New Mental Health Parity Regulations Require Health Plan Review & Updates

January 31, 2010

By Cynthia Marcotte Stamer

Employer and union-sponsored group health plans and insurers generally must update their group health plans to comply with expanded federal “mental health parity” regulations (MHP Regulations) published on Friday, January 29, 2010 will require changes to most covered group health plans to comply with the new rules and to make adjustments to broader benefit provisions as appropriate to mitigate potential cost implications no later than the first plan year beginning after June 30, 2010.

Jointly published by the Treasury, Health & Human Services and Labor Departments and available for review here , the MHP Regulations interpret and implement federal rules prohibiting group health plans and their insurers from imposing certain special limits on benefits provided for mental health and substance abuse treatments not applicable to general medical or surgical benefits. 

The Paul Wellstone and Pete Domenici Mental Health Parity and Addition Equity Act of 2008, Public Law 110-343 (MHPAEA) expands the scope of prohibited restrictions on mental health benefits beginning after June 30, 2010.   Under the MHPAEA amendments, any covered group health plan that includes mental health and substance use disorder benefits along with standard medical and surgical benefits generally cannot apply more limited benefit limits, out-of-pocket cost limitations, prior authorization and utilization review or other benefit restrictions than apply to medical or surgical benefits.  In addition, group health plan utilization review, medical necessity and appropriateness and other rules and procedures used to decide mental health and substance abuse benefits generally must be based on the same level of scientific evidence used by the group health plan or insurer to determine medical and surgical benefits.

Before the MHPAEA amendments took effect, the Mental Health Parity Act of 1996 (MHPA) generally only prohibited group health plans from applying more restrictive aggregate lifetime and annual dollar limits on mental health benefits than applied to general medical or surgical benefits and did not extend these restrictions to substance use disorder benefits.

The MHP Regulations generally apply to group health plans of employers with 50 or more workers that offer mental health or substance use disorder benefits for plan years beginning on or after July 1, 2010.  Until then, covered group health plans and their insurers generally must continue to comply with the more limited mental health parity requirements imposed under the MHPA, as well as other federal group health plan mandates.

Federal law increasingly is curtailing the significant latitude that employers and unions once enjoyed in deciding the benefits, eligibility and other terms and conditions of their group health plans, including many significant changes that took effect or will take effect during 2009 and 2010.   You can learn more about some of these developments by reviewing the 2009 Health Plan Update presentation posted here.  In light of the liabilities and costs arising under these and other rules, plan sponsors, administrators, fiduciaries and executives with responsibility over these plans, their establishment, funding or administration should take prompt and prudent steps to verify that their plan documents, communications, agreements and practices are updated to minimize risks and avoid unanticipated expense.

If your organization needs assistance with monitoring, assessing, managing or defending these or other health or other employee benefit, labor and employment, or compensation practices, please contact the author of this article, Curran Tomko Tarski LLP Labor & Employment Practice Group Chair Cynthia Marcotte Stamer or another Curran Tomko Tarski LLP attorney of your choice.  Board Certified in Labor & Employment Law by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization and Chair of the American Bar Association RPTE Employee Benefits & Other Compensation Group and a nationally recognized author and speaker, Ms. Stamer is experienced with assisting employers and others about compliance with health and other employee benefit, labor and employment laws, safety, compensation, insurance, and other laws.  She also advises and defends employers and other plan sponsors, fiduciaries, employee benefit plans and others about litigation and other disputes relating to these matters, as well as charges, audits, claims and investigations by the IRS, Department of Labor and other federal and state regulators. She has counseled and represented employers on these and other workforce matters for more than 22 years. Ms. Stamer also speaks and writes extensively on these and other related matters. For additional information about Ms. Stamer and her experience or to access other publications by Ms. Stamer see here or contact Ms. Stamer directly.   For additional information about the experience and services of Ms. Stamer and other members of the Curran Tomko Tarksi LLP team, see here.

Other Information & Resources

We hope that this information is useful to you. If you or someone else you know would like to receive future updates about developments on these and other concerns, please be sure that we have your current contact information – including your preferred e-mail – by creating or updating your profile here or e-mailing this information here or registering to participate in the distribution of our Solutions Law Press HR & Benefits Update distributions here.  Examples of other recent updates that may be of interest include:

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 here.

©2009 Cynthia Marcotte Stamer. All rights reserved.


Health Plans & Employers Can Expect Pressure To Pay For Childhood Obesity Counseling From New American Academy of Pediatrics Report

January 25, 2010

By Cynthia Marcotte Stamer

New American Academy of Pediatrics recommendations calling for early intervention and intensive behavioral therapy to treat childhood obesity promise to increase demands for employer sponsored and other health plans to reimburse the costs of these treatments.

With health care providers and government officials increasingly emphasizing the need for prevention and intervention, employers and health insurers face greater pressure to offer health benefit coverage for weight management and other obesity prevention and treatment. Aside from determining what treatments to coverage generally, recent changes in the Americans With Disabilities Act statute and its enforcement and interpretation by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the recently effective employment and health plan nondiscrimination rules of the Genetic Information and Nondiscrimination Act, health information and other privacy rules and other legal changes make the appropriate design and administration of obesity and other wellness, disease management and other programs targeting obesity or other chronic conditions legally and operationally challenging.  Employers and insurers concerned with these issues should exercise care to properly understand and appropriately manage the legal and operational complexities, risks, costs and benefits when designing health and other programs to manage health care, disability and other costs of obesity and other chronic diseases.

Read the report and about discrimination and other issues that employers and insurers may need to manage under evolving federal rules when deciding how to design and manage obesity and other wellness and disease management programs here.

If you have questions about wellness, disease management or other health and wellness benefit, disability prevention and management, or other employee benefit, employment, compensation, workplace health and safety, corporate ethics and compliance practices, concerns or claims, please contact the author of this article, Curran Tomko Tarski LLP Labor & Employment Practice Group Chair Cynthia Marcotte Stamer. 

Chair of the American Bar Association (ABA) RPTE Employee Benefits & Other Compensation Group, an ABA Joint Committee on Employee Benefits Council Member, Past Chair of the ABA Managed Care & Insurance Group and RPTE Welfare Benefits Committee and Board Certified in Labor & Employment Law by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization, Ms. Stamer is experienced advising and assisting government leaders, employers, health and other employee benefit plans and their fiduciaries, insurers, financial advisory services, and administrators, health care providers, and others about obesity and other disease management and wellness programs, as well as other related employee benefit and employment matters.  A widely published author on these and other health and disability benefit and management concerns, Ms. Stamer has advised and represented employers, health plans and others on these and other matters for more than 20 years. Author of the Personal Health Care Toolkit, Ms. Stamer also has lead the development of wellness and disease management initiatives for the National Kidney Foundation of North Texas and other organizations. Ms. Stamer also speaks and writes extensively on these and other related matters. For additional information about Ms. Stamer and her experience, see here or to access other publications by Ms. Stamer see here or contact Ms. Stamer directly.   For additional information about the experience and services of Ms. Stamer and other members of the Curran Tomko Tarksi LLP team, see here.

Other Information & Resources

We hope that this information is useful to you. If you or someone else you know would like to receive future updates about developments on these and other concerns, please be sure that we have your current contact information – including your preferred e-mail – by creating or updating your profile here or e-mailing this information here or registering to participate in the distribution of our Solutions Law Press HR & Benefits Update distributions here.  Some other recent updates that may be of interested include the following, which you can access by clicking on the article title:

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 here.

©2010 Cynthia Marcotte Stamer. All rights reserved. 


Homeland Security Updates List of Nations Whose Nationals Are Eligible for H-2A or H-2B Visas

January 20, 2010

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) in conjunction with the United States Secretary of State yesterday announced the countries whose nationals are eligible to participate in the H–2A and H–2B visa program for the upcoming year. USCIS may only approve H–2A and H–2B petitions for nationals of countries included among this list of countries.   USCIS published the list the Federal Register on January 19, 2010.

The countries included on the list of countries whose nationals are eligible to participate in the H–2A and H–2B visa programs for one year period beginning January 18, 2010 through January 17, 2011 include: Argentina, Australia, Belize, Brazil, Bulgaria, Canada, Chile, Costa Rica, Croatia, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador, Ethiopia, Guatemala, Honduras, Indonesia, Ireland, Israel, Jamaica, Japan, Lithuania, Mexico, Moldova, The Netherlands, Nicaragua, New Zealand, Norway, Peru, Philippines, Poland, Romania, Serbia, Slovakia, South Africa, South Korea, Turkey, Ukraine, United Kingdom, and Uruguay.

If you have questions about or need assistance evaluating, commenting on or responding to this invitation or other employment, compensation, employee benefit, workplace health and safety, or corporate ethics and compliance practices, concerns or claims, please contact the author of this article, Curran Tomko Tarski LLP Labor & Employment Practice Group Chair Cynthia Marcotte Stamer.  Board Certified in Labor & Employment Law by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization, Ms. Stamer is experienced assisting employers and others to design, administer and defend I-9 and other labor and employment, compensation, employee benefits, corporate ethics and compliance and other risk management practices.  She also advises, assists, trains, audits and defends employers and others regarding the federal and state Sentencing Guideline and other compliance, equal employment opportunity, privacy,  leave, compensation, workplace safety, wage and hour, workforce reengineering, and other labor and employment and defends related audits, investigations and litigation, charges, audits, claims and investigations by the IRS, Department of Labor and other federal and state regulators. Ms. Stamer has advised and represented employers on these and other labor and employment, compensation, employee benefit and other personnel and staffing matters for more than 22 years. Ms. Stamer also speaks and writes extensively on these and other related matters. For additional information about Ms. Stamer and her experience, see here or to access other publications by Ms. Stamer see here or contact Ms. Stamer directly.   For additional information about the experience and services of Ms. Stamer and other members of the Curran Tomko Tarksi LLP team, see here.

Other Information & Resources

We hope that this information is useful to you. If you or someone else you know would like to receive future updates about developments on these and other concerns, please be sure that we have your current contact information – including your preferred e-mail – by creating or updating your profile here or e-mailing this information here or registering to participate in the distribution of our Solutions Law Press HR & Benefits Update distributions here.  Some other recent updates that may be of interested include the following, which you can access by clicking on the article title:

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 here.

©2009 Cynthia Marcotte Stamer. All rights reserved.


New Labor Department Rule Allows Employers 7 Days To Deliver Employee Contributions To Employee Benefit Plans

January 14, 2010

By Cynthia Marcotte Stamer

Regulations published by the Department of Labor today (January 14, 2010) offer employers the opportunity to know their deposit of employee contributions and other amounts withheld from wages or otherwise received from employees with a pension, profit-sharing, health, or other welfare benefit plan is timely for purposes of the fiduciary responsibility requirements of the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (“ERISA”) and the prohibited transaction rules of the Internal Revenue Code (the “Code”) by depositing those amounts with the plan within the seven day period specified in a new safe harbor included in the Regulations.

Certainty about the timeliness of these deposits is important, as mishandling of these employee contributions, participant loan repayments or other employee benefit plan assets frequently triggers judgments, fines and penalties against companies that sponsor employee benefit plans as well as owners, board members, or other members of management. See Mishandling Employee Benefit Obligations Creates Big Liabilities For Distressed Businesses & Their Leaders.  Consequently, businesses sponsoring employee benefit programs and owners, officers, directors or other members of management with authority over or responsibility for the handling or application of amounts withheld or collected from employees as employee contributions or plan loans should make arrangements for these amounts to be properly handled and timely deposited with the appropriate employee benefit plan in accordance with these new plan asset regulations.

Title I of ERISA generally requires that employee benefit “plan assets” be held in trust, prudently handled and invested, used for the exclusive benefit of the plan and its participants, and otherwise used and administered in accordance with ERISA’s fiduciary responsibility rules.  Meanwhile, the use of “plan assets” of certain employee benefit plans in a manner prohibited by the Code’s prohibited transaction rules also may trigger excise taxes and other penalties.

For purposes of both ERISA and the Code, Labor Department Regulation § 2510.3-102, specifies that amounts (other than union dues) that an employer withholds from wages or otherwise collects from employees as employee contributions or loan repayments to an employee benefit plan generally become plan assets subject to these fiduciary responsibility rules “as of the earliest date on which such contributions or repayments can reasonably be segregated from the employer’s general assets.”  Since employers, business owners, members of management can risk exposure to damages, administrative penalties and/or excise taxes, knowing when amounts collected from employees are considered plan assets is a critical first step to managing these risks.

Unfortunately, the subjectivity of this standard leaves room for much uncertainty and debate about the precise deadline by which employee contributions, plan loans and other amounts from employees must be received by the plan. The subjectivity inherent in this standard leaves many employers uncertain about the adequacy of their compliance efforts and frequently fuels debate among plans, debtors, creditors, regulators or others about the when amounts earmarked to be withheld from employee wages cease to be assets of the debtor employer and become plan assets.

To mitigate debate and uncertainty about the timing of these events, Labor Department Regulation § 2510.3-102 as published in final form today includes a new “safe harbor” rule for plans with fewer than 100 participants at the beginning of the plan year. Under the safe harbor, employee contributions, plan loans and other amounts withheld from wages or received from employees for payment to an employee benefit plan are treated as treated timely paid to the plan if deposited with the plan not later than the 7th business day following the day on which such amount is received by the employer (in the case of amounts that a participant or beneficiary pays to an employer), or the 7th business day following the day on which such amount would otherwise have been payable to the participant in cash (in the case of amounts withheld by an employer from a participant’s wages).  While this safe harbor assures employers and others that withhold from wages or receive employee contributions or participant loan payments owing to less than 100 participant plans that their deposit will be considered timely if received by the plan within seven days, the plan asset regulations leave open that deposit with the plan more than 7 after receipt might still be considered timely deposit with the plan under certain circumstance. 

Where deposit with the plan is not made within the seven-day period established by the safe harbor, the plan asset rules continue to leave room for great subjectivity in the determination of the deadline for deposit.  In addition to the seven-day safe harbor, the plan asset regulations clearly establish bright-line deadlines after which the deposit of employee contribution or plan loan amounts always will be considered untimely. Thus, the plan asset rules provide that the deadline for depositing employee contributions and plan loans with the plan in no event ever extends beyond the applicable of the following dates (the “Latest Date”)

  • For pension plans, the 15th business day of the month following the month in which the employee contribution or participant loan repayment amounts are withheld or received by the employer;
  • With respect to a SIMPLE plan that involves SIMPLE IRAs the 30th calendar day following the month in which the participant contribution amounts would otherwise have been payable to the participant in cash; and
  • For health and other welfare benefit plans, 90 days from the date on which the employee contribution is withheld or received by the employer.

In all other instances, the plan asset regulations leave open to uncertainty and debate when and if an employer’s deposit of employee contributions and plan loans more than seven-days after payroll deduction or receipt but before the Latest Date will qualify as timely for purposes of ERISA Title I or the Code’s prohibited transaction provisions.

Companies and owners, officers and directors of businesses that harm plans by failing to ensure that these amounts are timely deposited into an employee benefit plan or otherwise are involved in the mishandling of these funds frequently become subject to prosecution, damage awards, civil penalties and excise taxes.  To mitigate potential exposure to these risks, businesses and leaders of businesses that withhold from wages or collect employee contributions or plan loan payments from employees should make arrangements to ensure that these amounts timely are deposited with the appropriate plans and otherwise handled appropriately in accordance with ERISA and the Code.

If your business or employee benefit plan needs assistance evaluating or responding to these or other employee benefit, or other employment, workplace health and safety, corporate ethics and compliance or other concerns or claims, please contact the author of this article, Curran Tomko Tarski LLP Labor & Employment Practice Group Chair Cynthia Marcotte Stamer. 

Chair of the American Bar Association RPTE Employee Benefits & Other Compensation Group, a representative to the ABA Joint Committee on Employee Benefits Council, past Chair of the ABA Health Law Section Managed Care & Insurance Interest Group and Board Certified in Labor & Employment Law by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization, Ms. Stamer has advised and represented employers on these and other labor and employment, compensation, employee benefit and other personnel and staffing matters for more than 22 years. She is experienced with assisting employers, insurers, administrators, and others to design and administer group health plans cost-effectively in accordance with these and other applicable federal regulations as well as well as advising and defending employers and others against tax, employee benefit, labor and employment, and other related audits, investigations and litigation, charges, audits, claims and investigations by the IRS, Department of Labor and other federal and state regulators.  Ms. Stamer also speaks and writes extensively on these and other related matters. For additional information about Ms. Stamer and her experience or to access other publications by Ms. Stamer see here or contact Ms. Stamer directly.   For additional information about the experience and services of Ms. Stamer and other members of the Curran Tomko Tarksi LLP team, see here.

Other Information & Resources

We hope that this information is useful to you. If you or someone else you know would like to receive future updates about developments on these and other concerns, please be sure that we have your current contact information – including your preferred e-mail – by creating or updating your profile here or e-mailing this information here or registering to participate in the distribution of our Solutions Law Press HR & Benefits Update distributions here.  Some other recent updates that may be of interested include the following, which you can access by clicking on the article title:

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 here.

©2010 Cynthia Marcotte Stamer. All rights reserved. 


Certain Workforce Reductions Trigger Plant Closing Notice & Other Obligations

January 6, 2010

While some businesses report improved business or hiring outlooks for 2010, many others are running out of time before the economic downturn and financing restrictions will force them to implement workforce reductions, close plants, or shut down all or portions of their business operations.  Where a distressed business contemplates a plant closing or mass layoff, the business and its leaders should consider its potential responsibilities under the Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification Act (WARN) and where applicable, make appropriate arrangements to comply or implement the restructuring to minimize or avoid triggering WARN obligations.

In addition to WARN, business contemplating or implementing a plan closing, mass layoff or other reductions in force also should evaluate and make appropriate arrangements to address potential obligations under state plant closing laws, the ARRA Stimulus Bill Extension Rules amended and extended earlier this month and other requirements of COBRA, voluntary or contractually obligated termination pay or other severance obligations, employee benefit, unemployment, and other laws.  Read more.


Newly Extended COBRA Subsidy Rules Require Employers, Administrators Send Required Notices & Update Health Plan Documents & Procedures Quickly

January 6, 2010

Employer and union sponsored group health plans, their sponsors and administrators must act quickly to provide required notifications and implement other plan document and procedural changes required to comply with the extension and expansion of temporary “COBRA Subsidy Rules” for “assistance eligible individuals” signed into law as part of the Department of Defense Appropriations Act (H.R. 3326).  In some cases, required notifications are due in early February, 2010.

The COBRA Subsidy Rules originally were 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 (“AARA”) last February and extended and expanded just before Congress recessed for the Holidays.  H.R. 3326 extended the period that employer and union-sponsored group health plans must allow employees and members of their family that lose group health plan coverage due to an involuntary employment loss to continue their group medical coverage under the reduced premium and other temporary ARRA COBRA Subsidy Rules and lengthened the period during which an involuntary employment loss can qualify an otherwise COBRA-eligible employee or dependent as an assistance eligible individual.  Health plan administrators must provide notifications to assistance eligible individuals and restore COBRA eligibility and coverage at reduced premiums for certain assistance eligible individuals who allowed their coverage to lapse before the extension. Legislation that would reduced the premiums health plans are allowed to charge and further extend the rules to June, 2010 still is pending in Congress.  Curran Tomko Tarski LLP already has worked with several clients to understand these changes, amend their documents and prepare notices.   Read more.

Group health plans, their employer or union sponsors, administrators, insurers and service providers will need to act quickly to prepare and provider required updated notifications to assistance eligible individuals of these extended eligibility periods and their resulting rights,  and otherwise update their plan documents, procedures, and COBRA notifications in light of these new rules. 

If you have questions about or need assistance evaluating, commenting on or responding to these or other employment, health or other employee benefit, workplace health and safety, corporate ethics and compliance or other concerns or claims, please contact the author of this article, Curran Tomko Tarski LLP Labor & Employment Practice Group Chair Cynthia Marcotte Stamer.  The author of the “Health Plan Eligibility Toolkit,” Ms. Stamer is experienced with assisting employers, insurers, administrators, and others to design and administer group health plans cost-effectively in accordance with COBRA and other applicable federal regulations as well as well as advising and defending employers and others against tax, employment discrimination and other labor and employment, and other related audits, investigations and litigation, charges, audits, claims and investigations by the IRS, Department of Labor and other federal and state regulators.. Chair of the American Bar Association RPTE Employee Benefits & Other Compensation Group, a representative to the ABA Joint Committee on Employee Benefits Council, past Chair of the ABA Health Law Section Managed Care & Insurance Interest Group and Board Certified in Labor & Employment Law by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization, Ms. Stamer has advised and represented employers on these and other labor and employment, compensation, employee benefit and other personnel and staffing matters for more than 22 years. Ms. Stamer also speaks and writes extensively on these and other related matters. For additional information about Ms. Stamer and her experience or to access other publications by Ms. Stamer see here or contact Ms. Stamer directly.   For additional information about the experience and services of Ms. Stamer and other members of the Curran Tomko Tarksi LLP team, see here.

Other Information & Resources

We hope that this information is useful to you. If you or someone else you know would like to receive future updates about developments on these and other concerns, please be sure that we have your current contact information – including your preferred e-mail – by creating or updating your profile here or e-mailing this information here or registering to participate in the distribution of our Solutions Law Press HR & Benefits Update distributions here.  Some other recent updates that may be of interested include the following, which you can access by clicking on the article title:

 

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 here.

©2009 Cynthia Marcotte Stamer. All rights reserved. 


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