HIPAA Settlement Warns Health Plans, Sponsoring Employers & Business Associates To Manage HIPAA Risks

July 11, 2015

Health plans, insurers and other health plan industry service providers widespread use and reliance on internet applications to access and share protected health information when performing online enrollment, claims administration and payment, reporting, member and provider communications and a host of other key health plan functions makes it particularly important for health plans, their employer or other sponsors, fiduciaries, insurers and other vendors and their management to respond quickly to a warning from Department of Health & Human Services (HHS) Office of Civil Rights (OCR) warning to ensure applications and systems properly safeguard protected health information (PHI) as required by the Health Insurance Portability & Accountability (HIPAA) Privacy, Security & Breach Notification Rules (HIPAA Rules) and other laws made in its July 10, 2015 announcement of its latest HIPAA settlement.

The new Resolution Agreement with the Massachusetts based hospital system, St. Elizabeth’s Medical Center (SEMC) settles charges OCR made that SEMC reached HIPAA by failing to protect the security of PHI when using internet applications to access and share PHI. The Resolution Agreement also shows how complaints filed with OCR by workforce members can create additional compliance headaches for Covered Entities or their business associates while the “robust corrective action plan” imposed under the Resolution Agreement shares examples of ladder reporting and management oversight and documentation Covered Entities and business associates can expect to need to prove their organizations maintains the “culture of compliance” with HIPAA OCR expects in the event of an OCR audit or investigation.

With recent reports on massive health plan HIPAA and other data breaches fueling widespread participant and regulatory concern over identity theft and other data security, Covered Entities and their business associates should prepare to defend the adequacy of their own HIPAA and other data security practices in the event of an OCR breach investigation or audit. Accordingly, health plans and their employer or other sponsors, health plan fiduciaries, health plan vendors acting as business associates and others dealing with health plans and their management should contact legal counsel experienced in these matters for advice within the scope of attorney-client privilege about how to respond to the OCR warning and other developments to manage their HIPAA and other privacy and data security legal and operational risks and liabilities.

SEMC Resolution Agreement Overview

The SEMC Resolution Agreement settles OCR charges that SEMC violated HIPAA stemming from an OCR investigation of a November 16, 2012 complaint by SEMC workforce members and a separate data breach report SEMC separately made to OCR of a breach of unsecured electronic PHI (ePHI) stored on a former SEMC workforce member’s personal laptop and USB flash drive affecting 595 individuals. In their complaint, SEMC workers complained SEMC violated HIPAA by allowing workforce members to use an internet-based document sharing application to share and store documents containing electronic protected health information (ePHI) of at least 498 individuals without adequately analyzing the risks. OCR says its investigation of the complaint and breach report revealed among other things that:

  • SEMC improperly disclosed the PHI of at least 1,093 individuals;
  • SEMC failed to implement sufficient security measures regarding the transmission of and storage of ePHI to reduce risks and vulnerabilities to a reasonable and appropriate level; and
  • SEMC failed to timely identify and respond to a known security incident, mitigate the harmful effects of the security incident, and document the security incident and its outcome.

To resolve OCR’s charges, SMCS agreed to pay $218,400 to OCR and implement a “robust corrective action plan” to correct these alleged HIPAA violations. While the required settlement payment is relatively small, the Resolution Agreement’s focus security requirements for internet application and data use and sharing activities engaged in by virtually every Covered Entity and business associate make the Resolution Agreement merit the immediate attention of all Covered Entities, their business associates and their management.

SEMC HIPAA Specific Compliance Lessons For Health Plans & Business Associates

In announcing the Resolution Agreement, OCR Director Jocelyn Samuels sent a clear warning to all Covered Entities and their business associates “to pay particular attention to HIPAA’s requirements when using internet-based document sharing applications,” stating “In order to reduce potential risks and vulnerabilities, all workforce members must follow all policies and procedures, and entities must ensure that incidents are reported and mitigated in a timely manner.”

The Resolution Agreement makes clear that OCR expects health plans and other Covered Entities and their business associates to be able to show both their timely investigation of reported or suspected HIPAA susceptibilities or violations as well as to self-audit and spot test HIPAA compliance in their operations. The SEMC corrective action plan also indicates Covered Entities and business associates must be able to produce documentation and other evidence needed to show the top to bottom dedication to HIPAA compliance necessary to prove a “culture of compliance” with HIPAA permeates their organizations.

In light of OCR’s warning and expectations, Covered Entities and business associates should start by considering the advisability for their own organization to take one or more of the steps outlined in the “robust corrective action plan” included in the Resolution Agreement, starting with the specific steps the corrective action plan requires SEMC to address its internet application security concerns such as:

  • Conducting self-audits and spot checks of workforce members’ familiarity and compliance with HIPAA policies and procedures on transmitting ePHI using unauthorized networks; storing ePHI on unauthorized information systems, including unsecured networks and devices; removal of ePHI from SEMC; prohibition on sharing accounts and passwords for ePHI access or storage; encryption of portable devices that access or store ePHI; security incident reporting related to ePHI; and
  • Inspecting laptops, smartphones, storage media and other portable devices, workstations and other devices containing ePHI and other data devices and systems and their use; and
  • Conducting other tests and audits of security and compliance with policies, processes and procedures; and
  • Documenting results, findings, and corrective actions including appropriate up the ladder reporting and management oversight of these and other HIPAA compliance expectations, training and other efforts.

Broader HIPAA Compliance & Risk Management Lessons

Beyond the specific internet applications and other security of ePHI lessons in the Resolution Agreement, Covered Entities and their business associates also should be mindful of other more subtle, but equally important broader HIPAA compliance and risk management lessons provided in the Resolution Agreement and other recent OCR guidance about their overall HIPAA compliance responsibilities.

One of the most significant of these lessons is the need for proper workforce training, oversight and management. The Resolution Agreement sends an undeniable message that OCR expects Covered Entities, business associates and their leaders to be able to show their effective oversight and management of the operational compliance of their systems and members of their workforce with HIPAA policies. The SEMC corrective action plan should prompt Covered Entities and business associates to weigh the adequacy of their existing workforce training, reporting, investigation and other management processes and documentation. Meanwhile, OCR’s report that an OCR complaint made by SEMC insiders to OCR prompted its investigation also should sensitize Covered Entities and their business associates of the need to ensure that their workforce training and management processes are appropriate to position their organization both to show their processes encourage proper internal reporting and investigation of compliance concerns, as well as manage the inevitable HIPAA and other human resources retaliation and whistleblower exposures that can arise out of such reports.

The Resolution Agreement also provides insights to the internal corporate processes and documentation of compliance efforts that Covered Entities and business associates may need to show their organization has the required “culture of compliance” needed to mitigate consequences of breaches or other compliance glitches. Particularly notable are Resolution Agreement’s terms on the documentation and up the ladder reporting to management and OCR of SEMC’s self-audit and self-correction activities and management oversight and management of these activities. Like tips shared by HHS in the recently released Practical Guidance for Health Care Governing Boards on Compliance Oversight, these details in the Resolution Agreement provide invaluable tips to Boards and other leaders of Covered Entities and business associates about steps they can take to promote their ability to demonstrate their organizations have the necessary culture of HIPAA compliance OCR expects.

Health Plan HIPAA Compliance Risks & Responsibilities of Employers & Their Leaders

While HIPAA places the primary duty for complying with HIPAA on Covered Entities and business associates, health plan sponsors and their management still need to make HIPAA compliance a priority for many practical and legal reasons.

As employers forced to cope with the deluge of fears and questions of employees and other health plan members impacted by recent massive PHI breach reports shared by Blue Cross association health insurance plan giants, Anthem and Premera can attest, HIPAA data breach or other compliance reports often trigger significant financial, administrative, workforce satisfaction and other operational costs employer health plan sponsors. Inevitable employee concern about health plan data breaches undermines employee value and satisfaction of the health benefit plan as an employee benefit. These concerns also usually require employers to expend significant management and financial resources to respond to these concerns and address other employer fallout from the breach.

The costs of investigation and redress of a known or suspected HIPAA data or other breach typically far exceed the actual damages to participants resulting from the breach. While HIPAA technically does not make sponsoring employers directly responsible for these duties or the costs of their performance, as a practical matter sponsoring employers typically can expect to pay costs and other expenses that its health plan incurs to investigate and redress a HIPAA breach. For one thing, except in the all too rare circumstances where employers as plan sponsors have specifically negotiated more favorable indemnification and liability provisions in their vendor contracts, employer and other health plan sponsors usually agree in their health plan vendor contracts to pay the expenses and to indemnify health plan insurers, third party administrators, and other vendors for costs and liabilities arising from HIPAA breaches or other events arising in the course of the administration of the health plan. Since employers typically are obligated to pay health plan costs in excess of participant contributions, employers also typically would be required to provide the funding their health plan needs to cover these costs even in the absence of such indemnification agreements.

Sponsoring employers and their management also should be aware the employer’s exception from direct liability for HIPAA Rule compliance does not fully insulate the employer or its management from legal risks in the event of a health plan data breach or other HIPAA violation.

While HIPAA generally limits direct responsibility for compliance with the HIPAA Rules to a health plan or other Covered Entity and their business associates, HIPAA hybrid entity and other organizational rules and criminal provisions of HIPAA, as well as various other federal laws arguably could create liability risks for the employer. See, e.g., Cyber Liability, Healthcare: Healthcare Breaches: How to Respond; Restated HIPAA Regulations Require Health Plans to Tighten Privacy Policies and Practices; Cybercrime and Identity Theft: Health Information Security Beyond. For example, hybrid entity and other organizational provisions in the HIPAA Rules generally require employers and their health plan to ensure that health plan operations are appropriately distinguished from other employer operations in order for otherwise non-covered human resources, accounting or other employer activities to avoid subjecting their otherwise non-covered employer operations and data to HIPAA Rules. To achieve this required designation and separation, the HIPAA rules typically also require that the health plan include specific HIPAA language and the employer and health plan take appropriate steps to designate and separate health plan records and data, workforces, and operations from the non-covered business operations and records of the sponsoring employer. Failure to fulfill these requirements could result in the unintended spread of HIPAA restrictions and liabilities to other aspects of the employer’s human resources or other operations. Sponsoring employers will want to confirm that health plan and other operations and workforces are properly designated, distinguished and separated to reduce this risk.

When putting these designations and separations in place, employers also generally will want to make arrangements to ensure that their health plan includes the necessary terms and the employer implements the policies necessary for the employer to provide the certifications to the health plan that HIPAA will require that the health plan receive before HIPAA will allow health plan PHI to disclosed to the employer or its representative for the limited underwriting and other specified plan administration purposes permitted by the HIPAA Rules.

Once these arrangements are in place, employers and their management also generally will want to take steps to minimize the risk that their organization or a member of the employer’s workforce honors these arrangements and does not improperly access or use health plan PHI, systems in violation of these conditions or other HIPAA Rules. This or other wrongful use or access of health plan PHI or systems could violate criminal provisions of HIPAA or other federal laws making it a crime for any person – including the employer or a member of its workforce – from wrongfully accessing health plan PHI, electronic records or systems. Since health plan PHI records also typically include personal tax, social security information that the Internal Revenue Code, the Social Security Act and other federal laws generally would require the employer to keep confidential and to protect against improper use, employers and their management also generally should be concern about potential exposures for their organization that could result from improper use or access of this information in violation of these other federal laws. Since HIPAA and some of these other laws under certain conditions make it a felony crime to violate these rules, employer and their management generally will want to treat compliance with these federal rules as critical elements of the employer’s Federal Sentencing Guideline and other compliance programs.

Beyond the already discussed concerns, employers or members of their management also may have an incentive to promote health plan compliance with HIPAA or other health plan privacy or data security requirements to many the exposure of the employer or management or other staff to statutory, regulatory, contractual or ethical liabilities arising under ERISA, Internal Revenue Code, the Fair & Accurate Credit Transaction Act (FACTA), trade secret, insurance, disability, identity theft, cybersecurity or other federal or state laws.

For instance, health plan sponsors and management involved in health plan decisions, administration or oversight could face personal fiduciary liability risks under ERISA for failing to act prudently to ensure that the health plan compliance with HIPAA and other federal privacy and data security requirements.. ERISA’s broad functional fiduciary definition encompasses both persons and entities appointed as “named” fiduciaries and others who functionally exercise discretion or control over a plan or its administration. Consequently, the sponsoring employer and certain members of its human resources or other executive management team who functionally possess or exercise responsibility or authority over the administration of the employer’s health plan or its data or other assets, the selection or oversight of plan fiduciaries, vendors, or other workforce members its administration, or other key health plan operations risk ERISA fiduciary liability for their own failures to act prudently in carrying out HIPAA compliance or other responsibilities or to take action when they know or should know that another fiduciary is or has breached these duties. This fiduciary status and risk can occur even if the entity or individual does not is not named a named fiduciary, expressly disclaims fiduciary responsibility or does not realize it bears fiduciary status or responsibility. Since fiduciaries generally bear personal liability for their own breaches of fiduciary duty as well as potential co-fiduciary liability for fiduciary breaches committed by others that they knew or prudently should have known, most employers and members of their management will make HIPAA health plan compliance a priority to avoid or minimize these potential ERISA fiduciary exposures.

Furthermore, most employers and their management also will appreciate the desirability of taking reasonable steps to manage potential exposures that the employer or members of its management could face if their health plan or the employer violates the anti-retaliation rules of HIPAA or other laws through the adoption and administration of appropriate human resources, internal investigation and reporting, risk management policies and practices. See Employee & Other Whistleblower Complaints Common Source of HIPAA Privacy & Other Complaints.

Act To Manage HIPAA & Other Related Risks

OCR’s release of the Resolution Agreement on the heels of widespread publicity about massive health plan and other data breaches at Blue Cross health care giants, Anthem and Premera and other U.S. businesses and the potential legal and financial exposures that a HIPAA data breach or other violation could create, health plans and their sponsors, insurers, business associates, and leaders should appreciate the advisability of acting promptly to ensure that their health plans and business associates are taking appropriate steps to comply with the HIPAA Rules and manage other associated risks and liabilities. At minimum, health plans and their business associates should move quickly to conduct a documented assessment of the adequacy of their health plan internet applications and other HIPAA compliance in in light of the Resolution Agreement and other developments. Given the scope and diversity of the legal responsibilities, risks and exposures associated with this analysis, most health plan sponsors, fiduciaries, business associates and their management also will want to consider taking other steps to mitigate various other legal and operational risks that lax protection or use of health plan PHI or systems could create for their health plan, its sponsors, fiduciaries, business associates and their management. Health plan fiduciaries, sponsors and business associates and their leaders also generally will want to explore options to use indemnification agreements, liability insurance or other risk management tools as a stop gap against the costs of investigation or defense of a HIPAA security or other data breach.

For Legal or Consulting Advice, Legal Representation, Training Or More Information

If you need help responding to these new or other workforce, benefits and compensation, performance and risk management, compliance, enforcement or management concerns, help updating or defending your workforce or employee benefit policies or practices, or other related assistance, the author of this update, attorney Cynthia Marcotte Stamer may be able to help.

A practicing attorney and Managing Shareholder of Cynthia Marcotte Stamer, P.C., a member of Stamer│Chadwick │Soefje PLLC, Ms. Stamer’s more than 27 years’ of leading edge work as an practicing attorney, author, lecturer and industry and policy thought leader have resulted in her recognition as a “Top” attorney in employee benefits, labor and employment and health care law.

Board certified in labor and employment law by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization, a Fellow in the American College of Employee Benefit Counsel, past Chair and current Welfare Benefit Committee Co-Chair of the American Bar Association (ABA) RPTE Section Employee Benefits Group, Vice Chair of the ABA Tort & Insurance Practice Section Employee Benefits Committee, former Chair of the ABA Health Law Section Managed Care & Insurance Interest Group, an ABA Joint Committee on Employee Benefits Council Representative and Board Certified in Labor & Employment Law by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization, Ms. Stamer is recognized nationally and internationally for her practical and creative insights and leadership on HIPAA and other health and other employee benefit, human resources, and related insurance, health care, privacy and data security and tax matters and policy.

Ms. Stamer’s legal and management consulting work throughout her 27 plus year career has focused on helping organizations and their management use the law and process to manage people, process, compliance, operations and risk. Highly valued for her rare ability to find pragmatic client-centric solutions by combining her detailed legal and operational knowledge and experience with her talent for creative problem-solving, Ms. Stamer helps public and private, domestic and international businesses, governments, and other organizations and their leaders manage their employees, vendors and suppliers, and other workforce members, customers and other’ performance, compliance, compensation and benefits, operations, risks and liabilities, as well as to prevent, stabilize and cleanup workforce and other legal and operational crises large and small that arise in the course of operations.

Ms. Stamer works with businesses and their management, employee benefit plans, governments and other organizations deal with all aspects of human resources and workforce management operations and compliance. She supports her clients both on a real time, “on demand” basis and with longer term basis to deal with daily performance management and operations, emerging crises, strategic planning, process improvement and change management, investigations, defending litigation, audits, investigations or other enforcement challenges, government affairs and public policy.

Well known for her extensive work with health care, insurance and other highly regulated entities on corporate compliance, internal controls and risk management, her clients range from highly regulated entities like employers, contractors and their employee benefit plans, their sponsors, management, administrators, insurers, fiduciaries and advisors, technology and data service providers, health care, managed care and insurance, financial services, government contractors and government entities, as well as retail, manufacturing, construction, consulting and a host of other domestic and international businesses of all types and sizes.

As a key part of this work, Ms. Stamer uses her deep and highly specialized health, insurance, labor and employment and other knowledge and experience to help employers and other employee benefit plan sponsors; health, pension and other employee benefit plans, their fiduciaries, administrators and service providers, insurers, and others design legally compliant, effective compensation, health and other welfare benefit and insurance, severance, pension and deferred compensation, private exchanges, cafeteria plan and other employee benefit, fringe benefit, salary and hourly compensation, bonus and other incentive compensation and related programs, products and arrangements.

She is particularly recognized for her leading edge work, thought leadership and knowledgeable advice and representation on the design, documentation, administration, regulation and defense of a diverse range of self-insured and insured health and welfare benefit plans including private exchange and other health benefit choices, health care reimbursement and other “defined contribution” limited benefit, 24-hour and other occupational and non-occupational injury and accident, ex-patriate and medical tourism, onsite medical, wellness and other medical plans and insurance benefit programs as well as a diverse range of other qualified and nonqualified retirement and deferred compensation, severance and other employee benefits and compensation, insurance and savings plans, programs, products, services and activities. In these and other engagements, Ms. Stamer works closely with employer and other plan sponsors, insurance and financial services companies, plan fiduciaries, administrators, and vendors and others to design, administer and defend effective legally defensible employee benefits and compensation practices, programs, products and technology. She also continuously helps employers, insurers, administrative and other service providers, their officers, directors and others to manage fiduciary and other risks of sponsorship or involvement with these and other benefit and compensation arrangements and to defend and mitigate liability and other risks from benefit and liability claims including fiduciary, benefit and other claims, audits, and litigation brought by the Labor Department, IRS, HHS, participants and beneficiaries, service providers, and others. She also assists debtors, creditors, bankruptcy trustees and others assess, manage and resolve labor and employment, employee benefits and insurance, payroll and other compensation related concerns arising from reductions in force or other terminations, mergers, acquisitions, bankruptcies and other business transactions including extensive experience with multiple, high-profile large scale bankruptcies resulting in ERISA, tax, corporate and securities and other litigation or enforcement actions.

In the course of this work, Ms. Stamer has accumulated an impressive resume of experience advising and representing clients on HIPAA and other privacy and data security concerns. The scribe for the American Bar Association (ABA) Joint Committee on Employee Benefits annual agency meeting with the Department of Health & Human Services Office of Civil Rights for several years, Ms. Stamer has worked extensively with health plans, health care providers, health care clearinghouses, their business associates, employer and other sponsors, banks and other financial institutions, and others on risk management and compliance with HIPAA and other information privacy and data security rules, investigating and responding to known or suspected breaches, defending investigations or other actions by plaintiffs, OCR and other federal or state agencies, reporting known or suspected violations, business associate and other contracting, commenting or obtaining other clarification of guidance, training and enforcement, and a host of other related concerns. Her clients include public and private health plans, health insurers, health care providers, banking, technology and other vendors, and others. Beyond advising these and other clients on privacy and data security compliance, risk management, investigations and data breach response and remediation, Ms. Stamer also advises and represents clients on OCR and other HHS, Department of Labor, IRS, FTC, DOD and other health care industry investigation, enforcement and other compliance, public policy, regulatory, staffing, and other operations and risk management concerns. She also is the author of numerous highly acclaimed publications, workshops and tools for HIPAA or other compliance including training programs on Privacy & The Pandemic for the Association of State & Territorial Health Plans, as well as HIPAA, FACTA, PCI, medical confidentiality, insurance confidentiality and other privacy and data security compliance and risk management for Los Angeles County Health Department, ISSA, HIMMS, the ABA, SHRM, schools, medical societies, government and private health care and health plan organizations, their business associates, trade associations and others.

Ms. Stamer also is deeply involved in helping to influence the Affordable Care Act and other health care, pension, social security, workforce, insurance and other policies critical to the workforce, benefits, and compensation practices and other key aspects of a broad range of businesses and their operations. She both helps her clients respond to and resolve emerging regulations and laws, government investigations and enforcement actions and helps them shape the rules through dealings with Congress and other legislatures, regulators and government officials domestically and internationally. A former lead consultant to the Government of Bolivia on its Social Security reform law and most recognized for her leadership on U.S. health and pension, wage and hour, tax, education and immigration policy reform, Ms. Stamer works with U.S. and foreign businesses, governments, trade associations, and others on workforce, social security and severance, health care, immigration, privacy and data security, tax, ethics and other laws and regulations. Founder and Executive Director of the Coalition for Responsible Healthcare Policy and its PROJECT COPE: the Coalition on Patient Empowerment and a Fellow in the American Bar Foundation and State Bar of Texas. She also works as a policy advisor and advocate to health plans, their sponsors, administrators, insurers and many other business, professional and civic organizations.

Author of the thousands of publications and workshops these and other employment, employee benefits, health care, insurance, workforce and other management matters, Ms. Stamer also is a highly sought out speaker and industry thought leader known for empowering audiences and readers. Ms. Stamer’s insights on employee benefits, insurance, health care and workforce matters in Atlantic Information Services, The Bureau of National Affairs (BNA), InsuranceThoughtLeaders.com, Benefits Magazine, Employee Benefit News, Texas CEO Magazine, HealthLeaders, Modern Healthcare, Business Insurance, Employee Benefits News, World At Work, Benefits Magazine, the Wall Street Journal, the Dallas Morning News, the Dallas Business Journal, the Houston Business Journal, and many other publications. She also has served as an Editorial Advisory Board Member for human resources, employee benefit and other management focused publications of BNA, HR.com, Employee Benefit News, InsuranceThoughtLeadership.com and many other prominent publications. Ms. Stamer also regularly serves on the faculty and planning committees for symposia of LexisNexis, the American Bar Association, ALIABA, the Society of Employee Benefits Administrators, the American Law Institute, ISSA, HIMMs, and many other prominent educational and training organizations and conducts training and speaks on these and other management, compliance and public policy concerns.

Ms. Stamer also is active in the leadership of a broad range of other professional and civic organizations. For instance, Ms. Stamer presently serves on an American Bar Association (ABA) Joint Committee on Employee Benefits Council representative; Vice President of the North Texas Healthcare Compliance Professionals Association; Immediate Past Chair of the ABA RPTE Employee Benefits & Other Compensation Committee, its current Welfare Benefit Plans Committee Co-Chair, on its Substantive Groups & Committee and its incoming Defined Contribution Plan Committee Chair and Practice Management Vice Chair; Past Chair of the ABA Health Law Section Managed Care & Insurance Interest Group and a current member of its Healthcare Coordinating Council; current Vice Chair of the ABA TIPS Employee Benefit Committee; the former Coordinator and a Vice-Chair of the Gulf Coast TEGE Council TE Division; on the Advisory Boards of InsuranceThoughtLeadership.com, HR.com, Employee Benefit News, and many other publications. She also previously served as a founding Board Member and President of the Alliance for Healthcare Excellence, as a Board Member and Board Compliance Committee Chair for the National Kidney Foundation of North Texas; the Board President of the early childhood development intervention agency, The Richardson Development Center for Children; Chair of the Dallas Bar Association Employee Benefits & Executive Compensation Committee; a member of the Board of Directors of the Southwest Benefits Association. For additional information about Ms. Stamer, see www.cynthiastamer.com, or http://www.stamerchadwicksoefje.com the member of contact Ms. Stamer via email here or via telephone to (469) 767-8872.

About Solutions Law Press, Inc.™

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Discrimination Rules Create Risks For Employer Reliance On Injunction Of FMLA Rule On Same-Sex Partners’ Marital Status

April 9, 2015

Employers covered by the Family & Medical Leave Act (FMLA) have a temporary reprieve from the obligation to comply with a change to the FMLA regulations’ definition of “spouse” that requires FMLA-covered employers to recognize certain same-sex relationships as marriages for purposes of the FMLA that had been slated to take effect on March 27, 2015 under a preliminary injunction order granted by the District Court for the Northern District of Texas in Texas v. U.S, No. 7:15-cv-00056-O, 2015 BL 84253 (N.D. Tex. Mar. 26, 2015).   However the delay in the implementation of the regulation as a practical matter may present traps for unwary employers in light of federal employment discrimination law rules that prohibit employers from discriminating against employees based on sexual orientation or gender identity. 

The preliminary injunction issued by Judge Reed O’Connor of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Texas on March 26 rule enjoins the Labor Department from enforcing a final regulation that would require employers covered by the FMLA to grant workers in legal same-sex marriages to take job-protected leave under the FMLA to care for a seriously ill spouse even if the state where the employee lives or works doesn’t recognize same-sex marriages.

The preliminary injunction resulted from a lawsuit brought by the attorney generals of Texas, Arkansas, Louisiana and Nebraska questioning the validity of change to the definition of “spouse” in DOL Regulation § 825.102 and § 825.122 to expand the definition of the term “spouse” for purposes of the FMLA to include same-sex relationships recognized as marriage under the state law of the location of the marriage celebration.

The Final Regulation redefining the term “spouse” for purposes of the FMLA is one of a host of changes to federal employment, tax, immigration and other regulations and enforcement policies announced by the Obama Administration in response to the Supreme Court’s decision in United States v. Windsor, 133 S. Ct. 2675, 118 FEP Cases 1417 (2013).

In Windsor, the Supreme Court ruled unconstitutional and struck down Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which sought to preclude same-sex couples from being treated as married for purposes of federal law including the FMLA by restricting the definition of marriage for federal law only to relationships between persons of the opposite sex.

If and when implemented, the FMLA Final Regulation will revise the DOL’s FMLA regulations to provide that “Spouse” means

a husband or wife. For purposes of this definition, husband or wife refers to the other person with whom an individual entered into marriage as defined or recognized under state law for purposes of marriage in the State in which the marriage was entered into or, in the case of a marriage entered into outside of any State, if the marriage is valid in the place where entered into and could have been entered into in at least one State. This definition includes an individual in a same-sex or common law marriage that either:

  1. Was entered into in a State that recognizes such marriages; or
  2. If entered into outside of any State, is valid in the place where entered into and could have been entered into in at least one State.

According the DOL, the adoption of a place of celebration standard for determining marital status in the Final Rule ensures that all legally married employees have consistent FMLA leave rights regardless of where they live. The Department believes that this place of celebration rule will give fullest effect to the purpose of the FMLA to let employees to take unpaid, job-protected leave to care for a spouse for an FMLA-qualifying reason.  Thus, whether a same-sex or other couple qualifies as married for purposes of the FMLA turns upon whether the couple is in a relationship legally recognized as a married in the state in which the ceremony was performed.  However, the Final Regulation does not require employers to treat same-sex civil unions, as well as opposite-sex civil unions, as marriages and as such are not guaranteed the right to take FMLA spousal leave nor do have other protections of the Act, including from retaliation. As noted above, an employer may offer an employment benefit program or plan that provides greater family or medical leave rights to employees than the rights established by the FMLA, including voluntarily offering other types of leave for couples in civil unions. In addition, eligible employees in civil unions can take FMLA leave for their own serious health condition, for the birth of a child or the placement of a child for adoption or foster care and for bonding, to care for their child or parent with a serious health condition, and for qualifying military family leave reasons.

In Texas v. U.S., the states jointly argued that the Final Rule unlawfully interferes with state laws that prohibit same-sex marriage and bar recognition of out-of-state same-sex marriages.  Explaining his finding that the states had demonstrated a substantial likelihood of prevailing on the merits on their claim that the Final Regulation violates the Full Faith & Credit Clause of the U.S. Constitution, Judge O’Conner wrote, “Congress has not delegated to the Department the power to force states defining marriages traditionally to afford benefits in accordance with the marriage laws of states defining marriage to include same-sex marriages.”  Accordingly, Justice O’Conner ordered the Labor Department to stay implementation of the Final Regulation pending a decision on the merits of the states’ claims.

Even as Judge O’Connor issued his preliminary injunction, the Obama Administration was moving ahead to implement new mandates extending sweeping new protections prohibiting government contractors and subcontractors from discriminating against workers based on sexual orientation or gender identity under an Executive Order issued by President Obama that took effect April 8, 2015.  See Obama Executive Order’s Prohibition Of Government Contractor Sexual Orientation & Gender Identity Discrimination Creates Challenges For All US EmployersSince the preliminary injunction issued by Judge O’Connor does not apply to that Executive Order, employers contemplating holding off granting FMLA rights to employees involved in same-sex relationships should consult with legal counsel about the potential that such delay, despite Judge O’Connor’s order, might form the basis of employment discrimination, government contracting regulation violations or both.

 For  Advice, Representation, Training & Other Resources

If you need help responding to these new or other workforce, benefits and compensation, performance and risk management, compliance, enforcement or management concerns, help updating or defending your workforce or employee benefit policies or practices, or other related assistance, the author of this update, attorney Cynthia Marcotte Stamer may be able to help.

Recognized as a “Top” attorney in employee benefits, labor and employment and health care law, Ms. Stamer is a practicing attorney Board Certified in Labor & Employment Law by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization, author, pubic speaker,management policy advocate and thought leader with more than 25 years’ experience advising government contractors and other employers, their management, benefit plans and plan fiduciaries, vendors and service providers and others about OFCCP, EEOC, and other employment discrimination, government contracting compliance, and other workforce and operational performance, compliance, risk management, compensation, and benefits matters. As a part of this involvement, Ms. Stamer throughout her career specifically has advised and represented a broad range of employers across the U.S., their employee benefit plans and plan fiduciaries, insurers, health care providers and others about the implications of DOMA and other rules relating to rights and expectations of LBGT community members and others in federally protected classes under Federal and state employment, tax, discrimination, employee benefits, health care and other laws.

In addition to her extensive client work Ms. Stamer also is a widely published author, management policy advocate and thought leader, and management policy advocate on these and other workforce and related matters who shares her experience and leadership in a wide range of contexts.  A current or former author and advisory board member of HR.com, Insurance Thought Leadership, SHRM, BNA and several other the prominent publications, Past Chair of the ABA RPTE Employee Benefit & Other Compensation Arrangements Group, Co-Chair and Past Chair of the ABA RPTE Welfare Plan Committee, Vice Chair of the ABA TIPS Employee Benefit Plans Committee, Vice President of the North Texas Health Care Compliance Professionals Association, Past Chair of the ABA Health Law Section Managed Care & Insurance Section, former President of the Richardson Development Center Board of Directors, and the former Board Compliance Chair of the National Kidney Foundation of North Texas, An American College of Employee Benefit Counsel, American Bar Association (ABA) and State Bar of Texas Fellow, Martindale Hubble Premier AV Rated (the highest), Ms. Stamer publishes and speaks extensively on these and other staffing and human resources, compensation and benefits, technology, health care, privacy, public policy, and other operations and risk management concerns. As a part of these activities, Ms. Stamer is scheduled to speak about Same-Sex Marriages and Domestic Partnerships: Lessons Learned, Unanswered Questions and Best Practices on May 1, 2015 for the ABA RPTE Section 2015 Spring Symposium in Washington D.C.  See also Stamer Talks About “Handling Health Plan Spouse, Dependent & Other “Family” Matters in Post-DOMA World” at SPBA 2014 Spring Meeting  Her publications and insights appear in the ABA and other professional publications, HR.com, SHRM, Insurance Thought Leadership, Health Care Compliance Association, Atlantic Information Service, Bureau of National Affairs, World At Work, The Wall Street Journal, Business Insurance, the Dallas Morning News, Modern Health Care, Managed Healthcare, Health Leaders, and a many other national and local publications.

You can review other recent human resources, employee benefits and internal controls publications and resources and additional information about the employment, employee benefits and other experience of the Cynthia Marcotte Stamer, PC here. 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 www.cynthiastamer.com or by registering to participate in the distribution of these and other updates on our HR & Employee Benefits Update here including:

About Solutions Law Press

Solutions Law Pressâ„¢ provides business risk management, legal compliance, management effectiveness and other resources, training and education on human resources, employee benefits, data security and privacy, insurance, health care and other key compliance, risk management, internal controls and operational concerns. If you find this of interest, you also be interested reviewing some of our other Solutions Law Press resources at www.solutionslawpress.com.

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 at here or e-mailing this information here.

©2015 Cynthia Marcotte Stamer. Non-exclusive right to republish granted to Solutions Law Press. All other rights reserved.


Obama Executive Order’s Prohibition Of Government Contractor Sexual Orientation & Gender Identity Discrimination Creates Challenges For All US Employers

April 8, 2015

Effective today (April 8, 2015), all U.S. businesses working as government contractors or subcontractors are prohibited from discriminating in employment against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) applicants and employees on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. While the new LGBT nondiscrimination rules for government contractors and subcontractors imposed by are the latest in a series of changes imposing new obligations for U.S. government contractors and other U.S. employers in their dealings with LGBT workers, all employers of 15 or more employees, not just government contractors, increasingly face employment discrimination risks and other expanding obligations to LGBT workers as a result of evolving judicial precedent and the pro-LGBT rights regulatory agenda of the Obama Administration. As publicity and the Obama Administration’s outreach about the implementation of the new nondiscrimination rules for government contractors and other announcements about these other new federal LGBT employment protections are likely to fuel new claims and demands by workers asserting these new rights, government contractors and all other employers should act quickly to ensure that their policies and benefit programs, as well as compliance and risk management procedures are properly updated to meet these changing federal rules regarding the employment rights of LGBT workers.

The new federal government contracting prohibition against sexual orientation and gender identity discrimination by federal government contractors is imposed by President Obama’s Executive Order on LGBT Workplace Discrimination, which takes effect today and applies to all federal government contractors and subcontractors regardless of the type of government contract, number of employees or project revenue. The Executive Order’s requirement that government contractors and subcontractors not discriminate based on sexual orientation or gender identity covers every type of new and modified federal contract and every establishment of those contractors and subcontractors – not just the ones directly involved in performing the contract. As a result of the Executive Order, all federal government contractors and subcontractors are prohibited from discriminating against lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender people in hiring, firing, pay, promotion and other employment practices based on their sexual orientation or gender identity.

The Executive Order’s prohibition against federal contractors and subcontractors discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity expressly elevates sexual orientation and gender identity to the same protected status as race, color, religion, national origin, disability and veteran status for purposes of the employment discrimination rules applicable to federal government contractors. While at this point, the Obama Administration rules do not also require federal government contractors and subcontractors to undertake any specific new record keeping, data analysis, goal setting or other similar affirmative action, government contractors and subcontractors of all types and sizes will want to take care to update their nondiscrimination policies and practices to reflect their policy against discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity, as well as ensure that their hiring, promotion, compensation and other employment practices and associated documentation are administered and documented to defend against potential discrimination charges based on gender identity or sexual orientation.

While the Executive Order expressly applies only to government contractors and subcontractors, in fact all employers of 15 or more employees increasingly need to be concerned about employment discrimination exposures brought by employees who are, or are perceived to be LGBT individuals, as well as keeping their employment and employee benefit practices compliant with a host of recent federal rule changes on the treatment of LGBT individuals.

On the employment discrimination front, most employers, not just government contractors, need to use care to meet their duty to protect LGBT and others from “gender stereotyping” and same-sex sexual harassment or other sex discrimination in their workplaces recognized by the courts as encompassed in Title VII’s sex discrimination protections.

Under the gender stereotyping theory recognized by the Supreme Court in Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins (1989), for instance, an employer violates Title VII if “X discriminates against Y because X believes that Y does not dress, walk, talk, etc. as members of Y’s gender typically do.”  In EEOC v. Boh Bros. Const. Co., LLC , 731 F. 3d 444 (5th Cir. 2013) for instance, the Fifth Circuit upheld Title VII gender stereotying based sex discrimination claims of an iron worker  who claimed his supervisor in the all-male work environment  accused him of being gay subjected him to highly offensive, often sexually explicit verbal and physical harassment for months because the supervisor perceived his behavior was effeminate and did not conform to the supervisor’s  idea of how a man should act.

Likewise, the EEOC and courts also have continued to recognize sexual harassment claims based on harassing conduct inflicted by a party of the same sex as the victim plaintiff.   For instance, last year the EEOC announced  that Wells Fargo Bank, N.A. agreed to pay $290,000 to four female bank tellers and take other corrective action to settle an EEOC sexual harassment lawsuit where the EEOC charged that a female manager and another female bank teller at a Wells Fargo branch in Reno, Nevada sexually harassed the women by making graphic sexual comments, gestures and images; inappropriate touching, and making suggestions to wear sexually provocative clothing to attract customers and to advance in the workplace, which the Wells Fargo allegedly failed to act quickly to stop despite complaints about the conduct from the victims.

In addition, government contractors and other U.S. employers also generally need to review and update heir employment, employee benefit plans, leave policies and other practices to ensure that they are up to date and defensible in light of the ongoing series of new rules affording new protections for LGBT workers issued by the Obama Administration in the aftermath of the Supreme Court’s ruling of the Defense of Marriage Act unconstitutional in Windsor. In the aftermath of Windsor, the Departments of Labor, Veterans Affairs, Treasury, Justice, Homeland Security and other federal agencies modified immigration, family and military leave, employee benefits, and a host of other rules to require both public and private employers and their employee benefit plans afford marriage-equivalent treatment workers involved in certain same-sex relationships as well as to extend other LGBT employment and other protections. As a result of these and other expansions in the legal protections of LGBT individuals by the Obama Administration like the Executive Order and these other regulatory and enforcement changes, as well as evolving precedent in the wake of the Windsor decision, all U.S. employers should prepare to meet new legal requirements, as well as rising expectations by members of the LGBT community about their workplace, employee benefits and other rights.

In anticipation of these rising requirements and expectations all employers including government contractors should engage legal counsel for assistance in reviewing and updating their policies and practices to comply with the evolving federal and state rules on workplace and other rights of LGBT individuals and strategies for appropriately managing the legal risks and other concerns associated with these emerging entitlements and expectations. For government contractors and other employers concerns about discrimination exposures, this discussion generally should include consideration about whether in addition updating written policies and procedures, the employer should consider workforce training, communications or other actions to promote workforce compliance with the new policies, minimize the risk that the failure to retrain the workforce might make it easier for potential plaintiffs to use events or policies occurring before the new rules became effective to help bolster post-effective date discrimination claims, and other risk management and compliance procedures.

 For  Advice, Representation, Training & Other Resources

If you need help responding to these new or other workforce, benefits and compensation, performance and risk management, compliance, enforcement or management concerns, help updating or defending your workforce or employee benefit policies or practices, or other related assistance, the author of this update, attorney Cynthia Marcotte Stamer may be able to help.

Recognized as a “Top” attorney in employee benefits, labor and employment and health care law, Ms. Stamer is a practicing attorney Board Certified in Labor & Employment Law by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization, author, pubic speaker,management policy advocate and thought leader with more than 25 years’ experience advising government contractors and other employers, their management, benefit plans and plan fiduciaries, vendors and service providers and others about OFCCP, EEOC, and other employment discrimination, government contracting compliance, and other workforce and operational performance, compliance, risk management, compensation, and benefits matters. As a part of this involvement, Ms. Stamer throughout her career specifically has advised and represented a broad range of employers across the U.S., their employee benefit plans and plan fiduciaries, insurers, health care providers and others about the implications of DOMA and other rules relating to rights and expectations of LBGT community members and others in federally protected classes under Federal and state employment, tax, discrimination, employee benefits, health care and other laws.

In addition to her extensive client work Ms. Stamer also is a widely published author, management policy advocate and thought leader, and management policy advocate on these and other workforce and related matters who shares her experience and leadership in a wide range of contexts.  A current or former author and advisory board member of HR.com, Insurance Thought Leadership, SHRM, BNA and several other the prominent publications, Past Chair of the ABA RPTE Employee Benefit & Other Compensation Arrangements Group, Co-Chair and Past Chair of the ABA RPTE Welfare Plan Committee, Vice Chair of the ABA TIPS Employee Benefit Plans Committee, Vice President of the North Texas Health Care Compliance Professionals Association, Past Chair of the ABA Health Law Section Managed Care & Insurance Section, former President of the Richardson Development Center Board of Directors, and the former Board Compliance Chair of the National Kidney Foundation of North Texas, An American College of Employee Benefit Counsel, American Bar Association (ABA) and State Bar of Texas Fellow, Martindale Hubble Premier AV Rated (the highest), Ms. Stamer publishes and speaks extensively on these and other staffing and human resources, compensation and benefits, technology, health care, privacy, public policy, and other operations and risk management concerns. As a part of these activities, Ms. Stamer is scheduled to speak about Same-Sex Marriages and Domestic Partnerships: Lessons Learned, Unanswered Questions and Best Practices on May 1, 2015 for the ABA RPTE Section 2015 Spring Symposium in Washington D.C.  See also Stamer Talks About “Handling Health Plan Spouse, Dependent & Other “Family” Matters in Post-DOMA World” at SPBA 2014 Spring Meeting  Her publications and insights appear in the ABA and other professional publications, HR.com, SHRM, Insurance Thought Leadership, Health Care Compliance Association, Atlantic Information Service, Bureau of National Affairs, World At Work, The Wall Street Journal, Business Insurance, the Dallas Morning News, Modern Health Care, Managed Healthcare, Health Leaders, and a many other national and local publications.

You can review other recent human resources, employee benefits and internal controls publications and resources and additional information about the employment, employee benefits and other experience of the Cynthia Marcotte Stamer, PC here. 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 www.cynthiastamer.com or by registering to participate in the distribution of these and other updates on our HR & Employee Benefits Update here including:

About Solutions Law Press

Solutions Law Pressâ„¢ provides business risk management, legal compliance, management effectiveness and other resources, training and education on human resources, employee benefits, data security and privacy, insurance, health care and other key compliance, risk management, internal controls and operational concerns. If you find this of interest, you also be interested reviewing some of our other Solutions Law Press resources at www.solutionslawpress.com.

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 at here or e-mailing this information here.

©2015 Cynthia Marcotte Stamer. Non-exclusive right to republish granted to Solutions Law Press. All other rights reserved.


New Excepted Benefits Final Rule May Allow Some Employers Limited Opportunity To Offer Individually Insured Wraparound Coverage

March 20, 2015

Employers Urged Not Overestimate When Plan Qualifies As Excepted Or Overlook Other Applicable Federal Mandates

Changes to the definition of “excepted benefits” in Final Excepted Benefit Rules (Rules) published March 18, 2015 by the Departments of Labor, Health and Human Services, and Treasury (Tri-Agencies) might allow some employer and union group health plan sponsors, in limited circumstances, to offer wraparound coverage to certain employees purchasing individual health insurance in the private market, including in the Health Insurance Marketplace without violating the Patient Protection & Affordable Care Act (ACA) if the arrangements are carefully crafted to meet the specific requirements of one of two pilot programs set forth in the Rules.

Employers contemplating or maintaining arrangements that they or their service providers consider excepted benefits should use care to ensure that their arrangements are vetted in light of the latest guidance by experienced, qualified employee benefits counsel knowledgeable in these and other applicable group health plan rules and products because it is important to meet all of the requirements for qualifying the arrangement as an excepted benefit arrangement under the Rules and other applicable requirements of law to minimize the likelihood that the arrangement does not produce undesirable unanticipated consequences.

Beyond the new Rules, the Tri-Agencies have published a host of other guidance regarding the arrangements that qualify as excepted benefit arrangements and those that the Tri-Agencies view as not meeting this definition, as well as the implications of these distinctions.  This includes guidance that reflects the Tri-Agencies concerns that many arrangements prompted by certain brokers or other advisors as qualifying as excepted benefits, alone or in conjunction with other arrangements sponsored or offered by the employer, do not qualify as excepted benefit arrangements as well as guidance about potential consequences of these arrangements that the promoter or an employer considering these arrangements should fully understand before moving forward,  For this reason, employers that already provide, or are interested in providing health coverage under an employer sponsored arrangement to employees or their dependents enrolled in individual health coverage through the Health Insurance Marketplace or other privately provided individual insurance arrangement are urged to carefully review the proposed arrangement in light of the Rules, as well as to understand the treatment and implication of their proposed arrangement under other applicable Federal group health plan mandates and rules.

As interpreted by the Tri-Agencies, except for excepted benefit arrangements as defined in the Rules, employers generally cannot pay for individual health coverage or offer or provide wrap around or other group health coverage to employees that enroll in individual coverage The Rules amend the definition of excepted benefits to include under very narrow specified conditions an employer to offer specified limited coverage that wraps around individual health insurance when the employer provided coverage is specifically designed to provide “meaningful benefits” such as coverage for expanded in-network medical clinics or providers, reimbursement for the full cost of primary care, or coverage of the cost of prescription drugs not on the formulary of the primary plan and otherwise fulfills the requirements of the Rules.

The final rules permit group health plan sponsors, only in the limited circumstances identified in the Rules, to offer wraparound coverage to employees who are purchasing individual health insurance in the private market, including in the Health Insurance Marketplace.

The Rules establish two pilot programs where the Rules treat wraparound coverage as an excepted benefit that an employers can offer to individuals enrolled in health coverage through the Health Insurance Marketplace:

  • One allows wraparound benefits only for multi-state plans in the Health Insurance Marketplace; and
  • One that allows wraparound benefits for part-time workers who enroll in an individual health insurance policy or in Basic Health Plan coverage for low-income individuals established under the Affordable Care Act. These workers could, under existing excepted benefit rules, qualify for a flexible spending arrangement alternative to this wraparound coverage.

When the requirements of the Rules are met, the Rules allow employers a narrow opportunity to offer certain employees enrolled in individual coverage wrap around health coverage from the employer to enhance that individual coverage.

Because the arrangement must qualify as an excepted benefit arrangement under the Rules, employers also need to fully understand the implications of the excepted health benefit status of the anticipated arrangement under related rules like the Portability Rules of the Health Insurance Portability & Accountability Act (HIPAA), the ACA rules and other relevant laws and arrangements.

Because of the necessity to ensure that any arrangement an employer contemplates offering as an excepted benefit meet all of the required conditions to qualify for that status under the Rules and otherwise meet all other requirements of applicable law, it is important to carefully review any such proposed arrangement with qualified legal counsel.

Most employers contemplating moving forward to implement such arrangements also should consider seeking written opinions of qualified counsel that meets the Internal Revenue Service’s requirements to be a “tax reliance opinion” as well as the written opinion of the broker, insurer or other vendor promoting or endorsing the arrangement.

Employers also should keep in mind that with excepted benefit status may excuse the arrangement from the obligation to comply with certain mandates of ACA, the Portability Rules of the Health Insurance Portability & Accountability Act or certain other rules, these arrangements generally remain subject to the requirements of the Employee Retirement Income Security Act, various Code rules, and a host of other federal rules. As a result, employers should consult with qualified legal counsel about the implications and compliance of these and other health coverage arrangements to ensure that they properly understand all responsibilities and consequences of these arrangements and manage potential responsibilities and liabilities.

Employers and their health plan fiduciaries, administrators, and vendors are reminded that the excepted benefit distinction has implications on other compliance obligations and health plan treatment of the arrangement in question. For instance, excepted benefit coverage typically does not qualify as minimum excepted coverage that an employer can count as providing minimum essential coverage for purposes of the Code Section 4980H employer shared responsibility payment rules or as enrollment by the individual in minimum individual coverage for purposes of the employee avoiding liability for the individual shared responsibility payment.

Beyond ensuring that the proposed wrap around arrangement meets the requirements to qualify as an excepted benefit under the Rules, employers and those working with them on the design or use of these arrangements need to verify that the arrangements and other arrangements of the employer by their terms and in operation comply with other health plan rules and guidance.  With regard to dealings with employees who are enrolled in individual policies, employers must keep in mind the Tri-Agencies rules prohibiting employer payment or subsidization of the costs of those policies.  The Tri-Agencies have made clear that they construe ACA as prohibiting employer payment or reimbursement of the cost of individual health insurance policies (other than excepted benefit only arrangements) p covering employees or dependents whether purchased from a Health Insurance Marketplace or otherwise.  This prohibition extends to any employer payment or reimbursement arrangement, whether pre-tax or after-tax or on a group or individual basis.   See Notice 2015-17 (affirming employer payment plans or other arrangements that reimburse or pay employees for costs of individual health coverage purchased through Health Insurance Marketplaces or private insurance markets are prohibited as previously announced in Notice 2013-54). See also ACA Prohibits Employer Paying Individual Health Premiums For Employees, IRS Says Again.

About the Author

If your business need legal advice about the your health or other employee benefit or human resources practices, assistance assessing or resolving potential past or existing compliance exposures, or monitoring and responding to these or other workforce, benefits and compensation, performance and risk management, compliance, enforcement or management concerns, the author of this update, attorney Cynthia Marcotte Stamer may be able to help.You can review other recent human resources, employee benefits and internal controls publications and resources and additional information about the employment, employee benefits and other experience of the Cynthia Marcotte Stamer, PC here. 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 www.cynthiastamer.com or by registering to receive these and other updates here.  Recent examples of these updates include:

Board Certified in Labor & Employment Law, Past Chair of the ABA RPTE Employee Benefit & Other Compensation Arrangements Group, Co-Chair and Past Chair of the ABA RPTE Welfare Plan Committee, Vice Chair of the ABA TIPS Employee Benefit Plans Committee, an ABA Joint Committee On Employee Benefits Council representative, Past Chair of the ABA Health Law Section Managed Care & Insurance Section, a Fellow in the American College of Employee Benefit Counsel, ABA, and State Bar of Texas, Ms. Stamer has more than 25 years’ experience advising health plan and employee benefit, insurance, financial services, employer and health industry clients about these and other matters. Ms. Stamer has extensive experience advising and assisting health plans and insurers about ACA, and a wide range of other plan design, administration, data security and privacy and other compliance risk management policies.  Ms. Stamer also regularly represents clients and works with Congress and state legislatures, EBSA, IRS, EEOC, OCR and other HHS agencies, state insurance and other regulators, and others.   She also publishes and speaks extensively on health and other employee benefit plan and insurance, staffing and human resources, compensation and benefits, technology, public policy, privacy, regulatory and public policy and other operations and risk management concerns. Her publications and insights appear in the Health Care Compliance Association, Atlantic Information Service, Bureau of National Affairs, World At Work, The Wall Street Journal, Business Insurance, the Dallas Morning News, Modern Health Care, Managed Healthcare, Health Leaders, and a many other national and local publications.

About Solutions Law Press

Solutions Law Press™ provides business risk management, legal compliance, management effectiveness and other resources, training and education on human resources, employee benefits, data security and privacy, insurance, health care and other key compliance, risk management, internal controls and operational concerns. If you find this of interest, you also be interested reviewing some of our other Solutions Law Press resources at www.solutionslawpress.com.

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 at here or e-mailing this information here.

NOTE:  This article is provided for educational purposes.  It is does not establish any attorney-client relationship nor provide or serve as a substitute for legal advice to any individual or organization.  Readers must engage properly qualified legal counsel to secure legal advice about the rules discussed in light of specific circumstances. ANY STATEMENTS CONTAINED HEREIN ARE NOT INTENDED OR WRITTEN BY THE WRITER TO BE USED, AND NOTHING CONTAINED HEREIN CAN BE USED BY YOU OR ANY OTHER PERSON, FOR THE PURPOSE OF (1) AVOIDING PENALTIES THAT MAY BE IMPOSED UNDER FEDERAL TAX LAW, or (2) PROMOTING, MARKETING OR RECOMMENDING TO ANOTHER PARTY ANY TAX-RELATED TRANSACTION OR MATTER ADDRESSED HEREIN.

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. For important information about this communication click here.

©2015 Cynthia Marcotte Stamer, P.C. Non-exclusive license to republish granted to Solutions Law Press.  All other rights reserved.


Health Plans, Sponsoring Employers & Others Urged To Act Immediately In Response To Premera, Anthem Blue Cross Breaches

March 17, 2015

Today’s report by Premera Blue Cross of a massive data breach affecting as many as 11 million customers’ personal health and financial information on the heels of the large-scale data breach announcement by fellow Blue Cross Association, Anthem, is another reminder that employers and other health plan sponsors, fiduciaries, insurers specifically, and U.S. businesses generally should immediately assess and tighten up their privacy, data security and data breach compliance and risk management to fulfill applicable legal mandates and to strengthen defenses against resulting liabilities and member backlash likely to arise from these or future breaches.

Notice of the Premera and Anthem breaches are likely to trigger obligations for health plans and their sponsoring employers or unions, administrators, insurers, and other vendors and service providers to take immediate steps to conduct documented investigations, take corrective action and provide breach notifications the  Privacy, Security and Breach Notification rules of the Health Insurance Portability & Accountability Act require health plans and their business associates to provide in response to notice of a breach. Depending on the scope and nature of data affected and their involvement with the affected plans, employer or other plan sponsors, fiduciaries, administrators and service providers also may be subject additional responsibilities under applicable contracts and policies, the fiduciary responsibility requirements of the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (ERISA), the Internal Revenue Code, and a host of other laws.  Insurance industry or other vendors providing services to these plans also may face specific responsibilities under applicable insurance, health care, federal or state identity theft, privacy or data security, or other federal or state laws.  See, e.g., Restated HIPAA Regulations Require Health Plans To Tighten Privacy Policies And Practices; Cybercrime and Identity Theft: Health Information Security Beyond; HIPAA Compliance & Breach Data Shares Helpful Lessons For Health Plans, Providers and Business Associates.

The need for prompt assessment and action is not necessarily limited to health plans and organizations sponsoring, administering or doing business with the plans involved in the Premera or Anthem breaches.  The occurrence of these breaches arguably raises the questions about the adequacy of the safeguards, practices and policies of other health plans and insurers, their sponsors and fiduciaries, insurers, administrators and other vendors.  places other health plans.  Health plans, their sponsors, fiduciaries, administrators, insurers and other vendors generally will want to make prudent documented inquiries about the adequacy of their health plan’s data security and privacy safeguards in anticipation of potential future breaches, audits or other scrutiny.

Beyond the specific health plan related concerns, most businesses also will want to consider the adequacy and defensibility of the data collection, use, disclosure, security and other practices affecting sensitive data within or on behalf of their organization.  The report of these and other health plan breaches, as well recent reports of identity theft and other fraud impacting federal tax returns and other large data breach reports involving retailers and other prominent businesses are spurring recognition of the large risks and need for greater scrutiny and accountability to business collection, use, and protection of sensitive personal and other data.

Of course, as in the case of health plans, the risk is exploding largely in response to the continued evolution of electronic payment and other business operating systems coupled with the emergence of data harvesting and other capabilities.  These new technologies and practices are fueling a host of new mandates, opportunities and risks for virtually every U.S. business.  Cyber criminals seem to always be one step ahead of business and government in leveraging these emerging opportunities for their criminal purposes.

With everyone from the Internal Revenue Service and other federal and state government agencies to private business partners pushing to leverage the efficiencies and other opportunity of electronic transactions and data, businesses in the US and around the world increasing are encouraged if not required to conduct more and more transactions containing sensitive business and individual tax information, personal financial information, personal health information, trade secrets and other confidential business and personal information electronically.  Meanwhile big data and other business and marketing gurus also encourage business to leverage their own opportunities to use data collected for these business mandates and expanding technology also to collect, use and repurpose customer,  prospect or other business information collected in the course of business to benefit their business’ marketing, transactional and other opportunities.

As these practices take hold and expand, data breaches and other cyber crime events, the legal requirements and risks of collection and use of data also are growing.  Privacy, identity theft and other cyber crime and other concerns have led federal and state lawmakers to enact an ever-growing list of notice, consent, disclosure, security and other laws and regulations including but not limited to the Fair & Accurate Credit Transaction Act (FACTA),the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act, the HIPAA Privacy & Security Rules, state identity theft, data security and data breach and other electronic privacy and security laws and an ever-growing plethora of others.

As the cyber crime epidemic continues to grow and notorious breeches and schemes involving the Internal Revenue Service, Veterans Administration, retail giants like Target, Home Depot, and others, insurance giants like Anthem and Premera and others, government and private enforcement is rising and the judgments, penalties and other costs soaring even as federal and state regulators are looking at the need for expanded rules and penalties.   See Cybercrime Enforcement Statistics; DOJ Enforcement Priorities & Statistics. In addition, widening data privacy and security concerns from these massive data breach reports also are prompting  Congress and State regulatorsto consider the need for added reforms, see, McCaul to Hold Hearing on President’s Cybersecurity.  In deed, even before news of the Premera breach broke, he Federal Trade Commission today announced plans to host a workshop on Nov. 16, 2015, to look at the privacy issues around the tracking of consumers’ activities across their different devices for advertising and marketing purposes.

While these and other legal and enforcement developments promise new liabilities and expenses, the business losses and customer and business partner implications experienced by Target, Anthem and other businesses already affected illustrate the severe business consequences that inevitably result if a business appears to have failed to take customer privacy or other data security concerns seriously.

The now notorious Target hacking data breach event is illustrative. Target reported in late 2013 that credit and debit card thieves stole the name, address, email address and phone number from the credit and debit card records of around 70 million Target shoppers between November 27 and December 15, 2013. After announcing the breach, Target reported a 46% drop in profits in the fourth quarter of 2013, compared with the year before despite having announced plans to invest $100 million upgrading their payment terminals to support Chip-and-PIN enabled cards and millions of dollars more in rectification efforts. See The Target Breach, By the Numbers. Subsequently, Target’s losses have continued to mount even as it now faces lawsuits and other enforcement actions as a result of the breach. See Banks’ Lawsuits Against Target for Losses Related to Hacking Can ContinueMeanwhile, the enforcement and other fallout continues to evolve.

While businesses generally need to tighten their defenses and compliance, health plans, their sponsors, fiduciaries, administrators and vendors have specific obligations that require immediate, well-documented action when an actual or potential breach happens.  The Privacy, Security and Breach Notification requirements of HIPAA require that health plans adopt specific policies and maintain and administer specific safeguards to prevent and respond to breaches of protected health information.  In the event of a breach, these rules require that the health plan, usually acting through its fiduciaries, and affected service providers that qualify as business associates both investigate and redress the breach, as well as provide specific notification as soon as possible and usually no later than 30 days after the health plan knows or has reason to know of the breach.  Significant civil and even criminal penalties can apply if a health plan, health insurer or its business associate fails to fulfill these obligations.

Beyond the specific requirements of HIPAA, employers and other plan sponsors and others involved in the maintenance and administration of the health plan or the selection and oversight of its vendors often may have other less-realized responsibilities.  As health plan data often includes payroll and other tax data, employers, the health plans and other parties involved also may have specific responsibilities under the Internal Revenue Code or other laws.   To the extent that the plan sponsor or another party is named as the plan administrator or otherwise exercises discretion and control over the selection of the insurer or other plan vendor or other plan operations, the fiduciary obligations of ERISA also may require a prudent investigation and other action to meet fiduciary obligations of ERISA.  Brokers, insurers, third party administrators, preferred provider organizations or other managed care providers and others doing business with the health plan also may have specific responsibilities under state insurance, health care, data breach and identity theft or other laws.  Under the provisions of most of these laws, leaving it to the insurer or other vendor involved in the breach generally will not suffice to fulfill applicable legal responsibilities, much less allay the fears of plan members, employees, health care providers and others involved with the health plan.

In the face of these developments, health plans and their sponsors, fiduciaries and others working with them must take immediate action in response to the breaches reported.  Along with these specific health plan related responses,  businesses also should the adequacy and defensibility of their current overall data collection, use and security practices while remaining ever vigilant for new requirements, as well as weaknesses in their own practices.  Health plans specifically and businesses generally need to build their defenses in anticipation of these events both to withstand government and private litigation and enforcement, and to survive the harsh judgment of public opinion.

 For Help With Risk Management, Compliance & Other Management Concerns

If you need assistance in responding to a health plan breach concern or with auditing or assessing, updating or defending your organization’s compliance, risk management or other  internal controls practices or actions, please contact the author of this update, attorney Cynthia Marcotte Stamer here or at (469) 767-8872.

Scribe for the ABA JCEB Annual Agency Meeting with the Office of Civil Rights, a faculty and steering committee for the Southern California ISSA-HIMSS Health Care Privacy Program, Board Certified in Labor & Employment Law, a Fellow in the American College of Employee Benefits Counsel  recognized as a “Top 100″ lawyer in labor and employment, employee benefits and health care law, Ms. Stamer is nationally recognized for her work, publications, public speaking and education and other leadership on privacy and data security and other risk management and compliance.

A management attorney who works with businesses and government to manage and redress people, process and risk, Ms. Stamer has worked extensively on data and other privacy risk management and compliance,  Throughout her career, she has conducted investigations and advised, and assisted health care, insurance, retail and a broad range of other public and private organizations with privacy and data security audit and risk management, contracting, investigation, defense and remediation throughout her more than 25 year career.

Past Chair and of the American Bar Association (ABA) RPTE Employee Benefits & Other Compensation Committee, a Council Representative on the ABA Joint Committee on Employee Benefits,  past Chair of the ABA Health Law Section Managed Care & Insurance Interest Group, current Co-Chair of the RPTE Welfare Benefit Committee and Vice Chair of the ABA TIPS Employee Benefits Committee, Ms. Stamer works, publishes and speaks extensively on cyber crime and other privacy, management, reengineering, investigations, human resources and workforce, employee benefits, compensation, internal controls and risk management, federal sentencing guideline and other enforcement resolution actions, and related matters.  She also is recognized for her publications, industry leadership, workshops and presentations on these and other  concerns and regularly speaks and conducts training on these matters.Her insights on these and other matters appear in the Bureau of National Affairs, Spencer Publications, the ABA, Insurance Thought Leadership, the Wall Street Journal, the Dallas Business Journal, the Houston Business Journal, and many other national and local publications.

As part of her extensive involvements in privacy and data security concerns, Ms. Stamer will be among the panelists discussing “Fiduciary Obligations In the Context of a Data Breach” conference call to be hosted on April 2, 2015 by Fiduciary Responsibility Committee of the American Bar Association (ABA) Real Property Probate and Estate Section Employee Benefits & Other Compensation Group.  During the program, Ms. Stamer and other panelists will discuss the quagmire of fiduciary legal and operational challenges that data breach announcements by health plan vendors and insurers present for employer and union-sponsored health plan fiduciaries and health plans.  She also will serves as the scribe for the upcoming ABA Joint Committee On Employee Benefits Annual Agency Meeting with the Federal agency that enforces HIPAA, the Office of Civil Rights, and 2014 Conference Chair and  steering committee and faculty member of the Southern California ISSA/HIMSS Healthcare Privacy & Security Summit scheduled for June 4, 2015 in Los Angeles.

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 information about participation in the April 2 Conference Call or joining the Committee, see here.

About Solutions Law Press

Solutions Law Press™ provides business risk management, legal compliance, management effectiveness and other resources, training and education on human resources, employee benefits, data security and privacy, insurance, health care and other key compliance, risk management, internal controls and operational concerns. If you find this of interest, you also be interested reviewing some of our other Solutions Law Press resources at www.solutionslawpress.com.

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 at here or e-mailing this information here.

©2015 Cynthia Marcotte Stamer.  Non-exclusive right to republish granted to Solutions Law Press.  All other rights reserved.


3/6 ABA Study Group Conference Call Explores ACA Employer Compliance Challenges Hot Topics

February 23, 2015

Solutions Law Press, Inc. publisher/author Cynthia Marcotte Stamer and Society of Professional Benefits Administrators Director of Public Relations & Legal Affairs Elizabeth Ysla Leight will lead a conference call discussion of Hot Topics In Employer Requirements of the Patient Protection & Affordable Care Act (ACA)   for the Welfare Benefits Plans Committee of the American Bar Association (ABA) Real Property, Trusts & Estates Section Employee Benefit Plans and Other Compensation Arrangements Group (Group) on Friday, March 6, 2015 at 1 PM (Eastern)Noon (Central), 11 AM (Mountain), and 10 AM (Pacific).   Conducted as part of a regular series of “Study Group” style conference calls hosted by the Group, participation in the conference call is available at no charge to ABA RPTE members as part of their ABA RPTE membership.

As health care reform continues to unfold, join the Welfare Benefits Committee to examine the requirements imposed on employers by ACA. With a myriad of ever-evolving technical changes in the requirements, their interpretation and deadlines, there is no shortage of compliance challenges or  and ideas for amendments for welfare benefit plan documents and practices. This will be a round-robin hot topics session that will cover as many topics as time will allow.

Expected topics for discussion include:

  • What is on your short list of “Hot Topics”?
  •  ACA litigation, including King v Burwell
  • Self-reporting ACA violations
  • Other topics, including cafeteria plan elections, etc.
  • “Employer “play-or-pay” mandate
  • Employer reporting on the B and C Forms
  • Employee/Independent Contractor Classification Issues
  • More

Welfare Benefits Committee Co-Chairs Ms. Stamer and Ms. Leight, will lead the conference call discussion.  Both are nationally known for their extensive experience and involvement with ACA and other health plan matters.

As the Director of Public and Legal Affairs for the SPBA, Ms. Leight plays a lead role in helping the SPBA’s member third party administration service providers monitor, shape and respond to the ever-shifting federal and state regulatory environment and develop strategies and knowledge to help employer and other health plan sponsors design and administer legally compliant health and other welfare benefit plan strategies.  In addition to her leadership in the Committee, Ms. Leight also serves on the US Department of Labor ERISA Advisory Council on Employee Welfare and Pension Benefit Plans, which provides advice on policies and regulations affecting employee benefit plans governed by ERISA.

Past Chair of the Group, Ms. Stamer  is nationally and internationally known for her innovative leadership and work helping employers, insurers, TPAs, governments, and communities on health benefit and reform and other labor and employment, employee benefits and workforce related challenges.

Board Certified in Labor & Employment Law by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization,  and a Fellow in the American Bar Association, Texas Bar Association, and the American College of Employee Benefit Counsel,  Ms. Stamer’s legal and management consulting work focuses on helping employers, insurers, employee benefit plans and their administrators, fiduciaries and advisors, community leaders and governments manage people, process and risk.   She not only is extensively involved in health, pension and workforce policy and regulation reform, she also helps employers, insurers, administrators and other benefit and human resources services providers and others design, implement, administer and defend innovative, pragmatic health and other employee benefit programs, products and practices.

In addition to her more traditional legal, internal controls and other management consulting work, Ms. Stamer also extensively works with a broad range of business and government clients on health care, pension, social security, workforce, insurance and many other related policy matters critical to their business success and liability management. She both only helps her clients anticipate, monitor and cope with emerging laws, regulations and enforcement and respond to and resolve government investigations and enforcement actions, she also helps them shape the rules through dealings with Congress and other legislatures, regulators and government officials domestically and internationally.  A former lead consultant to the Government of Bolivia on its Social Security reform law and most recognized for her leadership on U.S. health and pension, wage and hour, tax, education and immigration policy reform, Ms. Stamer works with U.S. and foreign businesses, governments, trade associations, and others on workforce, social security and severance, health care, immigration, privacy and data security, tax, ethics and other laws and regulations. Founder and Executive Director of the Coalition for Responsible Healthcare Policy and its PROJECT COPE: the Coalition on Patient Empowerment and a Fellow in the American College of Employee Benefit Counsel, the American Bar Association (ABA) and the State Bar of Texas, Ms. Stamer annually leads the Joint Committee on Employee Benefits (JCEB) HHS Office of Civil Rights agency meeting.  She also works as a policy advisor and advocate to many business, professional and civic organizations.

Author of the thousands of publications and workshops these and other employment, employee benefits, health care, insurance, workforce and other management matters, Ms. Stamer’s insights on employee benefits, insurance, health care and workforce matters in Atlantic Information Services, The Bureau of National Affairs (BNA), InsuranceThoughtLeaders, Employee Benefit News, Texas CEO Magazine, HealthLeaders, Modern Healthcare, Business Insurance, Employee Benefits News, World At Work, Benefits Magazine, the Wall Street Journal, the Dallas Morning News, the Dallas Business Journal, the Houston Business Journal, and many other publications. She also has served as an Editorial Advisory Board Member for human resources, employee benefit and other management focused publications of BNA,HR.com, Employee Benefit News, InsuranceThoughtLeadership.com and many other prominent publications. She also regularly serves on the faculty and planning committees for symposia of LexisNexis, the American Bar Association, the Society of Employee Benefits Administrators, the American Law Institute, ISSA, HIMMs, and many other prominent educational and training organizations and conducts training and speaks on these and other management, compliance and public policy concerns.

Beyond these involvements, Ms. Stamer also is active in the leadership of a broad range of other professional and civic organizations. For instance, Ms. Stamer presently serves as Vice President of the North Texas Healthcare Compliance Professionals Association; Immediate Past Chair of the American Bar Association RPTE Employee Benefits & Other Compensation Committee and its current Welfare Benefit Plans Committee Co-Chair, on its Substantive Groups & Committee and its representative to the ABA Joint Committee on Employee Benefits; Past Chair of the ABA Health Law Section Managed Care & Insurance Interest Group and a current member of its Healthcare Coordinating Council; current Vice Chair of the ABA TIPS Employee Benefit Committee; the former Coordinator and a Vice-Chair of the Gulf Coast TEGE Council TE Division and as a faculty member, editorial advisory board member, speaker and author for numerous human resources, employee benefits, insurance, technology and data security and other professional associations, programs, and publications.  She previously served as a founding Board Member and President of the Alliance for Healthcare Excellence, as a Board Member and Board Compliance Committee Chair for the National Kidney Foundation of North Texas; the Board President of the early retirement intervention agency, The Richardson Development Center for Children; Chair of the Dallas Bar Association Employee Benefits & Executive Compensation Committee; a member of the Board of Directors of the Southwest Benefits Association.

You can review other recent human resources, employee benefits and internal controls publications and resources and additional information about the employment, employee benefits and other experience of the Cynthia Marcotte Stamer, PC here.

About Solutions Law Press

Solutions Law Press™ provides business risk management, legal compliance, management effectiveness and other resources, training and education on human resources, employee benefits, data security and privacy, insurance, health care and other key compliance, risk management, internal controls and operational concerns. If you find this of interest, you also be interested reviewing some of our other Solutions Law Press resources at www.solutionslawpress.com.

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 at here or e-mailing this information here.

©2015 Cynthia Marcotte Stamer. Limited, non-exclusive right to republished granted to Solutions Law Press, Inc. All other rights reserved.

For information about joining the conference call or other details about joining the ABA and participating in the RPTE Welfare Benefit Committee or other activities, see the Welfare Committee Webpage.

 

 


OIG Report Pressures EBSA To Finalize ERISA Fiduciary Investment Advice Rule & Repeal or Restrict Small Scope Audit Rule

December 3, 2014

Employee benefit plan sponsors, administrators, fiduciaries and the banks, insurers and other service providers involved in the investment or management of plan assets that currently rely upon existing Employee Benefit Security Administration (EBSA) limited scope audit regulations to avoid the expense and other burdens of conducting full scale audits of certain employee benefit plan assets held by banks, insurers and certain other regulated entities should watch for EBSA proposals to repeal or tighten these regulations in response to recommendations in a new report published by the U.S. Department of Labor Office of Inspector General (OIG) .   If adopted by the EBSA, plans sponsors, administrators and fiduciaries could expect to incur significant increases in the annual audit expenses of their employee benefit plans, banks, insurers and other organizations currently covered by the small scope audit exception could expect greater scrutiny and expenses when dealing with employee benefit plan accounts, and all of these parties could expect greater fiduciary risk and other compliance obligations.

Repealing or tightening the EBSA limited scope audit regulations and finalizing proposed conflict of interest rules  are two key recommendations that OIG urges EBSA to adopt to strengthen its ability to fulfill its mission to protect the security of retirement, health, and other private‐sector employer‐sponsored benefit plans for America’s workers, retirees, and their families in the Top Management Challenges Facing the Department of Labor report (Report) just released by the OIG.

While ERISA generally requires plan asset audits on most employee benefit plan assets, the small scope audit rule of the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA) currently authorizes so‐called “limited scope audits” for plan assets held in certain banks, insurance companies and certain other qualifying entities under the presumption that these organizations and their actions with respect to the assets are being audited by other entities for other purposes.  As a result, the independent public accountants that conduct their audits express “no opinion” on the financial statements of the assets they hold on behalf of plans.

According to the OIG Report, this small scope audit rule inappropriately challenges EBSA’s oversight efforts by allowing as much as $3.3 billion in pension assets held in otherwise regulated entities, such as banks to “escape audit scrutiny.” The Report states, “These limited scope audits weaken assurances to stakeholders and may put retirement plan assets at risk because they provide little or no confirmation regarding the existence or value of plan assets.

In addition to attacking the small scope audit rule, OIG also urges EBSA to finalize its long awaited rules defining prohibited conflicts of interest for parties and individuals providing investment advice to employee benefit plans that EBSA has been working on since 2010.  The so‐called “conflict of interest ‐‐ fiduciary investment advice rule” would broaden the definition of investment advice fiduciary for ERISA plans and individual retirement accounts to try to reduce the opportunities for financial conflicts of interest to compromise the impartiality of investment advice in the retirement savings marketplace.

Accordingly, the OIG Report concludes that EBSA should “concentrate on issuing final regulations on the so‐called “conflict of interest rule” and continue its work to obtain legislative changes repealing the limited‐scope audit exemption. In the interim, EBSA should continue to expand upon its existing authority to clarify and strengthen limited scope audit regulations and evaluate the ERISA Council’s recommendations on the issue.”

The OIG recommendations in the Report are likely to refuel pressure on EBSA to finalize the fiduciary investment advice rule and tighten or eliminate the small scope audit rule.  Since either or both of these actions would likely increase the expense and other responsibilities and risks associated with the investment and maintenance of employee benefit plan assets, plan sponsors, fiduciaries, administrators, banks, insurers, investment advisors and others involved in the investment or administration of employee benefit plans and their assets should both carefully monitor the response of the EBSA to the OIG recommendations and react promptly to provide feedback to help shape any changes to manage these costs and expenses.

About Author Cynthia Marcotte Stamer

If you need help evaluating or monitoring the implications of these developments or reviewing or updating your health benefit program for compliance or with any other employment, employee benefit, compensation or internal controls matter, please contact the author of this article, attorney Cynthia Marcotte Stamer.

A Fellow in the American College of Employee Benefits Council, immediate past-Chair and current Welfare Benefit Committee Co-Chair of the American Bar Association (ABA) RPPT Employee Benefits & Other Compensation Arrangements, an ABA Joint Committee on Employee Benefits Council Representative, the ABA TIPS Employee Benefit Plan Committee Vice Chair, former ABA Health Law Section Managed Care & Insurance Interest Group Chair, past Southwest Benefits Association Board Member, Employee Benefit News Editorial Advisory Board Member, and a widely published speaker and author,  Ms. Stamer has more than 24 years experience advising businesses, plans, fiduciaries, insurers. plan administrators and other services providers,  and governments on health care, retirement, employment, insurance, and tax program design, administration, defense and policy.   Nationally and internationally known for her creative and highly pragmatic knowledge and work on health benefit and insurance programs, Ms. Stamer’s  experience includes extensive involvement in advising and representing these and other clients on ACA and other health care legislation, regulation, enforcement and administration.

Widely published on health benefit and other related matters, Ms. Stamer’s insights and articles have been published by the HealthLeaders, Modern Health Care, Managed Care Executive, the Bureau of National Affairs, Aspen Publishers, Business Insurance, Employee Benefit News, the Wall Street Journal, the American Bar Association, Aspen Publishers, World At Work, Spencer Publications, SHRM, the International Foundation, Solutions Law Press and many others.

For additional information about Ms. Stamer and her experience, see www.CynthiaStamer.com.

For Added Information and Other Resources

If you found this update of interest, you also may be interested in reviewing some of the other updates and publications authored by Ms. Stamer available including:

For Help Or More Information

If you need assistance in auditing or assessing, updating or defending your organization’s compliance, risk manage or other  internal controls practices or actions, please contact the author of this update, attorney Cynthia Marcotte Stamer here or at (469)767-8872.

Board Certified in Labor & Employment Law by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization, management attorney and consultant Ms. Stamer is nationally and internationally recognized for more than 24 years of work helping employers and other management; employee benefit plans and their sponsors, administrators, fiduciaries; employee leasing, recruiting, staffing and other professional employment organizations; and others design, administer and defend innovative workforce, compensation, employee benefit  and management policies and practices. Her experience includes extensive work helping employers implement, audit, manage and defend union-management relations, wage and hour, discrimination and other labor and employment laws, privacy and data security, internal investigation and discipline and other workforce and internal controls policies, procedures and actions.  The Chair of the American Bar Association (ABA) RPTE Employee Benefits & Other Compensation Committee, a Council Representative on the ABA Joint Committee on Employee Benefits, Government Affairs Committee Legislative Chair for the Dallas Human Resources Management Association, and past Chair of the ABA Health Law Section Managed Care & Insurance Interest Group, Ms. Stamer works, publishes and speaks extensively on management, re-engineering, investigations, human resources and workforce, employee benefits, compensation, internal controls and risk management, federal sentencing guideline and other enforcement resolution actions, and related matters.  She also is recognized for her publications, industry leadership, workshops and presentations on these and other human resources concerns and regularly speaks and conducts training on these matters.Her insights on these and other matters appear in the Bureau of National Affairs, Spencer Publications, the Wall Street Journal, the Dallas Business Journal, the Houston Business Journal, and many other national and local publications. For additional information about Ms. Stamer and her experience or to get access to other publications by Ms. Stamer see hereor contact Ms. Stamer directly.

About Solutions Law Press

Solutions Law Press™ provides business risk management, legal compliance, management effectiveness and other resources, training and education on human resources, employee benefits, data security and privacy, insurance, health care and other key compliance, risk management, internal controls and operational concerns. If you find this of interest, you also be interested reviewing some of our other Solutions Law Press resources at www.solutionslawpress.com.

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 at here or e-mailing this information here.

©2014 Cynthia Marcotte Stamer.  Non-exclusive right to republish granted to Solutions Law Press.  All other rights reserved.


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