Labor Department Gears Up To Enforce COBRA Premium Subsidy Rules

May 29, 2009

Pressure is mounting for group health plans and their employer and other sponsors and administrators to complete the details required to comply with special medical coverage continuation rules (COBRA Subsidy Rules) added to the Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act of 1985, as amended (COBRA) by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (Stimulus Bill). 

The U.S. Department of Labor Employee Benefits Security Administration (EBSA) recently (May 21, 2009) announced its appeal process for assistance eligible individuals to use to complain to the EBSA when they believe they wrongfully have been denied a premium subsidy for their group health plan continuation coverage in violation of the temporary modifications (COBRA Subsidy Rules) to the group health plan medical coverage continuation requirements of the COBRA Stimulus Rules.  These are the expedited complaint and appeals procedures mandated under the Stimulus Bill.

The COBRA Subsidy Rules, new genetic information nondiscrimination rules and other recent and impending changes to federal health plan eligibility mandates will be explained on June 23, 2009 during a 2009 Health Plan Eligibility Update briefing hosted by the Dallas Human Resources Management Association.  Get  details or register here.

The Stimulus Bill allows individuals denied the premium subsidy to get expedited review by the EBSA. Under the appeals procedures announced May 21, individuals begin this review process by completing an appeals application available on line at http://www.dol.gov/ebsa/COBRA/main.

Employers and group health plans and their plan administrators and plan insurers have been required to provide notifications and COBRA premium subsidies for certain former employees and their dependents that qualify as assistance eligible individuals and take other actions to comply with the COBRA Subsidy Rules since the COBRA Subsidy Rules took effective on February 17, 2009.  While many employers and plan administrators undertaken some efforts to comply with these new COBRA mandates,  many still have not fully completed all of the compliance arrangements.

With procedures to receive and administer appeals, the EBSA now is prepared to investigate possible violations of the Stimulus Bill COBRA rules.  Accordingly, employers, plan administrators and insurers sponsoring or administering group health plan should prepare to respond to investigations that may be initiated by the filing of a request for EBSA review.

You can read details about the COBRA Subsidy Rules here.

 

Stimulus COBRA Rules In A Nutshell

Congress enacted the COBRA Subsidy Rules that took effect February 17, 2009 to help certain involuntarily terminated former employees and their dependents maintain COBRA coverage by requiring COBRA-covered group health plans temporarily to extend certain special COBRA treatment for “assistance eligible individuals.”

The Stimulus Bill temporarily limits the COBRA premium that a COBRA-covered group health plan can require an “assistance eligible individual” to pay for COBRA Coverage to 35% of the otherwise applicable COBRA premium (the “Reduced Premium”) for a period of up to 9 months (the “Subsidy Period”) beginning with the individual’s first period of COBRA Coverage beginning after February 17, 2009.  The employer or insurer that collects this Reduced Premium must pay the remaining 65% of the COBRA premium (the “COBRA Subsidy”) for the assistance eligible individual during the Subsidy Period.  However, the Stimulus Bill provides for that employer or insurer to claim a payroll tax credit equal to the amount of these COBRA Subsidy payments by complying with applicable IRS procedures. 

The Stimulus COBRA Rules also requires group health plans to offer a second COBRA enrollment period to each assistance eligible individual not enrolled in COBRA Coverage on February 17, 2009.  These second electors must be allowed to elect prospectively to enroll in COBRA coverage until the date that their COBRA Coverage eligibility otherwise would have ended if they had maintained COBRA Coverage since their termination.

Additionally, COBRA-covered group health plans that offer employees different plan options allow assistance eligible individuals the option to change their coverage choice from a higher cost option to a lesser cost option.  Group health plan administrators also must provide certain notifications to assistance eligible individuals concerning these changes.

 

“Assistance Eligible Individuals”

The Stimulus COBRA Rules only apply to qualified beneficiaries whose loss of coverage resulted from the “involuntary termination of employment” of a covered employee. The Stimulus Bill definition of “assistance eligible individual” generally includes any COBRA “qualified beneficiary” who meets all of the following requirements:

ü       Has a loss of coverage within the meaning of COBRA (“qualifying event”) as a result of the “involuntary termination of employment” of a covered employee from September 1, 2008 to December 31, 2009;

ü       Is eligible for COBRA Coverage at any time during the period beginning September 1, 2008 and ending December 31, 2009; and

ü       Elects COBRA coverage when first offered or as during the additional second election period required for assistance eligible individuals not enrolled in COBRA Coverage on February 17, 2009.

IRS Notice 2009-27 defines an “involuntary termination” as “a severance from employment due to the independent exercise of the unilateral authority of the employer to terminate the employment, other than due to the employee’s implicit or explicit request, where the employee was willing and able to continue performing services” based on all the facts and circumstances. 

For COBRA Premium Assistance purposes, the facts and circumstances determine whether a termination is involuntary. Thus, IRS Notice 2009-27 states that a termination designated as voluntary or as a resignation nevertheless will be considered involuntary where the facts and circumstances indicate that the employer would have terminated the employee’s services, and that the employee had knowledge that the employee would be terminated.

Notice 2009-27 identifies as examples of terminations that fall within this definition of “involuntary termination” as including the following facts and circumstances:

ü       The employer’s failure to renew a contract at the time the contract expires, if the employee was willing and able to execute a new contract providing terms and conditions similar to those in the expiring contract and to continue providing the services;

ü       An employee-initiated termination from employment if the termination from employment constitutes a termination for good reason due to employer action that causes a material negative change in the employment relationship for the employee;

ü       An involuntary reduction of hours of employment to zero hours, such as a lay-off, furlough, or other suspension of employment, resulting in a loss of health coverage;

ü       An employee’s voluntary termination of employment in response to an employer imposed reduction of hours of employment where the reduction in hours is a material negative change in the employment relationship for the employee;

ü       An employer’s action to end an individual’s employment while the individual is absent from work due to illness or disability (but not mere absence from work due to illness or disability before the employer has taken action to end the individual’s employment);

ü       A termination designated on account of “retirement” if the facts and circumstances indicate that, absent retirement, the employer would have terminated the employee’s services, and the employee had knowledge that the employee would be terminated;

ü       The covered employee resigned as the result of a material change in the geographic location of employment for the employee;

ü       A lockout initiated by an employer but not a work stoppage as the result of a strike initiated by employees or their representatives; and

ü       A termination elected by the employee in return for a severance package (a “buy-out”) where the employer indicates that after the offer period for the severance package, a certain number of remaining employees in the employee’s group will be terminated

Notice 2009-27 also clarifies that the termination of employment giving rise to the loss of group health plan coverage and the loss of the group health plan coverage both must occur between September 1, 2008 and December 31, 2009 in order for an individual to qualify as an assistance eligible individual. Consequently, if the involuntary termination occurs before September 1, 2008, but the loss of coverage resulting in eligibility for COBRA Coverage occurs after September 1, 2008 (but no later than December 31, 2009), Notice 2009-28 states that the individual will not qualify as an assistance eligible individual.  Likewise, where an individual’s involuntary termination occurs by December 31, 2009, but the loss of coverage resulting in eligibility for COBRA Coverage occurs after December 31, 2009, the qualified beneficiary will not qualify as an assistance eligible individual for purposes of the Subsidy COBRA Rules.  According to Notice 2009-27, where the involuntary termination of employment and loss of coverage as a covered employee or dependent occur between September 1, 2008 and December 31, 2009, the election of COBRA Coverage need not occur by December 31, 2009.

Many group health plans are drafted to provide that the date that employee or dependent coverage ends or changes as a result of an employment loss is the last day of the month or some other date after the actual date of the employment termination.  Under group health plans where the loss of coverage due to the qualifying event is delayed, Notice 2009-27 also reminds employers and plan administrators of the need to focus on how group health plan provisions, separation agreements and other related documents define when the loss of coverage occurs under a group health plan when applying these rules.

For purposes of COBRA, Notice 2009-27 states that when a loss of coverage under a group health plan occurs under these circumstances depends on how the group health plan treats the provision of health coverage between the date of the employment loss and the date of the resulting loss of employee and/or dependent coverage. If the plan treats the provision of health coverage as deferring the loss of coverage, Notice 2009-27 indicates the loss of coverage generally occurs when the individual ceases to be entitled to employee or dependent coverage on the same terms and conditions as would have applied had he not experienced the qualifying event.  However, if the plan treats the continued provision of health coverage from the termination date until employee or dependent coverage later ends as a result as reducing the period of required COBRA Coverage, then the loss of coverage occurs on the termination date or other later date.  Appropriate drafting is important to support the desired characterization.

 

Calculation of 35% of COBRA Premium

Based on the guidance in Notice 2009-27, many employers will want to terminate severance or other arrangements under which former employees are allowed to pay less than the maximum COBRA premium for some period of time.  According to Notice 2009-29,.the premium used to determine the 35% share that must be paid by (or on behalf of) an assistance eligible individual is the cost that would be charged to the assistance eligible individual for COBRA Coverage if the individual were not an assistance eligible individual. If absent the Stimulus COBRA Rules, the group health plan would require the assistance eligible individual to pay 102% of the “applicable premium” for continuation coverage, i.e., generally the maximum permitted, the Reduced Premium equals 35% of the 102% of the applicable premium. As no good deed goes unpunished, however, if the premium the group health plan would charge the assistance eligible individual is less than the maximum allowable COBRA premium, the Reduced Premium will be 35% of that lesser amount.  In determining whether an assistance eligible individual has paid 35% of the premium, payments on behalf of the individual by another person (other than the employer with respect to which the involuntary termination occurred) are taken into account.

 

Coverage Eligible For Premium Reduction

Notice 2009-27 also provides guidance about what types of group health plan coverage qualifies for premium reduction.  According to the Notice, the premium reduction is available for COBRA Coverage of any group health plan, except a health flexible spending arrangement (FSA) under section 106(c) offered under a section 125 cafeteria plan. This includes vision-only or dental-only plans, “mini-med plans” and certain health reimbursement accounts (HRAs). 

The Notice 2009-27 distinguishes exempted FSAs from covered health reimbursement arrangements (HRAs) for purposes of these rules.  According to Notice 2009-27, while an HRA may qualify as an FSA under section 106(c), the exclusion of FSAs from the premium reduction is limited to FSAs provided through a section 125 cafeteria plan, which would not include an HRA. 

Notice 2009-27 also indicates that retiree coverage can qualify for the premium reduction where the retiree coverage does not differ from the coverage made available to similarly situated active employees.

 

Premium Reduction Period Duration

Notice 2009-27 also provides guidance about when periods of coverage and the Premium Reduction Period begin and end.  Under the Stimulus COBRA Rules, the premium reduction applies as of the first period of coverage beginning on or after February 17, 2009 (February 17, 2009)  for which the assistance eligible individual is eligible to pay only 35% of the premium  and be treated as having made full payment.   For this purpose, a period of coverage is a monthly or shorter period with respect to which premiums are charged by the plan with respect to such coverage.  

According to Notice 2009-27, when the Premium Reduction Period begins for an assistance eligible individual depends on the period the plan charges COBRA premiums.  Where a group health plan requires an individual who loses coverage other than on the last day of the month who wishes to enroll in COBRA Coverage to pay a pro-rata portion of the monthly premium, Notice 2009-27 states the first period of coverage to which the premium reduction applies for an assistance eligible individual who loses coverage after February 17, 2009 generally is the individual’s first partial month of coverage.  A different rule applies when the assistance eligible individual elects COBRA Coverage under the second election period required by the Stimulus Bill Rules, however.  Whether a plan requires COBRA Coverage be paid for based on a calendar month or pro rata basis, March 1, 2009 is the beginning of the first period of coverage within the Premium Reduction Period for any assistance eligible individual enrolling during the second enrollment period and the Reduced Premium only applies to that individual for COBRA Coverage from March 1, 2009 through the end of his otherwise applicable Premium Reduction Period.

 

End Of Premium Reduction Period

An assistance eligible individual ceases to qualify for the premium reduction on the earliest of:

ü       The first date the assistance eligible individual becomes eligible for other group health plan coverage (with certain exceptions) or Medicare coverage,

ü       The date that is nine months after the first day of the first month for which the Stimulus Bill premium reduction provisions apply to the individual, or

ü       The date the individual ceases to be eligible for COBRA Coverage.

Notice 2009-27 confirms that the Premium Reduction Period of an assistance eligible individual ends on the first date he becomes eligible for other group health plan coverage or Medicare effect even if the assistance eligible individual does not enroll in the other group health plan coverage.  

According to Notice 2009-27, whether an offer of retiree coverage that is not COBRA Coverage simultaneously with the offering of COBRA Coverage ends the Premium Reduction Period depends on whether the retiree coverage is offered under the same group health plan as the COBRA Coverage or under a different group health plan.  If offered under the same group health plan, the offer of the retiree coverage has no effect on the Premium Reduction Period.  If offered under a different group health plan, the offer of retiree coverage that is not COBRA coverage ends the Premium Reduction Period.  However Notice 2009-27, however, If offered to someone whose eligibility for COBRA coverage arose between September 1, 2008 and February 17, 2009, the offer render the individual ineligible for the premium reduction only if the period the individual is given for enrolling in the retiree coverage extends to at least February 17, 2009.

Notice 2009-27 also addresses when eligibility for coverage under an HRA ends eligibility for the premium reduction.  It states that becoming eligible for HRA coverage ends the Premium Reduction Period unless the HRA qualifies as an FSA under section 106(c).   Under section 106(c), an FSA is health coverage under which the maximum amount of reimbursement which is reasonably available to a participant of the coverage is less than 500% of the value of the coverage. For this purpose, the maximum amount of reimbursement which is reasonably available is generally the balance of the HRA and the value of the HRA coverage would generally be the applicable premium for COBRA continuation of the HRA coverage.

Notice 2009-27 also clarifies that the Premium Reduction Period of an eligible individual may extend beyond December 31, 2009 for individuals who qualify as assistance eligible individuals on or before December 31, 2009.  For example, the Premium Reduction Period of an assistance eligible individual whose Premium Reduction Period begins on December 1, 2009 could extent until August 31, 2010, assuming the individual does not become eligible for other group health plan coverage or Medicare or lose eligibility for COBRA Coverage before that date.

With regard to the effect of Medicare eligibility on an assistance eligible individual’s Premium reduction Period, Notice 2009-27 indicates that an individual currently enrolled in Medicare when the involuntary termination of employment occurs is ineligible for premium reduction, even though they may be eligible to elect COBRA continuation coverage by paying the otherwise applicable unreduced COBRA premium.

 

Dealing With Assistance Eligible Individuals Not Eligible For Premium Subsidy Based On Eligibility For Other Group Coverage

Under the Stimulus Bill, assistance eligible individuals are required to provide notification and resume paying the unreduced usual COBRA premium when they become eligible for Medicare or other group health coverage.  Where an assistance eligible individual fails to provide the required notice and continues to take advantage of the premium reduction after his Premium Reduction Period terminates due to his becoming eligible for other coverage or Medicare, Notice 2009-27 states the employer is not responsible for recovering the additional premium or otherwise recouping the COBRA premium. 

 

Dealing With Assistance Eligible Individuals Subject to Phase Out of Premium Subsidy Eligibility Based On Income

The Stimulus COBRA Rules include tax provisions designed phase out the COBRA Subsidy for certain highly compensated employees by taxing a portion of those amounts.  Notice 2009-7 discusses the mechanics through which highly compensated employees can avoid this tax liability by electing to waive the Premium Reduction and Premium Subsidy. 

An assistance eligible individual who wants to make a permanent election to waive the right to the premium reduction makes the election by providing a signed and dated notification (including a reference to “permanent waiver”) to the employer or other person who is reimbursed for the premium reduction under the COBRA Premium Subsidy provisions of Code § 6432. No separate additional notification to any government agency. If an assistance eligible individual makes the permanent election to waive the right to the premium reduction, the individual may not later reverse the election and may not receive the premium reduction for any future period of COBRA Coverage in 2009 or 2010, regardless of modified adjusted gross income in those years.

Notice 2009-27 makes clear that these rules don’t allow employers to deny the Reduced Premium to these assistance eligible individuals.  According to Notice 2009-27, “Even if an assistance eligible individual’s income is high enough that the recapture of the premium reduction would apply, COBRA Coverage must be provided upon payment of 35% of the premium unless the individual has notified the plan that the individual has elected the permanent waiver of the premium reduction (or the period for the premium reduction has ended).

 

Second COBRA Election Period

The Stimulus Bill also requires group health plans to offer a second election period to assistance eligible individuals not enrolled in COBRA Coverage on February 17, 2009 whose employment terminated between September 1, 2008 and February 16, 2009.  Notice 2009-27 confirms that any individual (including a dependent) who did not have an election of COBRA Coverage in effect on February 17, 2009, but who would have been an assistance eligible individual if the election were in effect must be offered this second election period. For those electing COBRA Coverage during this second election period, the resulting coverage begins with the first period of COBRA continuation coverage beginning on or after February 17, 2009.   Notice 2009-27 confirms that this extended election period is available for all individuals who are qualified beneficiaries as the result of an involuntary termination during the period from September 1, 2008, through February 17, 2009, even if they still have an open COBRA election period as of February 17, 2009. If these individuals elect COBRA under their original COBRA election period, COBRA coverage is retroactive to their loss of coverage and the premium reduction does not apply to the periods of coverage prior to the first period of coverage beginning on or after February 17, 2009 (generally, periods of coverage before March 2009 for plans with monthly coverage periods).

If, as a result of the extended election period, an assistance eligible individual becomes eligible for COBRA Coverage under a group health plan that requires payment of COBRA premiums on a calendar month basis, the individual’s first period of coverage will begin on March 1 and the Reduced Premium only applies prospectively from that date. According to Notice 2009-27, this does not change even if the plan otherwise requires individuals who lose coverage before the last day of the month and who wish to enroll in COBRA continuation coverage to pay a pro-rata portion of the monthly premium for the first partial month of coverage.

In contrast, where a group health plan determines the required COBRA premiums based on the loss of coverage, Notice 2009-27 states that the first period of coverage begins on the first day after the loss of coverage and ends on the day of the following month corresponding to the day of the loss of coverage. For example, if the last day of coverage was October 3, 2008, the period of coverage runs from the fourth of the month to the third of the following month, and thus the first period of coverage on or after February 17, 2009, is the period March 4, 2009, through April 3, 2009.

Notice 2009-27 also discusses the operation of these rules as applied to certain HRAs

 

Who Pays The Premium Subsidy & Claims The Payroll Tax Credit

In previously issued guidance, the IRS indicated that between the sponsoring employer or union and a group insurer, the party that collects the Reduced Premium bears responsibility to pay the 65% Premium Subsidy then claiming the payroll tax credit under the Stimulus COBRA Rules.  According to Notice 2009-27, if the insurer and the employer of insured, single employer group health plan have agreed that the insurer will collect the premiums directly from the qualified beneficiaries, the insurer must treat an assistance eligible individual paying 35 of the premium as having paid the full premium, even before the employer pays the insurer the remaining 65%. If the insurer fails to treat a 35% payment by an assistance eligible individual as a payment of the full premium, the insurer may be liable for the excise tax under Code § 4980B(e)(1)(B), which applies to persons responsible for administering or providing benefits under the plan and whose act or failure to act caused (in whole or in part) the failure, if the person assumed responsibility for the performance of the act to which the failure relates.

 

For More Information or Assistance

If your organization needs help responding to the COBRA Subsidy Rules or other group health plan or other employee benefit or human resources matters, please contact Cynthia Marcotte Stamer.  Ms. Stamer and other members of Curran Tomko and Tarski LLP are experienced with advising and assisting employers with these and other labor and employment, employee benefit, compensation, and internal controls matters. If your organization needs assistance with assessing, managing or defending its wage and hour or other labor and employment, compensation or benefit practices, please contact Ms. Stamer at e-mail, (214) 270-2402; or your favorite Curran Tomko Tarski, LLP attorney.  For additional information about the experience and services of Ms. Stamer and other members of the Curran Tomko Tarksi, LLP team, see the Curran Tomko Tarski Website or Cynthia Marcotte Stamer, P.C. Website.

We hope that this information is useful to you. You can register to receive future updates and information about upcoming programs, access other publications by Ms. Stamer and access other helpful resources at CynthiaStamer.com For additional information about Ms. Stamer and her experience, see here or contact Ms. Stamer directly. If you or someone else you know would like to receive updates about developments on these and other human resources and employee benefits concerns, please be sure that we have your Currant contact information – including your preferred e-mail- by creating or updating your profile at CynthiaStamer.com.  If you would prefer not to receive these updates, please send a reply e-mail with “Remove” in the subject line to support@SolutionsLawyer.net. You also can register to participate in the distribution of these updates by registering to participate in the Solutions Law Press HR & Benefits Update Blog here.  For important information concerning this communication click here.


Tell Senate Committee Today Not To Mess Up Health Benefits

May 27, 2009

Today is the last day that individuals and businesses concerned about health care can provide feedback to Congress on health care reform proposals on the fast track for adoption by Congress and have their opinion included in the official hearing record of the  May 12, 2009 Senate Finance Committee Hearing on  “Financing Comprehensive Health Care Reform.”  Start speaking up today and keep speaking out until you are heard.

Senate health care reform leaders have announced their intention to have the Senate vote and pass health care reform legislation that would drastically change the U.S. health care and health insurance system during June. Individuals and businesses concerned about Congressional proposals to private health benefits with federal government benefits, to tax individuals and businesses on health benefits, and to make other radical changes in our health care programs should e-mail their concerns to Congress today.  Recent statements by Congressional leaders and President Obama indicate that the intend to act quickly to pass major health care reforms within the next few months, beginning with action by the Senate in June.

The Senate Finance Committee discussed the proposed changes during a “Roundtable Discussion” hearing on May 12, 2009.  Among the changes that this hearing reflects to be under serious consideration by Congress are proposals:

  • To tax individuals on health benefits and/or coverage
  • Reduce or eliminate employer tax benefits for providing health coverage
  • Mandate individuals and/or employees pay government mandated health insurance premiums
  • Replace existing employer and private health insurance programs with government run or mandated benefit programs
  • Involve the federal government  in deciding who and when Americans get care
  • Establish other burdensome federal requirements and regulations on health benefits and health care providers.

 You can review or listen to the testimony and learn more about what Congress plans to do to your and your employees’ health benefits here.

If you or others that you know are concerned about all or any of these proposals, we urge you to share your feedback TODAY as follows and staying involved as Congress moves to act: 

  • E-mail the Health Care Reform Leadership of the Senate Finance Committee at Health_reform@finance_dem.senate.gov
  • E-mail each member of the Senate Finance Committee at http://finance.senate.gov/sitepages/committee.htm
  • Call (202) 224-4515 and share your views with Congressional Staffers Erin Shields (Baucus) and Jill Gerber (Grassley), Committee on Finance, 219 Dirksen Senate Office Building, Washington, D.C. 20510-6200
  • Tell your Senators and Representatives you oppose Congressional plans to fast track health care reform the way Congress enacted the Stimulus Bill
  • Tell your Senators and Representatives you will support members of Congress who vote responsibly on health care reform
  • Tell your Senators and Representatives in Congress and political party leaders you will work to defeat members and candidates that advocate these and other irresponsible health care reform legisltation
  • Carry through on your promises
  • Keep speaking out until you are heard and Congress gets the message.    

Cynthia Marcotte Stamer is an attorney, author and health care advocate known for her work and writings nationally and internationally on health care and coverage policy and legal matters . If your organization needs assistance with assessing, managing or communicating its concerns about this legislation or other health care and insurance, employment or employee benefit practices, please contact Ms. Stamer at cstamer@cttlegal.com, (214) 270-2402; or your favorite Curran Tomko Tarski, LLP attorney.  For additional information about the experience and services of Ms. Stamer and other members of the Curran Tomko Tarksi, LLP team, see the http://www.cttlegal.com.

Other Information & Resources

Cynthia Marcotte Stamer and other members of Curran Tomko and Tarski LLP are experienced with advising and assisting employers with these and other labor and employment, employee benefit, compensation, and internal controls matters. If your organization needs assistance with assessing, managing or defending its wage and hour or other labor and employment, compensation or benefit practices, please contact Ms. Stamer at e-mail, (214) 270-2402; or your favorite Curran Tomko Tarski, LLP attorney.  For additional information about the experience and services of Ms. Stamer and other members of the Curran Tomko Tarksi, LLP team, see the Curran Tomko Tarski Website or Cynthia Marcotte Stamer, P.C. Website.

We hope that this information is useful to you. You can register to receive future updates and information about upcoming programs, access other publications by Ms. Stamer and access other helpful resources at CynthiaStamer.com For additional information about Ms. Stamer and her experience, see here or contact Ms. Stamer directly. If you or someone else you know would like to receive updates about developments on these and other human resources and employee benefits concerns, please be sure that we have your Currant contact information – including your preferred e-mail- by creating or updating your profile at CynthiaStamer.com.  If you would prefer not to receive these updates, please send a reply e-mail with “Remove” in the subject line to support@SolutionsLawyer.net. You also can register to participate in the distribution of these updates by registering to participate in the Solutions Law Press HR & Benefits Update Blog here.  For important information concerning this communication click here.    If you do not wish to receive these updates in the future, send an e-mail with the word “Remove” in the Subject to support@SolutionsLawyer.net.

 

©2009 Cynthia Marcotte Stamer.  Permission to forward with attribution granted to concerned parties.  All other rights reserved.


New GINA Health Plan Nondiscrimination Rules Effective For Plan Years Beginning On or After Today

May 21, 2009

New restrictions on the collection, use and disclosure of genetic information applicable to employer and union-sponsored group health plans enacted under Title I of the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act of 2008, Public Law No. 110-233 (GINA) for group health plan years that begin on or after today (May 21, 2009). For non-calendar year plans with plan years beginning between June 1 and December 1, the effective date occurs on first day of their 2009 plan year. For example, the effective date will be June 1, 2009 for a plan with a 2009 plan year that begins June 1.  For calendar year plans, the compliance deadline is January 1, 2010.   All employer-sponsored group health plans are required to comply with GINA.  There are no small group exceptions.

GINA In A Nutshell

GINA amended federal law to include specific prohibitions against certain discrimination based on genetic information by group health plans and health insurers (Title I) and to prohibit discrimination based on genetic information by employers of 15 or more employees (Title II).

Effective for all group health plan years beginning on or after May 21, 2009, GINA’s new restrictions on the collection and use of genetic information by group health plans added under Title I of GINA are accomplished through the expansion of a series of already existing group health plan nondiscrimination and privacy rules.  GINA’s group health plan provisions amend and expand the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA), the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (ERISA), Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, the Public Health Service Act, the Internal Revenue Code of 1986, and Title XVIII (Medicare) of the Social Security Act to implement sweeping new federal restrictions on the collection, use, and disclosure of information that falls within its broad definition of “genetic information” by  group health plans.  For individual health insurers, GINA’s restrictions take effect May 22, 2009.  The broad definition of the term “genetic information” in GINA will require group health plan sponsors and insurers to carefully review and update their group health plan documents, communications, policies and practices to comply with forthcoming implementing regulations to avoid liability under new GINA’s rules governing genetic information collection, use, protection and disclosure in a series of areas. 

Meanwhile, employers, unions and others face their own new prohibitions against genetic information based employment discrimination added by Title II of GINA, which take effect November 21, 2009. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) published proposed regulations interpreting Title II of GINA in March, 2009.

Broad Definition of “Genetic Information”

The broad range of information included within GINA’s broad definition of “genetic information” means its new restrictions have a sweeping reach when applied to most group health plans.  GINA defines “genetic information to include with respect to any individual, information about:

  • Such individual’s genetic tests;
  • The genetic tests of family members of such individual; and
  • The manifestation of a disease or disorder in family members of such individual.

GINA also specifies that any reference to genetic information concerning an individual or family member includes genetic information of a fetus carried by a pregnant woman and an embryo legally held by an individual or family member utilizing an assisted reproductive technology.

Pending issuance of regulatory guidance, GINA’s inclusion of information about the “manifestation of a disease or disorder in family members” raises potential challenges for a broad range of group health plan health assessment and other wellness and disease management programs which provide financial incentives or condition eligibility on the provision of family health histories or other information that could be construed as genetic information. 

Group Health Plan Genetic Testing Collection and Nondiscrimination Rules

Under GINA’s nondiscrimination rules, group health plans and health insurers may not:

  • Request, require or purchase genetic information for underwriting purposes or in advance of an individual’s enrollment;
  • Adjust premiums or contribution amounts of the group based on genetic information;
  • Request or require an individual or family member to undergo a genetic test except in limited situations specifically allowed by GINA;
  • Impose a preexisting condition exclusion based solely on genetic information, in the absence of a diagnosis of a condition;
  • Discriminate against individuals in eligibility and continued eligibility for benefits based on genetic information; or
  • Discriminate against individuals in premium or contribution rates under the plan or coverage based on genetic information, although such a plan or issuer may adjust premium rates for an employer based on the manifestation of a disease or disorder of an individual enrolled in the plan.

GINA also prohibits insurers providing individual health insurance from establishing rules for eligibility, adjusting premiums or contribution amounts for an individual, imposing preexisting condition exclusions based on, requesting or requiring individuals or family members to undergo genetic testing.

Of particular concern to many plan sponsors and fiduciaries are the potential implications of these new rules on existing wellness and disease management features group health plans. Of particular concern is how regulators will treat the collection of family medical history and certain other information as part of health risk assessments used in connection with these programs. Although official guidance is still pending, many are concerned that regulators will construe certain commonly used practices of requiring covered persons to provide family medical histories or other genetic information through health risk assessments (HRAs) to qualify for certain financial incentives as a prohibited underwriting practice under GINA.  Even where health risk assessments are not used, however, most group health plan sponsors should anticipate that GINA will require specific amendments to their plan documents, communications and processes.

Taking timely action to comply with these nondiscrimination and collection prohibitions is important.  Under amendments to ERISA made by GINA, group health plan noncompliance can create significant liability for both the plan and its sponsor.  Participants or beneficiaries will be able to sue noncompliant group health plans for damages and equitable relief.  If the participant or beneficiary can show an alleged violation would result in irreparable harm to the individual’s health, the participant or beneficiary may not have to exhaust certain otherwise applicable Department of Labor administrative remedies before bringing suit.  In addition to these private remedies, GINA also authorizes the imposition of penalties against employers and other sponsors of group health plans that violate applicable requirements of GINA of up to $500,000. The minimum penalties generally are set at the greater of $100 per day or a minimum penalty amount ranging from $2,500 for de minimus violations corrected before the health plan received notice of noncompliance to $15,000 in cases in which the violations are more than de minimus.  GINA also includes language allowing the Secretary of Labor to reduce otherwise applicable penalties for violations that could not have been identified through the exercise of due diligence or when the plan corrects the violation quickly.

GINA Amendments To Health Plan Privacy Rules Under HIPAA

In addition to its nondiscrimination rules, GINA also amends HIPAA to make clear that “genetic information” as defined by HIPAA is protected health information protected by HIPAA’s Privacy & Security Standards of HIPAA. This means that it will require that all genetic information be treated as protected health information subject to the Privacy and Security Standards applicable to group health plans covered by HIPAA. Although the statutory provisions that accomplish these changes are deceptively simple, compliance with these requirements likely will require group health plans and their business associates to amend existing privacy policies, notices and practices to appropriately restrict disclosures for underwriting, operations and certain other uses to withstand scrutiny under the GINA privacy rule amendments. 

The HITECH Act amended and increased civil penalties for HIPAA privacy violations in many circumstances effective February 17, 2009.   

Regulatory Guidance Status

 As the the deadline for compliance for post May 20, 2009 plan years is rapidly approaching, however, many group health plans and their sponsors will need forward with their compliance arrangements in the absence of regulatory guidance interpreting these requirements. 

GINA’s fractured assignment of responsibility and authority to develop, implement and enforce regulatory guidance of its genetic information rules can create confusion for parties involved in compliance efforts. Because the group health plan requirements of Title I of GINA are refinements to the group health plan privacy and nondiscrimination rules previously enacted as part of HIPAA, GINA specifically assigned authority to construe and enforce its group health plan requirements to the agencies responsible for the interpretation and enforcement of those original rules:

  • The Department of Labor Employee Benefit Security Administration (EBSA);
  • The Internal Revenue Services (IRS), and
  • The Department of Health & Human Services. 

While these three agencies previously published a request for public comments about issues under Title I’s provisions, see http://edocket.access.gpo.gov/2008/pdf/E8-24194.pdf, none of these three agencies as of May 20, 2009 has published interim or other regulations interpreting the GINA provisions within their scope of responsibility since the formal comments period ended December 9, 2009.  Although the EBSA Spring 2009 regulatory agenda reflected it intended to publish interim regulations by today and agency officials continue to indicate they intend to publish guidance “soon,” no guidance had been published as of May 20, 2009.

Even if the agencies issue guidance by the end of May plan sponsors and administrators of group health plans with new plan years beginning in the next 60 to 90 days are expressing concern that they will have inadequate time to complete compliance arrangements.  As a result, in addition to guidance about GINA’s requirements generally, some are hopeful that the guidance with include transition rules or other relief to allow more time to comply with the regulations when finally issued.  Regulators as of May 20, 2009 had not given any indication that they plan or perceive that they are authorized to provide such relief.

Cynthia Marcotte Stamer and other members of Curran Tomko and Tarski LLP are experienced with advising and assisting employers with these and other labor and employment, employee benefit, compensation, and internal controls matters. If your organization needs assistance with assessing, managing or defending its wage and hour or other labor and employment, compensation or benefit practices, please contact Ms. Stamer at cstamer@cttlegal.com, (214) 270-2402; or your favorite Curran Tomko Tarski, LLP attorney.  For additional information about the experience and services of Ms. Stamer and other members of the Curran Tomko Tarksi, LLP team, see the http://www.cttlegal.com.

Other Information & Resources

Cynthia Marcotte Stamer and other members of Curran Tomko and Tarski LLP are experienced with advising and assisting employers with these and other labor and employment, employee benefit, compensation, and internal controls matters. If your organization needs assistance with assessing, managing or defending its wage and hour or other labor and employment, compensation or benefit practices, please contact Ms. Stamer at e-mail, (214) 270-2402; or your favorite Curran Tomko Tarski, LLP attorney.  For additional information about the experience and services of Ms. Stamer and other members of the Curran Tomko Tarksi, LLP team, see the Curran Tomko Tarski Website or Cynthia Marcotte Stamer, P.C. Website.

We hope that this information is useful to you. You can register to receive future updates and information about upcoming programs, access other publications by Ms. Stamer and access other helpful resources at CynthiaStamer.com For additional information about Ms. Stamer and her experience, see here or contact Ms. Stamer directly. If you or someone else you know would like to receive updates about developments on these and other human resources and employee benefits concerns, please be sure that we have your Currant contact information – including your preferred e-mail- by creating or updating your profile at CynthiaStamer.com.  If you would prefer not to receive these updates, please send a reply e-mail with “Remove” in the subject line to support@SolutionsLawyer.net. You also can register to participate in the distribution of these updates by registering to participate in the Solutions Law Press HR & Benefits Update Blog here.

 ©Cynthia Marcotte Stamer. All rights reserved.


Most Employers, Plans Still Have Work To Do To Comply With Stimulus Bill COBRA Rules

May 14, 2009

Many employers have used the Model Notices posted March 19, 2009 by the Department of Labor (DOL) to meet the April 17, 2009 deadline to provide initial notification to employees and dependents whose group health coverage terminated as a result of an involuntary termination of employment between September 1, 2008 and February 17, 2009 under the temporary rules added to the group health plan medical coverage continuation requirements of the Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act of 1985, as amended (“COBRA”) by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (“Stimulus Bill”).  However, most employers including many distressed and reorganizing companies and their group health plan administrators, fiduciaries and insurers have additional work to do to complete the arrangements to comply with these new Stimulus Bill COBRA rules

Although many employers and group health plans have taken preliminary action to comply, most employers and group health plan insurers, administrators and fiduciaries have not fully completed the steps needed to complete compliance arrangements.  Among the companies sponsoring group health plans most likely to be behind in their compliance efforts are those in bankruptcy and distressed companies, where internal human resources and employee benefit staff and outside vendor relationships are likely to be reduced, overextended, or otherwise distracted.

In some instances, parties responsible for sending notifications and making other compliance arrangements have not begun to comply.  More typically, however, employers sponsoring group health plans, their administrators, insurers or fiduciaries may mistakenly believe that preliminary compliance efforts fulfilled their compliance responsibilities.  As a result, many have failed to complete all of the steps necessary to comply.  For instance:

  • Many employers, health plan fiduciaries and administrators have not formally amended their group health plans, updated their COBRA initital notifications and summary plan descriptions, implemented required procedures and finished other arrangements necessary to bring their group health plans into compliance with the Stimulus Bill COBRA requirements.  
  • Many employers, insurers, administrators and fiduciaries  who used the Model Notices initially to provide required notices are finding additional refinements to their notices and procedures to reduce questions and confusion by recipients attributable to poor tailoring of the information to their particular plan design. 
  • Many employers who outsource the collection of COBRA premiums or other aspects of COBRA administration will want to revise Model Notice language to avoid unnecessarily undermining previously negotiated allocations of fiduciary responsibility to those third parties for responsibilities outsourced.

Employers, health plan administrators, and health insurers involved in the sponsorship or administration of COBRA-covered group health plans should consult with counsel about the suitability of using the Model Notices to provide required notifications of the new Stimulus Bill COBRA rules and other steps necessary to comply with the new requirements.  Compliance with the Stimulus Bill COBRA rules is mandatory for all COBRA-covered group health plans and certain other arrangements including group health plans sponsored by businesses in bankruptcy where the entity or a commonly controlled or affiliated entity continues to maintain a group health plan.

Stimulus Bill COBRA Rule Basics

The Stimulus Bill provisions that took effect on February 17, 2009 require special COBRA treatment for “assistance eligible individuals.” See “Stimulus Bill COBRA Amendments Require Immediate Group Health Plan Action” for more information. The Stimulus Bill COBRA amendments are intended to help certain involuntarily terminated former employees and their dependents maintain COBRA coverage.  Employers must amend their plans to comply with these mandates and, if they wish to seek reimbursement for COBRA Subsidies, must comply with IRS requirements. Meanwhile, group health plan administrators and insurers must take immediate action to provide required notifications and implement other administrative changes necessary to comply with the new rules.

The Stimulus Bill definition of “assistance eligible individual” generally includes any COBRA “qualified beneficiary” who meets all of the following requirements:

  • Is eligible for COBRA continuation coverage at any time during the period beginning September 1, 2008 and ending December 31, 2009;
  • Elects COBRA coverage (when first offered or during the additional election period): and
  • Has a qualifying event for COBRA coverage that is the employee’s involuntary termination during the period beginning September 1, 2008 and ending December 31, 2009.

This definition includes both involuntarily terminated employees and their dependents who lost coverage under a group health plan due to the involuntary termination. 

As part of their COBRA amendments, the Stimulus Bill limits the COBRA premium that a COBRA-covered group health plan can charge an “assistance eligible individual” to 35% of the otherwise applicable COBRA premium for a period of up to 9 months (the “Subsidy Period”) beginning March 1, 2009.  Employers sponsoring these group health plans must pay the remaining 65% of the COBRA premium (the “COBRA Subsidy”) for the assistance eligible individual during the Subsidy Period.  However, the Stimulus Bill allows an employer to seek reimbursement by claiming a payroll tax credit for these COBRA Subsidy payments by complying with applicable IRS procedures.  

The Stimulus Bill also requires certain assistance eligible individuals whose employment terminated between September 1, 2008 and February 16, 2009 and did not elect COBRA coverage when previously offered or who allowed COBRA coverage to lapse after electing that coverage be offered a second COBRA enrollment period in which to elect prospectively to enroll in COBRA coverage.  It also requires that group health plans that offer employees different plan options allow assistance eligible individuals the option to change their coverage choice.  Also Group health plan administrators must provide certain notifications to assistance eligible individuals concerning these changes.

March 19, 2009 & Other Piecemeal Guidance

The March 19, 2009 DOL Guidance containing the Model Notices is part of a series of interim and evolving guidance separately issued by the IRS and DOL between February and April.  The March 19, 2009 DOL Guidance includes:

  • Various  Model Notices
  •  New FAQs for Employers on the COBRA Premium Reduction
  •  Expanded FAQs for Employees on the COBRA Premium Reduction
  •  Updated FAQs for Employees on General COBRA Provisions

In addition to the March 19, 2009 Guidance, the DOL and IRS previous also had issued a series of other guidance relating to the implementation and application of the Stimulus Bill COBRA rules on a piecemeal basis.  These include separately issued IRS guidance detailing the documentation and procedures that the IRS has indicated that employers or others who collect discounted COBRA premiums from Stimulus Bill assistance eligible individuals must meet in order to comply with the COBRA Stimulus Bill mandates and to recover additional amounts that the employer pays as a COBRA premium subsidy on behalf of assistance eligible individuals through the payroll tax credit provisions of the Stimulus Bill COBRA rules.  You can review:

While the Model Notices and other guidance provides helpful insights about the new requirements, many group health plan sponsors, administrators and fiduciaries are likely to find it necessary or desirable to specifically tailor the notifications and other procedures they provide to more clearly communicate the workings of the new requirements as they relate to their specific plans so as to minimize administrative burdens of compliance and fiduciary risks.

More Resources, Information & Assistance

Curran Tomko Tarski LLP Partner Cynthia Marcotte Stamer consults with clients and writes and speaks extensively about COBRA and other group health plan matters.  Author of the “Health Care Eligibility Toolkit” and nationally known for her experience on COBRA matters, her  Solutions Law Press article discussing the highlights of these IRS requirements and other previous guidance at http://www.cynthiastamer.com/documents/alerts/20090303_NEW%20IRS%20&%20DOL%20Guidance%20On%20Stimulus%20Bill%20COBRA%20Relief.pdf  is just one of many helpful publications she has written on the Stimulus Bill COBRA Rules and other related matters. The Stimulus Bill COBRA rules were among the updates discussed by Cynthia Marcotte Stamer during a March 11, 2009 Health Plan Update Teleconference she presented for Solutions Law Press. 

If you are an employer or other group health plan sponsor, administrator, insurer or fiduciary and need assistance in preparing required notifications or with other matters relating to the Stimulus Bill COBRA Rules or any other health or other employee benefits matter, contact Cynthia Marcotte Stamer at CStamer@SolutionsLawyer.net or via telephone at 972.419.7188. For information about how to purchase a recording of this teleconference or to review other breaking news updates about these Stimulus Bill COBRA Rules, e-mail CStamer@cttlegal.com.

You also can register to receive these and other updates by registering for this blog or by registering to receive other helpful Curran Tomko Tarski LLP publications at CTTLegal.com.


EEOC GIVES EMPLOYERS LIMITED EMPLOYER GUIDANCE ABOUT ADA ISSUES IN SWINE FLU RESPONSE

May 13, 2009

Recent concerns over the H1N1 Swine Flu (swine flu) pandemic and warnings of a possible resurgence of the swine flu pandemic or some other pandemic in the future is forcing many employers to question when concerns that an employee suffers from a contagious disease can justify the employer making inquires about the health of an employee or the exclusion of the employee from the workplace. New guidance set forth in the “U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ADA-Compliant Employer Preparedness For the H1N1 Flu Virus” (Guidance) published by the U.S. Department of Labor Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) on May 4, 2009 provides some insights for employers about the EEOC’s perspective on these questions. 

The Guidance details the EEOC’s answers to certain basic questions about when the EEOC views certain workplace preparation strategies for responding to the 2009 flu virus as compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).  Employers considering updates to their current pandemic and infectious disease response plans are cautioned that in addition to potential ADA exposures, practices for periods after November 21, 2009 also generally must be tailored to comply with new restrictions on employer’s collection of and discrimination based on genetic information based on the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act of 2008 (GINA).  Proposed regulations interpreting the employment provisions of GINA published by the EEOC in March 2009 do not specifically address the implications of GINA on employer planning or response to pandemic concerns.

ADA Concerns Apply To Employers  Planning For & Applying Swine Flu Response 

Title I of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) protects applicants and employees from disability discrimination. Among other things, the ADA regulates when and how employers may require a medical examination or request disability-related information from applicants and employees, regardless of whether the individual has a disability.  The Guidance confirms that the EEOC views this requirement as affecting when and how employers may request health information from applicants and employees regarding H1N1 flu virus.  

Effective January 1, 2009, Congress amended the Americans with Disabilities Act pursuant to the Americans with Disabilities Act Amendments Act of 2008 (ADAAA) to change the way that the ADA’s statutory definition of the term “disability” historically has been interpreted by certain courts.  The ADAAA amendments generally are intended and expected to make it easier for certain individuals to qualify as disabled under the ADA.  While the Guidance announces that the EEOC intends to revise its ADA regulations to reflect the broader group of persons protected as disabled under the ADAAA amendments, it also indicates that the EEOC does not perceive that the ADAAA changes the actions prohibited by the ADA as they relate to common pandemic planning and response activities.  Consequently, the Guidance states that the EEOC views the  guidance in “Disability-Related Inquiries & Medical Examinations of Employees Under the ADA” published by the EEOC in 2000 and its “Enforcement Guidance: Preemployment Disability-Related Questions & Medical Examinations” published in 1995 as setting forth the governing rules for medical testing, inquires and other pandemic response planning under the ADA.

Under the ADA, an employer’s ability to make disability-related inquiries or require medical examinations is analyzed in three stages: pre-offer, post-offer, and employment.

  • At the first stage (prior to an offer of employment), the ADA prohibits all disability-related inquiries and medical examinations, even if they are related to the job.
  • At the second stage (after an applicant is given a conditional job offer, but before s/he starts work), an employer may make disability-related inquiries and conduct medical examinations, regardless of whether they are related to the job, as long as it does so for all entering employees in the same job category.
  • At the third stage (after employment begins), an employer may make disability-related inquiries and require medical examinations only if they are job-related and consistent with business necessity.
  • The ADA requires employers to treat any medical information obtained from a disability-related inquiry or medical examination (including medical information from voluntary health or wellness programs), as well as any medical information voluntarily disclosed by an employee, as a confidential medical record. Employers may share such information only in limited circumstances with supervisors, managers, first aid and safety personnel, and government officials investigating compliance with the ADA.

Employers deviating from these requirements when administering their pandemic planning or response risk disability discrimination liability under the ADA unless they otherwise can defend their action under one of the exceptions to the ADA’s disability discrimination prohibitions.  When making post-offer inquiries or requiring post offer examinations or imposing other conditions for safety reasons, the Guidance and EEOC in unofficial discussions have emphasized the importance of the employer’s ability to demonstrate the job or safety relevance of the medical inquiry or examination based on credible scientific evidence such as the latest scientific evidence available from the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). 

Other than emphasizing the importance of acting appropriately in response to credible scientific evidence and pointing to preexisting guidance, the Guidance does not extensively address with specificity the circumstances under which the EEOC will view any particular action taken by an employer as defensible under the safety or other exceptions of the ADA.  Likewise, the Guidance does not discuss in any details the conditions, if any, under which the EEOC would view suffering, a history of suffering or association with or exposure to swine flu as qualifying an individual as disabled or perceived to be disabled for purposes of the ADA.  Consequently, employer must rely on other less specifically tailored guidance for purposes of assessing the defensibility of a proposed action on these grounds.

Planning for Absenteeism Under ADA

When planning for a possible pandemic, employers must be careful about when and how they ask employees about factors, including chronic medical conditions that may cause them to miss work in the event of a pandemic.  According to the Guidance, an employer may survey its workforce to gather personal information needed for pandemic preparation if the employer asks broad questions that are not limited to disability-related inquiries.  An inquiry would not be disability-related if it identified non-medical reasons for absence during a pandemic (e.g., mandatory school closures or curtailed public transportation) on an equal footing with medical reasons (e.g., chronic illnesses that weaken immunity). The Guidance includes a sample of what the EEOC views as ADA-compliant survey that could be given to all employees before a pandemic.

The Guidance also indicates that where appropriate safeguards are applied to comply with the ADA, it also may be appropriate for an employer under certain limited circumstances, to require entering employees to have a medical test post-offer to determine their exposure to the influenza virus.  According to the EEOC, the ADA permits an employer to require entering employees to undergo a job relevant medical examination after making a conditional offer of employment but before the individual starts work, if all entering employees in the same job category must undergo such an examination.  Thus, the Guidance reflects that the requirement by an employer as part of its pandemic influenza preparedness plan that all entering employees in the same job categories undergo the same post offer medical testing for the virus in accordance with recommendations by the WHO and the CDC in response to a new influenza virus may be ADA-compliant.

Infection Control in the Workplace Under the ADA

The Guidance also discusses the EEOC’s perceptions about the ADA implications of employer use of certain infection control practices in the workplace during a pandemic provided that the requirements are applied in a nondiscriminatory fashion consistent with the ADA.  For instance, the Guidance states that employers generally may apply with following infection control practices without implicating the ADA:

  • Require all employees to comply with certain infection control practices, such as regular hand washing, coughing and sneezing etiquette, and tissue usage and disposal without implicating the ADA;
  • May require employees to wear personal protective equipment provided that where an employee with a disability needs a related reasonable accommodation under the ADA (e.g., non-latex gloves, or gowns designed for individuals who use wheelchairs), employer provides these accommodations absent undue hardship;
  • Encourage or require employees to telework as an infection-control strategy, based on timely information from public health authorities about pandemic conditions or offer telework as a possible reasonable accommodation.  

In all cases, of course, the Guidance cautions that employers must not single out employees either to telework or to continue reporting to the workplace on a basis prohibited by the ADA or any of the other federal Equal Employment Opportunity laws.

Impending GINA Rules

 As signed into law, GINA amends Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA), the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (ERISA), the Public Health Service Act, the Internal Revenue Code of 1986, and Title XVIII (Medicare) of the Social Security Act to implement sweeping new federal restrictions on the collection, use, and disclosure of  “genetic information” by employers, employment agencies, labor organizations, joint labor-management committees, group health plans and insurers and their agents.  GINA’s group health plan restrictions are scheduled to take effect May 21, 2009.  The employment related genetic testing rules of GINA take affect November 21, 2009.  Employers and other covered entities will need to carefully review and timely update their pandemic and other infectious disease response practices as well as their group health plan, family leave, disability accommodation, and other existing policies in light of these new federal rules.

Although EEOC has not finalized its implementing regulations for GINA yet, employers should anticipate that GINA will impact their pandemic and other related practices.  The implications of GINA for employers and other entities covered by its provisions because of its broad definition of genetic information. 

Under GINA, “genetic information” is defined to mean with respect to any individual, information about:

  • Such individual’s genetic tests;
  • The genetic tests of family members of such individual; and
  • The manifestation of a disease or disorder in family members of such individual.

GINA also specifies that any reference to genetic information concerning an individual or family member includes genetic information of a fetus carried by a pregnant woman and an embryo legally held by an individual or family member utilizing an assisted reproductive technology.

Pending issuance of final regulatory guidance, Gina’s inclusion of information about the “manifestation of a disease or disorder in family members” raises potential challenges for a broad range of wellness and safety, leave, and other employment and benefit practices, particularly as apparently will reach a broader range of conditions than those currently protected under the disability discrimination prohibitions of the Americans With Disabilities Act (“ADA”).  

Depending on the contemplated inquiry or practice, certain inquiries or actions intended for use as part of an employer’s pandemic preparedness or response activities could fall within the scope of GINA’s protections. For this reason, employers also should consider the potential treatment of a proposed pandemic preparation or response activity intended to be applied after GINA takes effect in light of GINA.  Additionally, employers also should consider the risk that information collected under existing or previously applied pandemic or other infectious disease prevention and response activities might qualify for additional protection when GINA takes effect in November, 2009.

Other Resources

Businesses, health care providers, schools, government agencies and others concerned about preparing to cope with pandemic or other infectious disease challenges also may want to review the following resources authored by Curran Tomko Tarski LLP partner Cynthia Marcotte Stamer:

Cynthia Marcotte Stamer and other members of Curran Tomko and Tarski LLP are experienced with advising and assisting employers with these and other labor and employment, employee benefit, compensation, and internal controls matters. If your organization needs assistance with assessing, managing or defending its wage and hour or other labor and employment, compensation or benefit practices, please contact Ms. Stamer at cstamer@cttlegal.com, (214) 270-2402; or your favorite Curran Tomko Tarski, LLP attorney.  For additional information about the experience and services of Ms. Stamer and other members of the Curran Tomko Tarksi, LLP team, see the www.cttlegal.com.


Some Sexual Harassment Policy Violations Carry Criminal Risks For Employers

May 12, 2009

The recent sentencing of a West Texas man on a child pornography conviction serves as an important reminder to employers of the need to consider the potential criminal exposures and responsibilities of their organization and its management under the Federal Sentencing Guidelines when an investigation of sexual harassment policy violations uncovers evidence that an employee may have engaged in the transmission or receipt of pornography on company computers or systems.

On May 8, 2009, U.S. District Judge Sam R. Cummings sentenced Rory Dale Worthan, of Big Spring, Texas, to 78 months in prison followed by a 30-year term of supervised release illegal possession of child pornography.  Worthan pled guilty in January to one count of possession of child pornography. He admitted that on February 8, 2007, he had an image of child pornography on his computer’s hard drive that he had downloaded from the Internet.  His conviction was part of a series of convictions resulting from a West Texas child pornography sting operation.

Although Worthan’s conviction related to his use of his personal computer system, statistics show that workplace access of child and other pornography during company hours is common.  In fact, some studies report that 70 percent of all Web traffic to Internet pornography sites occurs between the traditional work hours of 9 a.m. and 5 p.m.  See  “Workplace Web Use: Give ‘em an inch …,” Douglas Schweitzer, SearchSecurity.com (Sept. 27, 2004). 

While most employers already are aware of the substantial employment discrimination and sexual harassment liability exposures that employee access, possession and transmission of pornography and other sexually explicit or suggestive content can create under Title VII and other federal and state employment discrimination laws, many are unaware that the use by employees of their computers to access, store, transmit or engage in other activities involving child pornography or other sexually explicit materials also may have criminal implications for their organization under certain circumstances.

As part of broader prohibitions against activities involving the sexual exploitation of minors, for instance under the U.S. Criminal Code, Title XVIII makes the creation, receipt, transmission possession, retention, transmission and certain other activities involving child pornography or certain other visual depictions involving the use or depiction of a minor engaging in sexually explicit conduct under certain circumstances a felony under federal law. 

Under the organizational provisions of the Federal Sentencing Guidelines, a business that employs an employee or agent who engages in these activities during working hours or using company systems or equipment may face vicarious liability for the wrongful criminal actions by its employee in violation of these or other federal laws where the criminal action engaged in by the employee is a Felony or Class A misdemeanor.  Under such circumstances, the liability exposure of the employer generally depends upon its ability to demonstrate that it had suitable policies and procedures in place to prohibit and prevent the activity, whether it timely investigated and took appropriate measures to report the violation to federal law enforcement officials and cooperate with them in their investigation and prosecution of the offending employee and other factors.

In addition to these criminal liability risks, employers also may face exposure to civil judgments in lawsuits brought by families of children victimized by employees using employer computers or operating systems.  In Doe v. XYC Corp., 887 A.2d 1156 (N.J. Super. Ct. App. Div. 2005), for example, a New Jersey appellate court ruled that an employer could be held liable in a negligence action to a victim of child pornography based on the actions of one of its employees. In Doe, the wife of an employee who used his workstation computer at work to view and circulate nude photographs of his 10-year old stepdaughter sued the employer for negligence claim.  The mother claimed the employer acted negligently by failing to detect and stop her husband from using his work computer to interact with child pornography Web sites, thereby allowing him to “continue clandestinely photographing and molesting” his 10-year-old stepdaughter.

For this reason, employers who uncover evidence that an employee or agent during working hours or using company equipment or systems may have created, received, transmitted, or stored child pornography or other sexually explicit materials must take prompt action to mitigate both their civil and criminal liability exposure.  In addition to taking prompt action to prevent, investigate and discipline employees and agents that violate employer policies against using or possessing sexually inappropriate materials, businesses also should promptly seek the assistance of competent legal counsel to evaluate whether the prohibited conduct violated federal child pornography or other criminal laws.  Where an investigation uncovers evidence of a potential violation of such laws, employers should seek assistance of counsel experienced with both employment and white collar criminal laws about the advisability of notifying federal law enforcement officials about that evidence and the best procedures to use to make those disclosures. In addition, employers should implement reasonable procedures to prevent and minor activities that may suggest employees or others granted access to company systems may be engaging in prohibited actions and take well documented action to investigate and redress this suspected misconduct. 

As the monitoring and investigation of these concerns typically will require that an employer search or monitor employee e-mail or other files, employers also should ensure that they have in place appropriate privacy disclaimer, system use and background check and investigations that empower the employer to minimize potential exposures to privacy or other employment claims by employees or others whose e-mail or other files or activities are scrutinized in connection with these activities.

 Chair of the Curran Tomko LLP Labor and Employment Practice and Board Certified in Labor & Employment Law by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization, Cynthia Marcotte Stamer regularly assists U.S. businesses to investigate and redress sexual harassment and other employment and internal controls matters.  If your organization needs assistance with investigating or responding to a suspected sex discrimination or sexual harassment matter involving pornography or other suspected employee misconduct under company policies or applicable federal or state law, please contact Ms. Stamer at cstamer@cttlegal.com, (214) 270-2402 or your favorite Curran Tomko Tarski, LLP attorney.  For additional information about the experience and services of Ms. Stamer and other members of the Curran Tomko Tarski, LLP team, see the www.cttlegal.com.


Mitigating Workplace Fallout of Pandemic Response

May 5, 2009

As the U.S. rushes to try to contain the spread of the swine influenza A (H1N1) virus infection (swine flu), businesses increasingly are facing employee leave requests and other employment and operational disruptions plans caused by school, day care or other closures and other business disruptions resulting from efforts to contain the disease while also working to take appropriate steps to prevent the spread of the disease within their own organizations.

Regardless of how deadly it ultimately proves to be, the pandemic proportion of the swine flu outbreak now ensures that most U.S. businesses will experience some disruption in operations as a result of the epidemic and efforts to contain it.

According to officials from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), as of 11:00 a.m. Eastern Time, 36 states had reported a total of 236 confirmed cases of swine flu and more cases are expected. That number includes the first U.S. swine flu fatality: a 22-month-old child from Mexico who died of the illness at a Houston, Texas hospital while visiting the United States last week. States currently hardest hit include New York (73 cases), Texas (41 cases), California (30 cases), Delaware (20 cases) and Arizona (17 cases). In the near future, however, CDC officials anticipate confirmed cases in all 50 states.

CDC officials and other experts continue to emphasize that the success of efforts to prevent the unnecessary spread of the disease depends largely on good health habits, limiting exposure to the virus and prompt diagnosis and treatment of afflicted persons. Employers can help reduce the risk that members of their workforce and their families will catch the virus by promoting good health habits and encouraging workers and their families to stay home and seek prompt treatment in the event of an illness. Simultaneously planning for and dealing with absences and other staffing challenges result from school, day care and other closings prevents a greater challenge for many employers, however.

Easy Preventive Safeguards

While the CDC says getting employees and their families to get a flu shot remains the best defense against a flu outbreak, it also says getting employees and family members to consistently practice good health habits like covering a cough and washing hands also is another important key to prevent the spread of germs and prevent the spread of respiratory illnesses like the flu. To help promote health habits within their workforce, many businesses may want to download and circulate to employees and families the free resources published by the CDC at http://www.cdc.gov/flu/protect/habits.htm. These and other resources make clear that Employers should encourage employees and their families to practice good health habits by telling employees and their families to take the following steps:

  • Avoid close contact with people who are sick. When you are sick, keep your distance from others to protect them from getting sick too.
  • Stay home when you are sick to help prevent others from catching your illness. Cover your mouth and nose.
  • Cover your mouth and nose with a tissue when coughing or sneezing. It may prevent those around you from getting sick.
  • Clean your hands to protect yourself from germs.
  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose or mouth.
  • Germs are often spread when a person touches something that is contaminated with germs and then touches his or her eyes, nose, or mouth.
  • Practice other good health habits. Get plenty of sleep, be physically active, manage your stress, drink plenty of fluids, and eat nutritious food.

Many businesses are promoting these and other conducts that help prevent the spread of disease by sharing educational materials such as the growing range of free materials provided by the CDC and others available at the government sponsored website, http://www.pandemicflu.gov. For instance, business can access and download free copies of the following publications at http://www.cdc.gov/flu/protect/habits.htm:

  • Cover Your Cough
  • Be a Germ Stopper: Healthy Habits Keep You Well
  • Flu Prevention Toolkit: Real People. Real Solutions
  • Stopping the Spread of Germs at Home, Work & School

Dealing With Lost Time & Productivity Challenges

Businesses also should begin preparing backup staffing and production strategies to prepare for disruptions likely to result if a significant outbreak occurs. Whether or not the disease afflicts any of its workers, businesses can anticipate the swine flu outbreak will impact their operations -either as a result of occurrences affecting their own or other businesses or from workflow disruptions resulting from safeguards that the business or other businesses implement to minimize swine flu risks for its workforce or its customers.

For many employers, however, planning for and dealing with requests for time off or other workplace disruptions resulting from pandemic containment efforts presents special challenges. While most employers have well established policies and procedures for providing medical leave to employees during periods of their own or a family member’s illness under the Family & Medical Leave Act (FMLA) or otherwise, many employers are experiencing difficulty in responding to leave requests of healthy employees necessitated by school or day care closings, suspected exposures, or other pandemic response disruptions.

Certainly, whether or not legally mandated, the CDC and other official advisories make clear that sick employees should not be in the workplace. Employers of course must provide medical leave as required by the FMLA or other similar state laws as well as any contractually agreed to leave. To better insulate their workforce against potential exposure to the virus, however, many employers also may wish consider temporarily modifying existing leave or other work policies with an eye to better defending their workforce against a major outbreak. In this respect, employers need to consider both how to respond to the present wave of the virus and to plan for the possible need to respond to another potentially stronger outbreak of the swine flu virus that the CDC and other experts caution likely may arise in the Fall or Winter.

As part of their efforts to insulate their workplaces against exposure to the virus, employers generally should discourage workers from coming to work if they or a family member are experiencing symptoms or have been exposed to the virus. For this reason, businesses generally evaluate workplace policies or practices that may pressure or encourage employees with swine flu or any other contagious disease to report to work. Employers should consider whether the potential risks make advisable adjustments to their current attendance, telecommuting, leave and paid time off and other policies.

In light of the current situation, many businesses may want to consider temporarily adjust their leave, telecommuting and other policies in light of the impending health risk. For instance, recognizing that the decision to close a school or child care facility in response to a known or suspected infection seeks to minimize the spread of the disease through exposure to other then undiagnosed cases, businesses generally should think twice about allowing employees to bring these potentially exposed children into the workplace. Instead, employers may wish to consider being more flexible in allowing employees to work from home or take leave to care for children whose schools or child care facilities are closed due to concerns about possible exposure to reduce the risk of creating unnecessary exposure in their workplace.

To help minimize financial pressures on workers to report to work when they may be ill or exposed to the virus, many employers also may want to consider providing or offering short-term disability insurance, expanding the availability of paid or unpaid leave or both.

Regardless of the specific choices a particular business makes, businesses need to take appropriate steps to document, implement, and communicate their decisions. If considering allowing or requiring employees to work from home, employers need to implement appropriate safeguards to monitor and manage employee performance, and to protect the employer’s ability to comply with applicable wage and hour, worker’s compensation, safety, privacy and other legal and operational requirements. They also should review and update family and medical leave act and other sick leave policies, group health plan medical coverage continuation rules and notices and other associated policies and plans for compliance with existing regulatory requirements, which have been subject to a range of statutory and regulatory amendments in recent years.

If considering allowing or requiring employees to work from home, for instance, employers need to implement appropriate safeguards to monitor and manage employee performance, and to protect the employer’s ability to comply with applicable wage and hour, worker’s compensation, safety, privacy and other legal and operational requirements. They also should review and update family and medical leave act and other sick leave policies, group health plan medical coverage continuation rules and notices and other associated policies and plans for compliance with existing regulatory requirements, which have been subject to a range of statutory and regulatory amendments in recent years.

In light of the growing responsibilities and exposures of business to medical privacy and disability liabilities associated with knowledge, collection, protection and use of information about the health and medical conditions of workers and their families, businesses also should review and update their procedures regarding the use, collection, disclosure, and protection of this and other sensitive information. Businesses, health care providers, schools, government agencies and others concerned about preparing to cope with pandemic or other infectious disease challenges also may want to review the publication “Planning for the Pandemic” authored by Curran Tomko Tarski LLP partner Cynthia Marcotte Stamer available at http://www.cynthiastamer.com/documents/speeches/20070530%20Pan%20Flu%20Workplace%20Privacy%20Issues%20Final%20Merged.pdf. Schools, health care organizations, restaurants and other businesses whose operations involve significant interaction with the public also may need to take special precautions. These and other businesses may want to consult the special resources posted at http://www.pandemicflu.gov/health/index.html.

Cynthia Marcotte Stamer and other members of Curran Tomko and Tarski LLP are experienced with advising and assisting employers with these and other labor and employment, employee benefit, compensation, and internal controls matters. Ms. Stamer in particular has worked extensively with health care providers, government officials, and businesses to plan for and deal with pandemic and other absence, disease management and disaster preparedness concerns. If your organization needs assistance with assessing, managing or defending its wage and hour or other labor and employment, compensation or benefit practices, please contact Ms. Stamer at cstamer@cttlegal.com, (214) 270-2402, or your favorite Curran Tomko Tarski, LLP attorney. For additional information about the experience and services of Ms. Stamer and other members of the Curran Tomko Tarksi, LLP team, see the http://www.cttlegal.com.


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