Impending 10/1 Exchange Notice & Other New Notice Deadlines Cut Time Short For Employers To Finalize 2014 Health Plan Terms & Contracts

Employer and union group health plan sponsors and insurers of group and individual health plans (Health Plans) agonizing over 2014 plan design decisions are running out of time. Impending deadlines to update and deliver the initial Exchange Notice by October 1, 2013, the Summary of Benefits and Communications (SBC) disclosure before their next enrollment period begins, and 60-day prior notice of material reductions in benefits or services under the plan mandated by the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA) require employers or other sponsors to finalize design decisions and amendments well in advance of January 1, 2014.  These new notification obligations create added urgency and pressure for Health Plans and their employer and other sponsors to finalize and implement their decisions on their Health Plans 2014 plan designs and coverages and make the necessary determinations to prepare and timely deliver the required notifications in accordance with these new notification mandates well before the start of the 2014 plan year or its enrollment period. Employers who in the past have put off these decisions until the last month of the plan year no longer can legally do so.

ACA Exchange Notices Due By October 1

One of the biggest time constraints for finalizing 2014 plan designs, contracts and terms is the impending October 1, 2014 deadline for employers to provide the notice required by Fair Labor Standards Act Section 18B.

Regardless of if the employer sponsors a health plan or when the next plan enrollment period begins, all employers covered by the FLSA generally are required deliver a notice to employees about the new option beginning January 1, 2014 to get health care coverage through a health care exchange (now rebranded by the Obama Administration as a “Marketplace”)(Marketplace) created by ACA that meets the requirements of new FLSA Section 18B enacted Section 1512 of ACA.

Absent a delay or other reprieve from the Obama Administration or Congress,  Open enrollment for health insurance coverage through the Marketplace begins October 1, 2013.  Individuals and employees of small businesses beginning October 1, 2013 can apply for and, beginning January 1, 2014 to buy health care coverage offered through the Marketplace established under ACA for their state (including the Federal Marketplace for states that did not elect to establish their own Marketplace). Some individuals who earn less than 400% of the federal poverty level and meet certain other conditions also are slated to qualify to receive federal subsidies that will pay all or part of the cost of buying coverage through a Marketplace.

To promote awareness among employees of the Marketplace as an option for getting health coverage, creates a new FLSA Section 18B requiring a notice (Exchange Notice) to employees of coverage options available through the Marketplace.  Originally required by March 1, 2013,[*] the Department of Labor (DOL) extended the deadline for providing the Exchange Notice to October 1, 2013.  Employers must provide a notice of coverage options to each employee, regardless of plan enrollment status (if applicable) or of part-time or full-time status. Employers are not required to provide a separate notice to dependents or other individuals who are or may become eligible for coverage under the plan but who are not employees.

All FLSA-Covered Employers Must Provide Exchange Notices Beginning October 1, 2013

Under FLSA Section 18B of the FLSA, each applicable employer must provide each employee at the time of hiring (or with respect to current employees, by October 1, 2013), a written notice that fulfills the applicable Exchange Notice requirements as set forth in the DOL Regulations.

The FLSA section 18B requirement to provide a notice to employees of coverage options applies to all   employers subject to the FLSA. In general, the FLSA applies to employers that employ one or more employees who are engaged in, or produce goods for, interstate commerce. For most firms, a test of not less than $500,000 in annual dollar volume of business applies. The FLSA also specifically covers the following entities: hospitals; institutions primarily engaged in the care of the sick, the aged, mentally ill, or disabled who reside on the premises; schools for children who are mentally or physically disabled or gifted; preschools, elementary and secondary schools, and institutions of higher education; and federal, state and local government agencies.  Employers questioning whether their business is subject to the FLSA should seek the assistance of legal counsel experienced with the FLSA.

Timing and Delivery of Notice

Employers are required to provide the Exchange Notice to each new employee at the time of hiring beginning October 1, 2013. For 2014, the Department will consider a notice to be provided at the time of hiring if the notice is provided within 14 days of an employee’s start date.

For employees who are current employees before October 1, 2013, employers must provide the Exchange Notice no later than October 1, 2013.

The Exchange Notice must be provided in writing in a manner calculated to be understood by the average employee. Employers may deliver the Exchange Notice by first-class mail or, if the electronic notification requirements of the Department of Labor’s electronic disclosure safe harbor at 29 CFR 2520.104b-1(c) are met, electronically.

Required Content of Exchange Notice

The Exchange Notice content mandated by FLSA Section 18B is fairly limited.  Section 18B requires that the Exchange Notice only dictates three required elements:

  • Inform employees of coverage options, including information about the existence of the new Marketplace as well as contact information and description of the services provided by a Marketplace;
  • Inform the employee that the employee may be eligible for a premium tax credit under Section 36B of the Code if the employee purchases a qualified health plan through the Marketplace; and
  • Include a statement informing the employee that if the employee purchases a qualified health plan through the Marketplace, the employee may lose the employer contribution (if any) to any health benefits plan offered by the employer and that all or a portion of such contribution may be excludable from income for Federal income tax purposes.  At minimum, this generally requires that the Exchange Notice distributed by an employer must inform the employee.

Interim DOL guidance implementing these requirements construes the content requirements as requiring that the Exchange Notice tell the employee:

  • Of the existence of the Marketplace (referred to in the statute as the Exchange) including a description of the services provided by the Marketplace, and the way the employee may contact the Marketplace to request assistance;
  • That the employee may be eligible for a premium tax credit or subsidy under Section 36B of the Internal Revenue Code (the Code) if the employee purchases a qualified health plan through the Marketplace and the employer does not offer coverage to the employee under a group health plan that is considered to provide “Minimum Value” for purposes of ACA; and
  • That if the employee purchases a qualified health plan through the Marketplace, the employee may lose the employer contribution (if any) to any health benefits plan offered by the employer and that all or a portion of such contribution may be excludable from income for Federal income tax purposes.

Allow Adequate Time To Do Analysis, Complete Other Steps To Prepare Exchange Notices

Employers should resist the urge to allow the shortness of the list of information required that FLSA Section 18B requires in the Exchange Notice lure them into underestimating the time and effort required to prepare the Exchange Notification.  For many employers, determining if the Health Plan provides Minimum Value can be time-consuming and complex.

For this, the SBC notice discussed later in this update and other purposes, Code Section 36B(c)(2)(C)(ii) provides that an employer-sponsored Health Plan provides Minimum Value if the ratio of the share of total costs paid by the Health Plan relative to the total costs of covered services is no less than 60% of the anticipated covered medical spending for covered benefits paid by a group health plan for a standard population, computed in accordance with the plan’s cost-sharing, and divided by the total anticipated allowed charges for covered benefits provided to a standard population is no less than 60%.  See Patient Protection and ACA: Standards Related to Essential Health Benefits, Actuarial Value, and Accreditation Regulation.

Existing regulations require the employers to get an actuarial certification to determine if its Health Plan provides Minimum Value unless the employer can show that the Health Plan fits the criteria to use and satisfies this test using either the Minimum Value Calculator or an applicable safe harbor design approved by HHS, Treasury and DOL.  These determinations often are time consuming and complex requiring careful review and analysis of the group health plan coverage and benefits.  Many self-insured or other group health plans have plan designs that prevent the employer from relying on the Minimum Value Calculator or design safe harbors.  If the employer cannot rely upon the Minimum Value Calculator or one of the design safe harbors, an actuarial certification will be needed.  Employers need to allow sufficient time to make these determinations in time to complete and deliver the Exchange Notices.

Employers should particularly expect to need to obtain an actuarial certification to determine if the Health Plan provides Minimum Value determination if the Health Plan is taking advantage of temporary relief from the cost sharing limitations of ACA for 2014 announced by the Obama Administration in February and reconfirmed in July, that for 2014 allows Health Plans to apply a separate ACA-compliant out-of-pocket maximum to prescription drug benefits from the ACA-compliant out-of-pocket maximum applied to all other benefits subject to ACA’s cost sharing restrictions.   Since the Minimum Value Calculator cannot take into account this option, however, employers planning to apply a separate out-of-pocket maximum for prescription drug coverage versus other plan benefits should be prepared to get an actuarial certification of whether the plan provides Minimum Value.

DOL Model Exchange Notices Not Panacea

Employers may want to use some or all of the language that the DOL included in Model Notices that DOL published in conjunction with its publication of interim guidance on FLSA Section 18B in Technical Release No. 2013-02 on May 8, 2013 here. Because employers must tailor the content of the Exchange Notice for their group health plan based on specific information about their group health plan, employers are cautioned not to underestimate the time or effort that will be required to properly prepare the Exchange Notice for their group health plan, whether or not the employer makes use of the Model Notices in whole or part.

DOL published three model exchange notices (Model Notices) to assist employers in preparing the Exchange Notice for their Health Plan for 2014. One Model Notice is intended for employers who do not offer a Health Plan.  The second Model Notice is designed for employers who offer a health plan to some or all employees. The third Model Notice is designed for employers to use to notify individuals who are enrolled or eligible to enroll in continuation coverage  under the Health Plan under the Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act of 1985 (COBRA).   Technical Release No. 2013-02 says employers may use the applicable of these models or a modified version, provided the Exchange Notice meets the content requirements described above.

Despite the availability of these Model Notices, preparing and providing the required Exchange Notices required by Section 18B typically requires significant evaluation and presents a variety of challenges for most employers.  While intended to facilitate the ability of employers to prepare and provide the required Exchange Notices, preparing the Model Notices generally is challenging for many employers.

First, even using the Model Notices, the employer must decide if the Health Plan provides Minimum Value.

Another challenge with wholesale use of the Model Notices involves deciding how much of the optional language contained in the Model Notices to include in the Exchange Notice and what optional information, if any, to provide as part of that Notice.

For one thing, the Model Notices propose that the Exchange Notice include statements that many critics view as inappropriately promoting enrollment in coverage through the Marketplace rather than employer sponsored group health plans.  Critics complain, for instance that the Model Notice’s statement that the Marketplaces offer “one-stop shopping” that allows the employee to get coverage that the Model Notice states is more “affordable” are inaccurate or misleading. Many critics view the assertion that coverage obtained through the exchange is more “affordable” to be inaccurate as it does not take into account a comparison of the actual benefits and costs of the respective plan options and whether the employee can afford the typically richer (and therefore often more expensive) benefit packages ACA’s essential health benefits mandates require be included in coverage offered for sale through the Marketplaces and presumes that these higher costs will be defrayed by tax credits or subsidies that are only available if the employee earns less than 400% of the federal poverty level and is not offered the option to enroll in an employer sponsored group health plan coverage that provides “minimum essential coverage” (MEC) and Minimum Value and is “affordable” within the meaning of ACA.

Employers considering using the Model Notices also need to decide if their Exchange Notices will include the optional factual disclosures about their group health plan suggested in the Model Notices, but not required to fulfill the requirements of FLSA Section 18B.

The Model Notices propose that an employer also voluntarily provide a significant amount of other information about its group health plan that FLSA Section permits, but does not require that the Exchange Notice include.  The DOL says it designed the Model Notices to help employers to identify and disclose information that the DOL expects employees interested in the tax credit to subsidize the employee’s cost of enrolling in coverage through the Marketplace will need to get from employers to show eligibility.  DOL assumes that many employers might want to voluntarily provide this information in the Exchange Notice to avoid receiving a multitude of anticipated inquiries from employees interested seeking tax credits to subsidize their enrollment in coverage through the Marketplace.  Since collection the data necessary to make these optional disclosures can add significant complexity and time to the preparation of the Exchange Notice, employers should carefully weigh the pros and cons of making the optional disclosures.  The anticipated demand for this information has declined since the Obama Administration announced it plans to use an “honor system” approach to determine if individuals can claim eligibility for tax credit subsidies for buying coverage through the Marketplaces in 2014.  Meanwhile, the interim nature of the existing guidance on the Exchange Notice and other key aspects of ACA make it reasonable to expect further changes in the expected content of the Exchange Notice, ACA requirements that it is intended to communicate or both which could impact the need for or accuracy of these disclosures.  For this reason, employers should carefully consider whether and what optional disclosures to include in their Exchange Notices.

Don’t Forget To Notify COBRA Qualified Beneficiaries

Technical Release No. 2013-02 indicates that in addition to sending an Exchange Notice to employees, employers or their group health plan administrators also must notify COBRA eligible or enrolled individuals.

In general, under COBRA, an individual who was covered by a group health plan on the day before a qualifying event occurred may be able to elect COBRA continuation coverage upon a qualifying event (such as termination of employment or reduction in hours that causes loss of coverage under the plan). Individuals with such a right are called qualified beneficiaries. A group health plan must provide qualified beneficiaries with an election notice, which describes their rights to continuation coverage and how to make an election. The election notice must be provided to the qualified beneficiaries within 14 days after the plan administrator receives the notice of a qualifying event.

Technical Release No. 2013-02 says that the DOL considers the required disclosures for the Exchange Notice information to be disclosed to qualified beneficiaries and that the DOL is revising previously published model COBRA notices to incorporate this information.

DOL says in Technical Release No. 2013-02 that the group health plans can use the revised model COBRA election notice to satisfy the requirement to provide the election notice under COBRA including the disclosure of information required by FLSA Section 18B. The DOL cautions that as with the earlier model COBRA notices, in order to use this model election notice properly, the plan administrator must complete it by filling in the blanks with the appropriate plan information. Technical Release 2013-02 states that use of the model election notice, appropriately completed, will be considered by the Department of Labor to be good faith compliance with the election notice content requirements of COBRA.

ACA SBC Mandate Overview

In addition to the Exchange Notice requirement, the need to prepare and timely delivery the “Summary of Benefits and Coverage or “SBC”) required by ACA also pressures employers to finalize their health plan terms and contracts for 2014 as soon as possible.

ACA amended the Public Health Services Act (PHS) Section 2715, Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA) Section 715 and the Internal Revenue Code (Code) Section 9815 to require that Health Plans and health insurance issuers provide a SBC and a “Uniform Glossary” that “accurately describes the benefits and coverage under the applicable plan or coverage” in a way that meets the format, content and other detailed SBC standards set for ACA as implemented by the Departments regulatory guidance. Like the Exchange Notice, proper preparation of the SBC requires determination of whether the Health Plan provides Minimum Value, as well as other detailed analysis of the plan terms and coverages to complete the other disclosures required in the SBC.

The Summary of Benefits and Coverage and Uniform Glossary Final Regulation  (Final Regulation) implementing this requirement published February 14, 2012 generally requires Health Plans at specified times including before the first offer of coverage under the Plan as well as following certain material changes to the Plan. For Health Plans providing group health plan coverage, FAQs About ACA Implementation (Part VII)[*] set the deadline for Health Plan to deliver a SBC as follows, while at the same time indicating that the Departments would not impose penalties on plans and issuers “working diligently and in good faith” to provide the required SBC content in an appearance consistent with the Final Regulations:

  • To covered persons enrolling or re-enrolling in an open enrollment period (including late enrollees and re-enrollees) as the first day of the first open enrollment period that begins on or after September 23, 2012; and
  • For individuals enrolling in coverage other than through an open enrollment period (including individuals who are newly eligible for coverage and special enrollees) as the first day of the first plan year that begins on or after September 23, 2012. See FAQs About ACA Implementation (Part VIII).

While the SBC doesn’t prohibit an employer from amending its Health Plan terms after the enrollment period begins, employers that change Health Plan terms or designs after distributing a SBC must incur the expense and effort to prepare and redistribute an updated SBC.  Accordingly, most Health Plans and their sponsors or insurers will want to finalize Health Plan terms before the enrollment period begins to avoid the need to and expense of sending updated SBCs as a result of a later change in Health Plan terms.

The Final Regulation and other existing guidance generally dictates that Health Plans follow a required template for providing the SBC and accompanying glossary. When publishing the Final Regulation, the Departments also published the required SBC template form (2013 SBC Template) and instructions for Health Plans to use to prepare and provide the required SBC for coverage beginning before January 1, 2014 and promised updated guidance and templates for use in providing SBCs for post-2013 coverage. While the Agencies clarified certain other details about the SBC rules, they did not materially change the required content or form of the 2013 SBC Template until their April 23, 2013 release of FAQs About ACA Implementation (Part XIV). See e.g. FAQs About ACA Implementation Part IX and Part X.

FAQ Part XIV Requires MEC and Minimum Value Disclosures In SBC

FAQs About ACA Implementation (Part XIV) published April 23, 2013 announces the updated required 2014 SBC Template that the Agencies are requiring to SBCs for periods of health coverage from January 1, 2014 to December 31, 2014.  Along with the 2014 SBC Template, the Agencies also published 2014 Sample Completed SBC, which provides an example of a SBC completed for a hypothetical health plan prepared by the Agencies.

The 2014 SBC Template updates the 2013 SBC Template and Sample Completed Template to add information the Agencies believe individuals eligible for Health Plan coverage should know in light of the impending implementation of the individual shared responsibility requirements of Internal Revenue Code (Code) Section 5000A and the employer shared responsibility rules of Code Section 4980H commonly called ACA’s “pay-or-play” rules.   These were the “penalty” provisions that the Supreme Court ruled are taxes in 2013.

The April 23, 2013 FAQ expressly requires that SBCs for periods of coverage after December 31, 2013 disclose if the Health Plans provide MEC and Minimum Value to enable participants and beneficiaries to understand if enrollment in the Health Plan will suffice to allow the employee to avoid paying the individual penalty under Code Section 5000(a)’s individual “shared responsibility” rules, to compare the coverage and costs to enroll in the employer’s Health Plan versus to enroll in health care coverage through a Marketplace and to predict how their eligibility for enrollment in the employer’s Health Plan will impact their eligibility to qualify to claim tax credits under Code Section 32G to help subsidize the cost to purchase coverage through a Marketplace.

Code Section 5000A generally imposes a penalty tax on individuals that fail to maintain enrollment in MEC within the meaning of Code Section 5000A(f) and not otherwise exempt under Code Section 5000A(d).  As of the publication of this update, the Obama Administration has not announced any delay in the enforcement of this penalty against individuals, but legislation is pending in Congress that would delay its applicability, along with approving the delay of enforcement of the Code Section 4980H penalties previously announced by the Obama Administration.

Although the Obama Administration announced in early July, 2013 that it will not enforce collection of the Code Section 4980H provisions against employers until 2015, Code Section 4980H generally requires employers of 50 or more full-time employees to pay a penalty if the employer fails to offer a group health plan providing MEC and Minimum Value   Minimum Value is determined for this purpose in the same manner that it is determined for purposes of making the required disclosure in the Exchange Notice.

60-Day Advance Notice of Material Changes Requirement

In addition to providing the required Exchange Notice and SBCs, employers, group health plans and their plan administrators also must ensure that participants and beneficiaries are given at least 60 days prior notice before the effective date of any “material reduction in covered services or benefits.” See 29

CFR Section 2520.104b-3(d)(3); also see 29 CFR Section 2520.104b-3(d)(2) regarding a 90-day alternative rule.

Section 102 of ERISA has been amended to require 60-day advance notice of material plan changes for plan years beginning on or after September 23, 2012 before the change can be effective.  The 60-day advance notification requirement is a modification to the summary plan description/summary of material modification requirements generally applicable to employee benefit plans under ERISA.

The rule’s definition of “material modification” is the same as the definition in the summary of material modifications rule generally applicable to employee benefit plans under ERISA Section 102.

DOL guidance indicates that group health plans can meet the 60-day advance notice requirement by providing an updated Summary of Benefits and Coverage if the change is reflected on the summary or by sending a separate written notice describing the material modification.

Group health plan issuers or sponsors that willfully (intentionally) fail to provide the notice of material modification can face a fine of up to $1,000 for each failure. Each covered individual equates to a separate offense for purposes of these penalties.

Employer and other group health sponsors, issuers, fiduciaries and administrators also should keep in mind that courts historically refuse to enforce reductions in benefits or services provided under the plan until participants and beneficiaries are notified of the change.  For purposes of the ERISA notification rules, group health plans, their sponsors, insurers, administrators and fiduciaries are cautioned to take into account whether health care providers or other parties who have assignments of benefits should be provided with notification under these or other ERISA rules in addition to the employees and dependents who are enrolled in coverage under the group health plan.

Notice Deadlines Mean Time Short To Adopt & Communicate 2014 Plan Terms

Employer and other health plan sponsors, insurers, administrators and others involved in 2014 group health plan decisions and preparations must take into account these notification deadlines and allow adequate lead time to properly finalize, adopt and communicate their 2014 health plan terms.

Since group health plan design decisions must be finalized to properly prepare the Minimum Value disclosures required in the Exchange Notice and the SBC and any material reductions required by the 60-day advance notice requirement, time running short to finalize 2014 plan designs.

Employer and other plan sponsors, fiduciaries, administrators, and insurers are cautioned that their preparations should ensure both the necessary disclosures are made and that all disclosures are carefully prepared so that the notifications and the plan terms are consistent.

These preparations should include the critical review and coordination of the language of health plan documents and summary plan descriptions in light of these other notifications to identify and address potential differences between the government-mandated terms and language in the Glossary and SBC, the Exchange Notice and 60-day notice and the plan terms and summary plan description.

Arrangements also must include proper structuring and formatting of all of these documents and timely distribution in accordance with applicable regulations to participants and beneficiaries entitled to receive these documents in a manner that positions the employer, the group health plan and its fiduciaries and insurers to show compliance. In regard to distributions, parties planning to distribute notifications electronically need to ensure that any electronic or other methods of distribution meet applicable requirements and that the Health Plans timely send copies to all entitled parties – employees and dependents – in accordance with the applicable rules.

When planning these activities, group health plans, their sponsors, insurers and administrators also generally will want to minimize distribution costs by coordinating distribution of these ACA mandated notices with other notifications required for group health plans about privacy, coverage for newborns and mothers, mental health coverage, post-mastectomy reconstructive surgery and the like.

For Help or More Information

If you need help understanding or dealing with these impending notification requirements, with other 2014 health plan decision-making or preparation, or with reviewing and updating, administering or defending your group health or other employee benefit, human resources, insurance, health care matters or related documents or practices, please contact the author of this update, Cynthia Marcotte Stamer.

A Fellow in the American College of Employee Benefit Council, immediate past Chair of the American Bar Association (ABA) RPTE Employee Benefits & Other Compensation Group and current Co-Chair of its Welfare Benefit Committee, Vice-Chair of the ABA TIPS Employee Benefits Committee, a council member of the ABA Joint Committee on Employee Benefits, and past Chair of the ABA Health Law Section Managed Care & Insurance Interest Group, Ms. Stamer is recognized, internationally, nationally and locally for her more than 25 years of work, advocacy, education and publications on cutting edge health and managed care, employee benefit, human resources and related workforce, insurance and financial services, and health care matters.

A board certified labor and employment attorney widely known for her extensive and creative knowledge and experienced with these and other employment, employee benefit and compensation matters, Ms. Stamer continuously advises and assists employers, employee benefit plans, their sponsoring employers, fiduciaries, insurers, administrators, service providers, insurers and others to monitor and respond to evolving legal and operational requirements and to design, administer, document and defend medical and other welfare benefit, qualified and non-qualified deferred compensation and retirement, severance and other employee benefit, compensation, and human resources, management and other programs and practices tailored to the client’s human resources, employee benefits or other management goals.  A primary drafter of the Bolivian Social Security pension privatization law, Ms. Stamer also works extensively with management, service provider and other clients to monitor legislative and regulatory developments and to deal with Congressional and state legislators, regulators, and enforcement officials concerning regulatory, investigatory or enforcement concerns.

Recognized in Who’s Who In American Professionals and both an American Bar Association (ABA) and a State Bar of Texas Fellow, Ms. Stamer serves on the Editorial Advisory Board of Employee Benefits News,, Insurance Thought Leadership, Solutions Law Press, Inc. and other publications, and active in a multitude of other employee benefits, human resources and other professional and civic organizations.   She also is a widely published author and highly regarded speaker 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, Modern and many other national and local publications.   You can learn more about Ms. Stamer and her experience, review some of her other training, speaking, publications and other resources, and register to receive future updates about developments on these and other concerns from Ms. Stamer here.

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:


©2013 Cynthia Marcotte Stamer, P.C. 

Nonexclusive license to republish granted to Solutions Law Press, Inc.  All other rights reserved.

[*] On January 24, 2013, the Department of Labor (the Department) issued guidance stating the Department’s conclusion that the notice requirement under FLSA section 18B will not take effect on March 1, 2013 for several reasons until further guidance setting the extended deadline was published.

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