 10 essential health benefits. Short-term, limited-duration (STLD) health plans, do not have to cover all those benefits. They may, for example, not cover childbirth, mental health or prescription drugs. If you end up needing care that is not covered, you will have to pay the whole cost yourself.

AHPs and STLD plans differ from ACA-compliant plans in other ways. For example, STLD plans can impose annual or lifetime dollar limits on coverage. If your care costs more than those limits, you have to pay the excess amount.

SOURCE: Gelburd, R. (5 December 2019) "A health insurance primer for your employees during Open Enrollment" (Web Blog Post). Retrieved from https://www.benefitnews.com/opinion/a-health-insurance-primer-for-your-employees-during-open-enrollment


Improving your employee experience during open enrollment

Is your company open enrollment hosted on an online platform? Employers often struggle with employee participation during the open enrollment season. Hosting enrollments online is one way to increase employee participation this year. Read on for more tips to help ease this open enrollment season.d


For HR professionals, open enrollment is one of the most stressful and demanding times of the year. Many employers struggle with employee participation and expensive, time-consuming roll-outs. They also have to provide resources to help employees make the right plan selections for themselves and their families. As we head into another open enrollment season, consider these tips to ease the process.

Switch your open enrollments to online platforms.

If you’re still relying on paper enrollment forms, you are likely spending more money and time than you need to in pursuit of your manual work process and its many inconsistencies. Online platforms provide optimum efficiency, accuracy and convenience for your workforce, offering employee self-service options that encourage employees to take initiative in selecting the best plan for their situation. Not only will members of your workforce benefit from the convenience of being able to explore their options on their own time, but you’ll be able to offer them multi-lingual enrollment materials and have more time to assist them than ever before.

Prioritize and diversify communication.

One of the top ways to ensure a smooth open enrollment period is to use multiple communication channels, including frequent reminders regarding open enrollment deadlines. Without consistent outreach on the part of your HR officers and general managers, you will likely find yourself hunting people down to meet your enrollment and extension deadlines. Using an online self-service portal as well as traditional in-person meetings allow you to remind your employees of critical dates and changes as enrollment closes in.

The robust benefits administration system you choose should offer enrollment tracking and reporting features so you can see at a glance who still needs to begin open enrollment, who has left enrollment documents incomplete, who has made changes to their benefits (such as adding a dependent) and more. You can arrange for the system to send automatic reminders to signal the employee that further actions are needed. Providing multiple reminders will improve participation and the completion of on-time enrollments.

Help employees choose the best health plan for their situation.

In order to have the most successful open enrollment period possible, educating your employees on the different plan options available will go a long towards ensuring employee satisfaction. Studies have shown that most employees don’t have the necessary understanding of terms like “deductible” and “coinsurance,” let alone the tools to know which plan is best for their individual needs. Incorporating at-a-glance comparison tools and charts into your online or print enrollment materials can help employees make the most informed decision possible. It can also be helpful to provide educational materials like videos and simplified plan charts or cost calculators.

Keep Up with Benefit Trends and Voluntary Offerings.

Given the current labor shortage and competitive talent market, you’ll want to make sure your company is up to speed on which new benefits your competitors are looking to add, as well as which ones are appealing to specific roles, locations or generations within potential candidates from your hiring pool.

Voluntary benefits, for example, are playing an increasingly important role in employee benefits portfolios and they don’t cost you anything. Some of the most popular voluntary benefits right now include identity theft protection, pet insurance, long term care insurance and critical illness protection. If you aren’t currently offering these types of additional benefits, they could be a cost-effective way to boost employee morale, increase participation in enrollment and attract more workers to your business.

SOURCE: Smith, M. (2 December 2019) "Improving your employee experience during open enrollment" (Web Blog Post). Retrieved from https://www.benefitnews.com/opinion/improving-your-employee-experience-during-open-enrollment