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Extending Health Plan Coverage for Furloughed Employees

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, many employers have placed a portion of their workforces into a furloughed status. Some employers want to keep furloughed employees covered under the employer’s group health plan. For a self-funded plan, many stop-loss insurers have approved keeping furloughed employees covered under the plan in covered employment status (as opposed to offering COBRA coverage) for up to six months. In addition, many insurance companies have offered similar coverage extensions under fully-insured, group health plans. As the pandemic continues, some employers want to continue covering furloughed employees beyond the original six-month period. Before providing extended coverage for furloughed employees, it is critical that the employer first obtain written approval from the stop loss carrier for any self-funded benefits, as well as from the insurer for any fully-insured benefits, before granting such an extension, in addition to timely amending the affected plans and communicating such amendments to participants.

Cross-Plan Offsetting Practice is Challenged in Class Action Lawsuit

This class action lawsuit, styled Scott, et al. v. UnitedHealth Group, Inc., et al., was filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Minnesota on July 14, 2020. This lawsuit follows the decision of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit in Peterson v. UnitedHealth Group Inc. that was issued last year. In Scott, the plaintiffs, who were participants in the plans at issue in Peterson, filed, on behalf of a class of plaintiffs (the “Class”), a class action against UnitedHealth Group, Inc. and its wholly-owned subsidiaries (collectively, “UHC”), in their capacities as an insurer and/or third-party claims administrator of employer-sponsored group health plans. The lawsuit alleges the breach of UHC’s fiduciary duties under ERISA as related to UHC’s practice of “cross-plan offsetting.” The Class consists of participants and beneficiaries in all group health plans that are administered by UHC and contain “cross-plan offsetting” (collectively, the… Continue Reading

Cases Highlight Importance of Governing Law Clauses in ERISA Plan Documents

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit recently held that the choice of law provision contained in a long-term disability insurance policy (the “LTD Policy”) controlled when determining which state law applied to the case. The LTD Policy, which was subject to regulation under ERISA as an employee benefit plan, stated that it was governed by the law of Pennsylvania, where Comcast (the employer) was incorporated and had its principal place of business. The employee argued that Colorado law controlled, because Colorado is where the employee worked for Comcast and filed the lawsuit. This was important because Colorado insurance law prohibited granting discretion to the plan administrator to interpret the LTD Policy, whereas Pennsylvania law did not prohibit this deferential standard. Generally, a plan administrator’s denial of benefits under an ERISA plan is reviewed by a court de novo (i.e., without deference being paid to the plan administrator’s… Continue Reading

COVID-19 Relief – Added Flexibility to 125 Cafeteria Plans

Prospective Mid-Year Election Changes IRS Notice 2020-29 allows employers to amend cafeteria plans to permit employees to make the following prospective mid-year election changes (including an initial election) for employer-sponsored health coverage, health flexible spending accounts (“FSAs”), and dependent care FSAs during calendar year 2020, regardless of whether the basis for the election change satisfies the “change in status” rules under Treas. Reg.  §1.125-4: Make a new election for employer-sponsored health coverage, if the employee initially declined to elect employer-sponsored health coverage; Revoke an existing election for employer-sponsored health coverage and make a new election to enroll in different health coverage sponsored by the same employer (including changing enrollment from self-only coverage to family coverage); Revoke an existing election for employer-sponsored health coverage, provided that the employee attests in writing that the employee is enrolled, or immediately will enroll, in other health coverage not sponsored by the employer; Revoke an… Continue Reading

Employers Take Note of Suspended COBRA Deadlines due to COVID-19

The U.S. Departments of Labor and the Treasury recently issued a joint notice promulgating final rules that take effect immediately upon publication in the Federal Register (the “Notice”). The Notice suspends a number of deadlines for employer-sponsored, group health plans, including deadlines under COBRA. The extension period is from March 1, 2020 until 60 days after the federal government announces the end of the COVID-19 national emergency or other date announced by the DOL (the “Outbreak Period”). The Outbreak Period is disregarded in determining whether the following COBRA deadlines have been met: (i) the date by which an individual must notify the plan of a COBRA qualifying event or disability determination, (ii) the 60-day period to elect COBRA coverage, and (iii) the deadline to make COBRA premium payments. Group health plans were also offered relief via the suspension of the deadline for providing COBRA election notices to COBRA qualified beneficiaries.… Continue Reading

Extension of Certain Timeframes for Employee Benefit Plans

On April 29, 2020, the U.S. Departments of Labor and the Treasury (together, the “Departments”) issued a notice (the “Notice”) requiring that all group health plans, disability and other types of employee welfare benefit plans, and employee pension benefit plans, subject to ERISA and the Internal Revenue Code, must disregard the period from March 1, 2020 until 60 days after the announced end of the COVID-19 National Emergency or such other date as announced by the Departments in a future notice (the “Outbreak Period”) for the following periods and dates: The 30-day period (or 60-day period, if applicable) to request HIPAA special enrollment; The 60-day election period for COBRA continuation coverage; The date for making COBRA premium payments; The date for individuals to notify the plan of a COBRA qualifying event or determination of disability; The date within which individuals may file a benefit claim under the plan’s claims procedures;… Continue Reading

The DOL and the IRS Jointly Provide Relief from Certain Timeframes Applicable to Health and Welfare and Pension Plans

On April 28, 2020, the IRS and DOL issued a Final Rule extending certain timeframes under ERISA and the Internal Revenue Code for group health, disability and other welfare plans, pension plans, and the participants and beneficiaries under those plans. The timeframe extensions include, among other things, the time to elect COBRA and pay premiums, special enrollment timeframes under HIPPA and CHIPs, claims procedure timeframes, and certain external review process timeframes.  Applicable plans must disregard the period from March 1, 2020 until 60 days after the announced end of the COVID-19 National Emergency for all plan participants, beneficiaries, qualified beneficiaries, or claimants wherever located in determining the enumerated time periods and dates and for providing COBRA election notices.  In addition, Disaster Relief Notice 2020-01 was issued addressing the timeframe relief and addressing certain other COVID-19 relief. The Final Rule is available here: https://www.dol.gov/sites/dolgov/files/ebsa/temporary-postings/covid-19-final-rule.pdf. Disaster Relief Notice 2020-01 is available here: https://www.dol.gov/agencies/ebsa/employers-and-advisers/plan-administration-and-compliance/disaster-relief/ebsa-disaster-relief-notice-2020-01.

Federal District Court in Texas Rules on Cigna’s “Fee Forgiveness” Protocol in the Administration of Medical Benefit Claims

The U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas recently ruled on motions for summary judgment by both parties in North Cypress Medical Center Operating Company, Ltd v. Cigna Healthcare, holding that Cigna’s application of its “fee forgiveness” protocol (the “Protocol”) in the administration of benefit claims for medical services rendered by North Cypress was legally incorrect and constituted an “abuse of discretion” under ERISA.  Cigna performed claims administration services as a third-party service provider for employer-sponsored, self-funded group medical plans and as the insurer under employer-sponsored, fully-insured group medical plans (collectively, the “Plans”).  North Cypress was an out-of-network healthcare services provider (an “OON Provider”) that offered to waive or discount patients’ cost-sharing obligations in exchange for prompt payment for its billed services.  When North Cypress submitted the patients’ benefit claims to Cigna, Cigna applied the Protocol, which significantly reduced or denied the claim payments to North Cypress based… Continue Reading

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