Employer Sponsors & Health Plans Face Rising Risk From Mental Health & Substance Abuse Coverage Violations

Employer and union-sponsored health plans, their sponsors, fiduciaries and administrators should heed the reminder of the importance of ensuring their health plans properly comply in form and operation with the mental health and substance abuse parity mandes of the Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act (MHPAEA)  in when the  U.S. Department of Labor (“DOL”) Employee Benefit Security Administration (“EBSA”) released its 2020 Report to Congress: Parity Partnerships: Working Together (the”2020 Report”) available for review here.

In addition to exposing the health plan administrators and othr fiduciaries to potential claims denial or fiduciary responsibility claims brought by participants or beneficiaries, the Department of Labor or both, administrative penalties by the EBSA, or both, the MHPAEA mental health and substance abuse parity rules are among 40 federal mandates that when violated can rigger the automatic $100 per violation per day employer excise tax penalty under Internal Revenue Code Section 6039D.  As a consequence, violations of the MHPAEA are particularly risky and potentially expensive for private employers, their health plans and the plan administrators and fiduciaries that administer it.

To avoid violation of the MHPAEA, covered health plans generally must cover mental health and substance abuse care and treatment on the same terms in form and in operation as other similar benefits, as well as comply with special notice and claims administration requirements.  Comparability of mental health and substance abuse coverage is determined in accordance with complicated federal regulations,  Meeting these requirements in operations is often tricky, particularly when health plans attempt to apply tools to manage hospitalization or other treatments.  For additional information about MHPAEA, C. Stamer, What Should I Know About the MHPAEA and 21st Century Cures Act (2018).

Along with the 2020 Report, Along with releasing the report, EBSA also is continuing its efforts to educate plan sponsors, fiduciaries, administrators about the importance of compliance with the federally imposed group health plan mental health and substance abuse coverage mandates of the Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act  (“MHPAEA”). Consequently, along with its release of the 2020 Report, EBSA reminded plans, employers and other interested parties of the following previously published EBSA guidance about the MHPAEA mandates:

MHPAEA Enforcement Authority

MHPAEA enforcement is split between the EBSA and the Department of Health & Human Services Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (“CMS”) depending on the nature and sponsorship of the health program. 

Pursuant to its enforcement authority under Title I of the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (ERISA), EBSA is responsible for enforcement of the MHPAEA with respect to approximately 2.4 million private employment-based group health plans.  In contrast, CMSenforces MHPAEA and other applicable provisions of Title XXVII of the Public Health Service Act (PHS Act) with respect to non-federal governmental group health plans, such as plans for employees of state and local governments. Sponsors of self-funded, nonfederal governmental plans may elect to exempt those plans from (opt out of) certain requirements of Title XXVII of the PHS Act, including MHPAEA.  In addition, CMS enforces MHPAEA with respect to health insurance issuers selling products in the individual and fully insured group markets in states that elect not to enforce or fail to substantially enforce MHPAEA. Currently, CMS is responsible for enforcement of MHPAEA with regard to issuers in four states: Missouri, Oklahoma, Texas and Wyoming. In these states, CMS reviews health insurance policy forms of issuers in the individual and group markets for compliance with MHPAEA prior to the products being offered for sale. In addition, CMS has collaborative enforcement agreements with five states: Alabama, Florida, Louisiana, Montana, and Wisconsin. These states perform state regulatory and oversight functions with respect to the federal requirements, including MHPAEA. However, if the state finds a potential violation and is unable to obtain compliance by an issuer, the state will refer the matter to CMS for possible enforcement action. CMS also performs market conduct examinations, where issuers are audited for compliance with applicable federal requirements, including MHPAEA, in states where CMS is responsible for enforcement and in states with a collaborative enforcement agreement when the state requests assistance.

EBSA FY 2019 Enforcement Against Private Employment Based Health Plans

The Fiscal Year (“FY”) 2019 Fact Sheet reports that in FY 2019, EBSA investigated and closed 186 health plan investigations in FY 2019 (and 3,758 health plan investigations since FY 2011). Of these:

  • 71 investigations involved fully-insured plans, 91 investigations involved self-insured plans, and
  • 24 investigations involved plans of both types (the plan or service provider offered both fully-insured and self-insured options).
  • 183 of these closed investigations involved plans subject to MHPAEA, which were reviewed for MHPAEA compliance. Of these, 68 investigations involved fully-insured plans, 91 investigations involved self-insured plans, and 24 investigations involved plans of both types (the plan or service provider offered both fully-insured and self-insured options).
  • EBSA cited 12 MHPAEA violations in 9 of these investigations.
  • Of these 9 investigations, 1 investigation involved a fully-insured group health plan, 3 investigations involved self-funded group health plans, 2 investigations involved partially self-funded group health plans and 3 were service provider investigations.
  • EBSA benefits advisors answered 90 public inquiries, including 62 complaints, in FY 2019 related to MHPAEA (and answered 1,445 inquiries related to MHPAEA since FY 2011)

Concerning the focus of the EBSA investigated MHPAEA violations, EBSA reports the investigations focused on the following categories:

  • Annual dollar limits: dollar limitations on the total amount of specified benefits that may be paid in a 12-month period under a group health plan or health insurance coverage for any coverage unit (such as self-only or family coverage).
  • Aggregate lifetime dollar limits: dollar limitations on the total amount of specified benefits that may be paid under a group health plan or health insurance coverage for any coverage unit.
  • Benefits in all classifications: requirement that if a plan or issuer provides mental health or substance use disorder benefits in any classification described in the MHPAEA final regulation, mental health or substance use disorder benefits must be provided in every classification in which medical/surgical benefits are provided.
  • Financial requirements: deductibles, copayments, coinsurance, or out-of-pocket maximums.
  • Treatment limitations: includes limits on benefits based on the frequency of treatment, number of visits, days of coverage, days in a waiting period, or other similar limits on the scope or duration of treatment. Treatment limitations include both quantitative treatment limitations (QTLs), which are expressed numerically (such as 50 outpatient visits per year), and nonquantitative treatment limitations (NQTLs), which otherwise limit the scope or duration of benefits for treatment under a plan or coverage.
  • Cumulative financial requirements and QTLs: financial requirements and treatment limitations that determine whether or to what extent benefits are provided based on certain accumulated amounts including deductibles, out-of-pocket maximums and annual or lifetime day or visit limits.
  • Other ERISA violations (such as claims processing and disclosure violations) affecting mental health and substance use disorder benefits.

Along with the EBSA enforcement, private participants and beneficiaries of private employer sponsored health plans also can bring lawsuits to recover benefits and other relief for violatons of MHPAEA.  Along with the actual damages, attorneys’ fees and other costs of enforcement, a successful MHPAEA enforcement also typically will reveal the sponsoring employer or union’s failure to make the required self-disclosure and excise tax payments mandated for violations under Internal Revenue Code Section 6039D, triggering added penalties beyond the initial penalties triggered by the uncorrected violation.  Furthermore, delayed discovery of these violations also makes correction particularly costly for self-insured plans and their sponsors as deadlines for submitting expenses to qualify for stop loss reimbursement often will have passed by the time the liability comes to light.  Accordingly, employer and other health plan sponsors, their fiduciaries and adminstrators generally will want to audit and monitor their health plan’s compliance with the MHPAEA throught the calendar year and as plan year or stop loss filing deadlines approach to mitigate these exposures.  

More Information

We hope this update is helpful. For more information about the these or other health or other legal, management or public policy developments, please contact the author Cynthia Marcotte Stamer via e-mail or via telephone at (214) 452 -8297.  

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About the Author

Recognized by her peers as a Martindale-Hubble “AV-Preeminent” (Top 1%) and “Top Rated Lawyer” with special recognition LexisNexis® Martindale-Hubbell® as “LEGAL LEADER™ Texas Top Rated Lawyer” in Health Care Law and Labor and Employment Law; as among the “Best Lawyers In Dallas” for her work in the fields of “Labor & Employment,” “Tax: ERISA & Employee Benefits,” “Health Care” and “Business and Commercial Law” by D Magazine, Cynthia Marcotte Stamer is a practicing attorney board certified in labor and employment law by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization and management consultant, author, public policy advocate and lecturer widely known for 30+ years of health industry and other management work, public policy leadership and advocacy, coaching, teachings, and publications. As a significant part of her work, Ms. Stamer has worked extensively domestically and internationally with business, government and community leaders to prepare for and deal with pandemic and other health and safety, financial, workforce and other organizational crisis, change and workforce, employee benefit, health care and other operations planning, preparedness and response for more than 30 years.  As a part of this work, she regularly advises businesses and government leaders on an an  demand and ongoing basis about preparation of workforce, health care and other business and government policies and practices to deal with management in a wide range of contexts ranging from day to day operations, through times of change and in response to operational, health care, natural disaster, economic and other crisis and change.

Author of “Privacy and the Pandemic Workshop” for the Association of State and Territorial Health Plans, “How to Conduct A Reduction In Force,” and a multitude of other highly regarded publications and presentations on workforce, compliance, health care and health benefits, pandemic and other health crisis, workers’ compensation and occupational disease, business disaster and distress and many other topics, Ms. Stamer has worked with employers, insurers, health industry organizations and providers and domestic and international community and government leaders on pandemic and other health and safety, workforce and performance preparedness, risks and change management, disaster preparedness and response and other operational and tactical concerns throughout her adult life. A former lead advisor to the Government of Bolivia on its pension privaitization project, Ms. Stamer also has worked internationally as an advisor to business, community and government leaders on crisis preparedness and response, workforce, health care and other reform, as well as regularly advises and defends organizations about the design, administration and defense of their organizations workforce, employee benefit and compensation, safety, discipline and other management practices and actions.

Board Certified in Labor and Employment Law By the Texas Board of Legal Specialization, Scribe for the ABA JCEB Annual Agency Meeting with OCR, Vice Chair of the ABA International Section Life Sciences Committee, and the ABA RPTE Employee Benefits & Other Compensation Group and and a former Council Representative, Past Chair of the ABA Managed Care & Insurance Interest Group, former Vice President and Executive Director of the North Texas Health Care Compliance Professionals Association, past Board President of Richardson Development Center (now Warren Center) for Children Early Childhood Intervention Agency, past North Texas United Way Long Range Planning Committee Member, and past Board Member and Compliance Chair of the National Kidney Foundation of North Texas, and a Fellow in the American College of Employee Benefit Counsel, the American Bar Foundation and the Texas Bar Foundation, Ms. Stamer also shares her extensive publications and thought leadership as well as leadership involvement in a broad range of other professional and civic organizations. For more information about Ms. Stamer or her health industry and other experience and involvements, see www.cynthiastamer.com or contact Ms. Stamer via telephone at (214) 452-8297 or via e-mail here.  

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