Careful Selection & Contracting With Vendors Critical Part of Health Plan Renewals

In the rush to finalize their health plan designs, contracts and documents for the upcoming 2014 plan year, employer and other health plan sponsors and fiduciaries should use care to review their insurance, broker, administrator and other health plan vendor agreements and vendor-provided plan documents, communications and processes to verify that vendor agreements and the plan designs, documentation, communications and processes they put in place appropriately hold service providers accountable, are legally compliant, appropriately tailored to defensably administer the plan in accordance with expectations, implement appropriate fiduciary and other performance and risk allocations and manage other exposures.

Many employer and other plan sponsors unknowingly expose themselves and management personnel participating in plan related decision-making to liability and costs by allowing costs or personality preferences to guide their vendor choices, rather than conducting a well-documented prudent review of their brokers and consultants, health plan insurers and  other service providers, their bonding and other credentials, and the vendor-recommended plan designs, documentation, communications, credentials and processes.

Careful Vendor Selection & Contracting Foundation of Health Plan Compliance & Risk Management

As an initial matter, employers or others selecting plan vendors generally need to credential service providers to manage exposures under the fiduciary responsibility rules of the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (ERISA). The fiduciary responsibility rules of ERISA generally impose upon the employer, member of its management or other parties possessing or exercising discretionary authority or control over the selection of plan service providers or vendors legal responsibility for the prudent selection and oversight of the service providers, their bonding and other credentials. Failing to conduct and keep documentation of this critical review can expose those participating in the vendor selection process to personal liability if plan funds or administration are mishandled as a result of the improper selection and oversight of the vendor.

Second, even when a vendor has a great reputation and credentials, employers or others also should carefully review the plan documentation, agreements, and communications provided by their brokers, administrative services providers, insurers and other health plan service providers to confirm that these materials are legally compliant, properly reflect the plan sponsors’ expectations about the plan terms, costs, and obligations, and otherwise designed to protect the employer’s goals and interests.  While most plan sponsors and their management assume that the arrangements put in place by their broker, consultant or other service provider will take the necessary steps to properly document and implement the plan design, inadequacies in plan documentation, communications, administrative forms, processes and even plan design are common.

Even where plan vendors and advisors have the best of intentions, plan designs and documentation often fail to comply with applicable federal mandates, incorporate undesirable terms, or incorporate other provisions or deficiencies that unnecessarily leave the plan sponsor or members of its management exposed to avoidable fiduciary responsibility and liability for actions that the service provider is being paid to perform, exculpate vendors from liability for failing to competently perform responsibilities, expose the plan or its sponsors to unnecessary penalties or other costs, have other weaknesses that leave the sponsor or its management exposed to significant costs, liabilities or both.

For these reasons and others, employer and other plan sponsors should make time to conduct a well-documented documented review of the fiduciary eligibility, bonding and other credentials, services agreements, plan documentation, communications, processes, and procedures proposed by their health plan vendors before finalizing vendor selections and implementing those documents.

Credentialing & Vendor Contracting Tips

To help determine the scope of review and risk, most employer or other plan sponsors and their management will find it helpful to begin by critically evaluating the credentials and contracts of the health plan brokers, consultants and service providers.  This review should both verify these advisors have the bonding and other legal credentials to qualify to perform the role desired under ERISA, the scope of services and accountability undertaken by the service providers, and the responsibilities for which the employer or other appointing party will continue to bear for the proper documentation and administration of the plan after hiring these vendors.

The following are some basic guidelines that management or others making health plan vendor and design decisions generally will want to consider and document as part of their analysis when reviewing proposed health plan vendors and the plan designs, documentation, communications and procedures.

  • A formal background check performed with the consent of the service provider should prove that the service provider and all of its employees and agents should be qualified to serve in a fiduciary role, are not disqualified or under investigation or other action that would disqualify them to act as a fiduciary or be bonded as required by ERISA, have no material complaint or dispute history with current or former clients or vendors, the Department of Labor, Department of Insurance, Internal Revenue Service or other relevant authorities, and have appropriate licensure, certifications, experience and reputation.
  • The service provider and its employees should enjoy an excellent reputation, verified by both broad background checks and detailed reference checks with both current and former clients, including clients who are not necessarily on the official reference list provided by the prospective service provider.
  • The service provider, its team, processes and procedures should have a history and currently be financially and operationally sound with significant experience and ability in the area.
  • The service provider should possess and be able to provide appropriate documentation of licensure, bonding, certifications and other credentials.
  • Due diligence should verify that the service provider has the skill, equipment, staff, procedures, processes, qualifications and other capabilities to properly and reliably perform the tasks contemplated prudently and in accordance with applicable legal responsibilities.

Beyond credentialing the service provider and its personnel, a plan sponsor or other party participating in the selection of a service provider or its recommended plan designs or services also should critically review the proposed services agreement to verify that it properly protects the expectations and interests of the plan sponsor, its plan fiduciaries and other associated parties participating in the plan design and vendor selection process.  Among other things, a review of the contract generally should verify that the following criteria are met:

  • The contract should clearly document the scope of plan services that the service provider will provide under the agreement, the services that the service provider will not provide, and the services that the service provider only will provide at an additional charge, all charges and other requirements, and any other material expectations.
  • The contract should require the service provider to deliver plan services prudently in a manner that delivers the desired health benefits in a manner consistent with the purposes that justify the plan sponsor’s continued provision of the health benefits in accordance with the legal, operational, benefit and cost parameters applicable to the employer and its plan
  • The contract should provide plan services in a manner consistent with the plan sponsor’s overall plan design and related business practices.
  • The contract should deliver plan services in a manner consistent with the federal and state tax, labor, health care, contractual and other legal obligations applicable to the plan sponsor.
  • The contract should document the bonding, liability insurance, credentials and other qualifications of the service provider and require notification and appropriate recourse in the event of a material change in those credentials.
  • The contract should adequately minimize the exposure of the plan sponsor to legal liabilities arising from its participation in the contract, including fiduciary liability, vicarious liability, corporate negligence, and contractual liability.
  • The contract should establish and document the framework for an effective working relationship.
  • The contract should establish and document clear performance obligations applicable to the parties; the way compliance will be measured; and the consequences of any breach of those obligations.
  • The contract should incorporate the necessary provisions to fulfill the business associate agreement and other requirements concerning the creation, use, protection, access and disclosure of personal health information and other sensitive information about plan participants, beneficiaries and their costs needed to comply with the privacy and data security requirements of the Health Insurance Portability & Accountability Act privacy, security, breach notification, accounting and other individual rights, and business associate rules as updated in new regulations published in 2013 by the Office of Civil Rights.
  • The contract should provide access to necessary information including all records necessary to monitor and defend the plan, its design and administration, its compliance and prudent administration, including all disclosure, audit and reporting requirements.
  • The contract should define the breach notification and dispute resolution procedures, if any, that apply to disputes between the parties in a manner that does not unduly prejudice the plan sponsor’s ability to administer the plan; fulfill its legal obligations to covered persons and relevant regulators, or conduct other business activities.
  • The contract should clearly document the relationship between the standard plan provisions and the managed care procedures as well as fiduciary responsibility and accountability for, appropriately updated to comply with updated claims, appeals, and independent review organization requirements implemented since the enactment of the Patient Protection & Affordable Care Act,   This should include a discussion regarding the extent to which the plan’s standard utilization, precertification, and medical necessity review procedures, coverage limitations and exclusions, proof of loss, and other provisions or replaced for care obtained under the managed care plan, as well as procedures and liability for deficiencies in administration resulting in liability to contracted physicians under managed care contracts pursuant to state law, loss of discounts, penalties or stop-loss coverage resulting from errors in administration and other federal and state liability risks of the plan, its fiduciaries and the employer.
  • The contract should require a third party administrator (TPA_ ensure that its provider contracts do not contain terms or provisions (other than as intended by the plan sponsor) that would undermine the enforceability of the plan sponsor’s benefit design.
  • The contract should require the service provider to ensure that contracting providers understand that their entitlement to payment or benefits depends upon satisfaction of all applicable terms and conditions of the plan and incorporate procedures to ensure the enforceability of these commitments.
  • The contract should bind the service provider to change its procedures in response to changes in the law or regulations that may be adopted from time to time.
  • The contract, if applicable, should require prudent processes to verify eligibility, coordinate coverage and perform other required functions.
  • The contract should include terms that preserve the subrogation rights of the plan.
  • The contract should require the TPA to warrant its authority to bind contracting providers and other parties whose cooperation and performance is required under the contract as part of the package of services to be delivered under the TPA’s proposal.
  • The contract should require the service provider to warrant that its agreement with other contracting providers does not conflict with the terms of the contract and ensures that these related providers are bound to perform in the manner contemplated by the contract.
  • The contract should require the service provider to perform all duties to prudently and in accordance with the law and hold the service provider legally accountable for liabilities and costs resulting from its omission to do so.
  • The contract should incorporate all performance guarantees including suitable accountability for noncompliance.
  • The contract should keep the right of the plan sponsor or fiduciary to terminate the vendor where prudent or otherwise legally required to fulfill responsibilities without inappropriate restrictions inconsistent with legal or operational responsibilities.
  • The contract should require appropriate indemnification or other accountability for non-performance with legal or other requirements and expectations.
  • The contract should include appropriate provisions to preserve access to plan administration and associated data as necessary to monitor plan costs, make future design decisions, and administer the plan and associated responsibilities even in the event of a termination of the vendor relationship.

While the credentialing questions and processes don’t eliminate all health plan related risks, they can help eliminate and manage many common legal and operational risks that often arising from health contracts and can help position an employer and members of its management to mitigate other potential exposures.   The benefits of this careful credentialing and contract should be carried forward by careful crafting of plan documents and communications to match the allocations of responsibilities decided upon in the contracting process, the use of appropriate procedures to ensure that the appointed party handles those responsibilities and their associated communications, and the proper coordination of responses to potential problems in a manner that provides for defensible administration without blurring carefully crafted fiduciary and other role assignments.

In some instances, it may not be possible to secure the ideal contractual provisions.  When this occurs, the documentation of the negotiations and the analysis of the advisability of proceeding with the contract, including any prudent backup arrangements needed to justify continuation should be maintained.  Too often, brokers and consultants disparage contract negotiation and review recommendations of legal counsel by suggesting this is standard in the industry or that the request for negotiation and review suggests some lack of experience or other improper expectation by legal counsel or others suggesting the review.  Such suggestions should be carefully scrutinized.  While ideal provisions cannot always be obtained, it is rare that some improvement in the agreements is not possible.  Even where this progress is not obtained, however, existing judicial and Labor Department enforcement clearly shows that the process of prudent review and analysis of proposed vendors and services is a required and necessary element of the vendor selection process for which parties making the decisions may face liability if they cannot prove the selection or retention was prudently conducted.

For Help or More Information

 If you need help understanding or dealing with reviewing or negotiating your vendor agreements, or  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 about 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. Her widely respected publications and programs include more than 25 years of publications on health plan contracting, design, administration and risk management including a “Managed Care Contracting Guide” published by the American Health Lawyers Association and numerous other works on vendor contracting.  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 Helpful Resources & Other Information

We hope that this information is useful to you.   If you found these updates of interest, you also be interested in one or more of the following other recent articles published on the Coalition for Responsible Health Care Reform electronic publication available here, our electronic Solutions Law Press Health Care Update publication available here, or our HR & Benefits Update electronic publication available here .  You also can get access to information about how you can arrange for training on “Building Your Family’s Health Care Toolkit,”  using the “PlayForLife” resources to organize low-cost wellness programs in your workplace, school, church or other communities, and other process improvement, compliance and other training and other resources for health care providers, employers, health plans, community leaders and others 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 here. You can reach other recent updates and other informative publications and resources.

Recent examples of these publications include:

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©2013 Cynthia Marcotte Stamer.  Nonexclusive right to republish granted to Solutions Law Press, Inc. All other rights reserved.

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