Health Plans, Other Covered Entities Have Continuing Duty To Reevaluate HIPAA Enterprise Risk To PHI & Address Security Risks & Other Compliance Concern On Ongoing Basis

October 27, 2016

Compliance with the Privacy and Security Rules of the Health Insurance Portability & Accountability Act (HIPAA) is a living process that requires employer and other health plans, health insurers, health care providers and healthcare clearinghouses to recurrently reevaluate their HIPAA enterprise risk and timely act to mitigate security threats to electronic (ePHI) and other  protected health information and other HIPAA compliance concerns on an ongoing basis.  That’s the clear take away applicable to all HIPAA-Covered Entities and business associates from the St. Joseph Health Resolution Agreement and Corrective Action Plan (SJH Settlement) and the Oregon Health & Science University Resolution Agreement and Corrective Action Plan (OHSU Settlement) announced by the Department of Health & Human Services Office of Civil Rights (OCR)  in the past 30 days.  Health plans, their sponsors, fiduciaries and vendors, health care providers and health care clearinghouses should carefully heed this message and in response take documented steps to ensure

  • Their existing policies, practices and procedures properly are updated in response to changing guidance and events;
  • They in place the current, comprehensive enterprise risk assessment along with a mitigation plan documenting actions taken to address these risks;
  • Ensure that the organization has and is administering appropriate, documented processes and procedures to ensure that the organization reassesses its enterprise risk assessment and compliance on a timely basis as warranted by changes or other events that could impact ePHI, regulatory developments or other events that might impact its compliance; and
  • Have an appropriate, documented process for oversight by C-level management.

OHSU Charges & Settlement

The OHSU Settlement Agreement announced by OCR on September 23, 2016 requires OHSU to pay a $2.7 million settlement payment and adopt and implement a comprehensive three-year corrective action plan to address “widespread and diverse” HIPAA compliance problems OCR reports uncovering while investigating multiple HIPAA breach reports the large public academic health center and research university centered in Portland, Oregon.

OCR began investigating OHSU after the large public academic health center and research university centered in Portland, Oregon, submitted three HIPAA breach reports affecting thousands of individuals, including two reports involving unencrypted laptops and another large breach involving a stolen unencrypted thumb drive:

  • On March 23, 2013, HHS received notification from OHSU regarding a breach of its unsecured electronic protected health information (“ePHI”) resulting from a stolen laptop computer;
  • On July 28, 2013, HHS received notification from OHSU regarding a breach of its ePHI resulting from storing ePHI at an internet-based service provider without a business associate agreement; and.

These incidents each garnered significant local and national press coverage. OCR’s investigation uncovered evidence of widespread vulnerabilities within OHSU’s HIPAA compliance program, including the storage of the ePHI of more than 3,000 individuals on a cloud-based server without a business associate agreement.  OCR found significant risk of harm to 1,361 of these individuals due to the sensitive nature of their diagnoses.

OCR’s investigation showed the reported breaches resulted from widespread, long-term, systematic and unresolved HIPAA violations by OHSU that OCR attributed to an inadequate commitment to and oversight of HIPAA compliance by OHSU C-level management which resulted in the failure by OHSU to appropriately monitor the adequacy of its ongoing compliance and to assess and address changes in its enterprise-wide risk and compliance obligations on an ongoing basis. OHSU performed risk analyses in 2003, 2005, 2006, 2008, 2010, and 2013, but OCR’s investigation found that these analyses did not cover all ePHI in OHSU’s enterprise, as required by the Security Rule.  While the analyses identified vulnerabilities and risks to ePHI located in many areas of the organization, OHSU did not act in a timely manner to implement measures to address these documented risks and vulnerabilities to a reasonable and appropriate level. OHSU also lacked policies and procedures to prevent, detect, contain, and correct security violations and failed to implement a mechanism to encrypt and decrypt ePHI or an equivalent alternative measure for ePHI maintained on its workstations, despite having identified this lack of encryption as a risk.

OCR concluded that the reported breaches were the result of long-standing, systematic deficiences in OHSU’s  processes and procedures for HIPAA compliance, including the following:

  • While OHSU reportedly performed risk analyses in 2003, 2005, 2006, 2008, 2010, and 2013, OCR says its investigation found that these analyses did not cover all ePHI in OHSU’s enterprise, as required by the Security Rule;
  • While the analyses identified vulnerabilities and risks to ePHI located in many areas of the organization, OHSU did not act in a timely manner to implement measures to address these documented risks and vulnerabilities to a reasonable and appropriate level;
  • OHSU also lacked policies and procedures to prevent, detect, contain, and correct security violations and failed to implement a mechanism to encrypt and decrypt ePHI or an equivalent alternative measure for ePHI maintained on its workstations, despite having identified this lack of encryption as a risk;
  • OHSU failed to comply with its duty under HIPAA to enter into a business associate agreement with a vendor before allowing a vendor business associate to store ePHI; and
  • The absence of meaningful C-suite leadership oversight and commitment to HIPAA compliance.

Based on these investigations, OCR concluded that while OHSU initially adopted HIPAA Policies, the reported breaches were the result of a series of widespread and ongoing breaches of HIPAA resulted including the following:

  • From January 5, 2011, until July 3, 2013, OHSU disclosed the ePHI of 3,044 individuals in violation of Privacy Rules §§160.103 and 164.502(a) when workforce members disclosed the ePHI to a third party internet-based service provider without obtaining a business associate agreement or other satisfactory assurance that the internet-based service provider would safeguard the ePHI;
  • From January 5, 2011 until July 3, 2013 OHSU failed to obtain a business associate agreement from an internet-based service provider that was storing ePHI on its behalf as a business associate as required by 45 C.F.R. § 164.308(b);
  • From January 5, 2011 until July 3, 2013 OHSU failed to implement policies and procedures to prevent, detect, contain, and correct security violations as required under Privacy Rule § 164.308(a)(1)(i);
  • From July 12, 2010 to present, OHSU failed to implement a mechanism to encrypt and decrypt ePHI or an equivalent alternative measure for all ePHI maintained in OHSU’s enterprise as required by Privacy Rules §§ 164.312(a)(2)(iv) and 164.306(d)(3)); and
  • From May 29, 2013 until July 3, 2013, OHSU failed to implement policies and procedures to address security incidents in violation of Privacy Rule § 164.308(a)(6)(i).

According to statements made by OCR Director Jocelyn Samuels in OCR’s announcement of the OHSU Settlement, the breaches should not have happened.  “From well-publicized large scale breaches and findings in their own risk analyses, OHSU had every opportunity to address security management processes that were insufficient,” said OCR Director Jocelyn Samuels.  OCR’s announcement also signals that OCR views inadequate commitment and oversight by OHSU’s senior management to have played a key role in the creation and perpetuation of the OHSU violations.  It quotes OCR Director Jocelyn Samuels  as stating,  “This settlement underscores the importance of leadership engagement and why it is so critical for the C-suite to take HIPAA compliance seriously.”

OCR’s announcement of the OHSU Settlement emphasizes its determination that a lack of commitment and oversight by C-level management resulted in the failure by OHSU to periodically perform a comprehensive enterprise risk analysis and to reevaluate and update that analysis and its policies, practices, procedures and training as warranted by changing events and guidance.

To resolve the HIPAA charges, the OHSU Settlement requires OHSU to pay OCR $2,700,000 as well as take a long series of corrective actions detailed in the Corrective Action Plan incorporated into the Settlement Agreement.  The requirements of the Corrective Action Plan both seek to address the specific weaknesses that lead to the breaches of unsecured ePHI reported by OHSU in its breach notifications as well as the broader deficiencies in OHSU’s overall HIPAA compliance practice by requiring among other things that OHSU:

  • Conduct an accurate and thorough assessment of the potential risks and vulnerabilities to the confidentiality, integrity, and availability of ePHI at all OHSU facilities and on all systems, networks, and devices that create, receive, maintain, or transmit ePHI;.
  • Develop and present to OCR for approval a comprehensive written risk management plan that explains OHSU’s strategy for implementing security measures sufficient to reduce the risks and vulnerabilities identified in the risk analysis to a reasonable and appropriate level based on OHSU’s circumstances as well as a comprehensive, enterprise-wide plan to implement effective oversight of OHSU workforce members to ensure their adherence to HIPAA Rules and OHSU’s internal privacy and security policies and procedures with specific timelines for their expected completion and compensating controls identified in the interim to safeguard OHSU’s ePHI;
  • Implement and administer the written risk management plan and other safeguards as approved by OCR;
  • Provide updates to OCR about OHSU’s implementation of required encryption including a Mobile Device Management (MDM) solution that ensures all OHSU- owned and personally-owned mobile devices (tablets, smart phones, and other mobile devices) that access ePHI on OHSU’s secure network are encrypted other than mobile devices for which OHSU has granted exceptions based on documented evidence of the implementation of alternative reasonable compensating controls to protect the ePHI on such devices;
  • Report to OCR on OHSU’s efforts to a solution to enforce encryption of ePHI on OHSU-owned and personally- owned devices (laptops, desktops, and medical equipment) connecting to OHSU’s secure wired and wireless networks except for any devices for which OHSU has granted exceptions to the encryption requirement;
  • Report to OCR about its implementation of policies that prohibit the transfer of data containing ePHI from OHSU-owned and personally-owned devices to unencrypted removable storage devices (USB drives and portable hard drives) and implementation of a technical solution that enforces the policies prohibiting transfers of this type when attached to the OHSU secure network, except for any removable storage devices for which OHSU has granted exceptions based on documented evidence of reasonable compensating controls that have been implemented to protect the ePHI on such devices;
  • Send a communication to all members of the OHSU community describing its commitment to enterprise encryption;
  • Prepare to the satisfaction of OCR security awareness training materials needed to implement its security management processing including specific privacy and security awareness related to a) use of internet-based information storage services; b) disclosures to third party entities that require a business associate agreement or other reasonable assurance in place to ensure that the business associate will safeguard the protected health information (PHI) and/or ePHI; c) regarding managers, effective oversight of workforce members’ uses and disclosures of PHI, including ePHI, to ensure the workforce members’ compliance with the Privacy and Security Rules and OHSU’s internal policies and procedures; d) security incident reporting; and e) password management;
  • Initially train all workforce members with access to PHI and/or ePHI with 120 days of OCR’s approval of the training and thereafter ensure that new workforce members are trained with 15 days of hire and that all workforce members subsequently continue to receive training on an on-going basis;
  • Review the security awareness training materials annually, and, where appropriate, update the training to reflect changes in Federal law or HHS guidance, any issues discovered during audits or reviews, and any other relevant developments;
  • Management oversight and supervision of the implementation and administration of the corrective actions required by the Corrective Action Plan and HIPAA compliance; and
  • Management reporting to OCR on its actions and compliance with the Corrective Action Plan.

SJH Settlement

Similarly, the SJH Settlement OCR announced on October 18, 2016 with St. Joseph Health (SJH) requires SJH to pay  a $2.4 million plus settlement payment, conduct an enterprise-wide risk analysis and implement and administer a comprehensive correction plan to settle OCR charges that SJH violated HIPAA by allowing files containing ePHI of 31,800 individuals that SJH created for its participation in the Medicare meaningful use program to be publicly accessible on the internet from February 1, 2011, until February 13, 2012.

A nonprofit integrated Catholic health care delivery system sponsored by the St. Joseph Health Ministry, who through its 24,000 employees and 6,000 physicians provides a range of health care services to more than 137,000 inpatients and 3.6 million outpatients each year at SHS’ 4 acute care hospitals, home health agencies, hospice care, outpatient services, skilled nursing facilities, community clinics and physician organizations located throughout California and in parts of Texas and New Mexico.

OCR’s charges against SJH arose out of OCR’s investigation into a 2012 breach notification report SJS filed with OCR.  On February 14, 2012, SJH reported to OCR that files containing electronic protected health information (ePHI) of 31,800 individuals from five of the SJH hospitals-St. Jude Medical Center, Mission Hospital, Queen of the Valley Medical Center, Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital, and Petaluma Valley Hospital that SJH created for its participation in the meaningful use program were publicly accessible on the internet from February 1, 2011, until February 13, 2012, via Google and possibly other internet search engines.

SJH’s report to OCR indicated that this public access resulted from a configuration within its network server in which PDF files containing following patient information were uploaded: patient names; BMI; blood pressure; lab results; smoking status; diagnoses lists; medication allergies; advance directive status and demographic information (language, ethnicity, race, sex, and birth date). The server SJH purchased to store the files included a file sharing application whose default settings allowed anyone with an internet connection to access them. Upon implementation of this server and the file sharing application, SJH did not examine or modify it. As a result, the public had unrestricted access to PDF files containing the ePHI of 31,800 individuals, including patient names, health statuses, diagnoses, and demographic information  from February 14, 2012 until SJH blocked external access to the ePHI when it shut down the application February 13, 2012.

OCR’s investigation indicated the following potential violations of the HIPAA Rules:

  • From February 1, 2011 to February 13, 2012, SJH potentially disclosed the PHI of 31,800 individuals;
  • Evidence indicated that SJH failed to conduct an evaluation in response to the environmental and operational changes presented by implementation of a new server for its meaningful use project, thereby compromising the security of ePHI;
  • Although SJH hired a number of contractors to assess the risks and vulnerabilities to the confidentiality, integrity and availability of ePHI held by SJH, evidence indicated that this was conducted in a patchwork fashion and did not result in an enterprise-wide risk analysis, as required by the HIPAA Security Rule.

To resolve charges resulting from these findings, the SJH Resolution Agreement requires SJH to pay OCR a $2,140,500 settlement payment and adopt a comprehensive corrective action plan which among other things, requires SJH to conduct an enterprise-wide risk analysis, develop and implement a risk management plan, revise its policies and procedures, and train its staff on these policies and procedures.  SJH’s Chief Executive Officer, Annette M. Walker, is named in the Corrective Action Plan as the SJH authorized representative and contact person responsible for overseeing the CAP implementation.

Among other things, the Corrective Action Plan specifically requires that SJH:

  • Within 240 days, conduct an enterprise-wide analysis and provide a report to OCR which includes a complete inventory of all electronic equipment, data systems, and applications that contain or store ePHI, and prepare and deliver to OCR for review an enterprise-wide risk analysis that identifies all security risks and vulnerabilities that incorporates all electronic equipment, data systems, and applications controlled, administered, or owned by SJH, its workforce members, and affiliated staff that contains, stores, transmits, or receives electronic protected health information (ePHJ);
  • Revise this risk analysis plan as directed by OCR based on its review of the presented risk analysis;
  • Develop and implement to the satisfaction of OCR an organization-wide risk management plan to address and mitigate any security risks and vulnerabilities identified in the risk analysis;
  • Distribute the risk management plan as finally approved by OCR to to workforce members involved with implementation of the plan within 30 days of OCR approval;
  • Revise to OCR’s satisfaction, adopt and implement within 30 days of OCR’s approval compliant HIPAA policies and procedures;
  • Prepare for review of OCR training materials and once approved by OCR, provide initial training to required workforce members, and obtain certification of completion of that training from each required workforce member within 60 days of OCR’s approval of the training and thereafter at least annually as long as the Corrective Action Plan remains in force;
  • Promptly conduct a documented investigation of any information indicating a potential workforce member violation of the new HIPAA policies in the manner required by OCR and if the investigation confirms a violation (Reportable Event), notify OCR of the relevant facts, findings, corrective actions and sanctions imposed against the violating workforce member in the manner required by the Corrective Action Plan;
  • Submit annual report to OCR signed and attested to by an SJH officer, which contains the information and attestations of compliance with the requirements of the Corrective Action Plan in accordance with the Corrective Action Plan;
  • Retain for inspection and copying and provide to OCR upon request all documents and records relating to compliance with this Corrective Action Plan for six (6) years from the Effective Date of the SJH Settlement Agreement.

Take Away For Other Covered Entities & Business Associates

The OHSU and SJH Settlement Agreements send a clear message to all Covered Entities and business associates that they must be prepared to demonstrate not only that their initial adoption and implementation of required HIPAA Privacy and Security policies and safeguards, but also that their organization’s leadership needs to be prepared to demonstrate their commitment to HIPAA compliance by making adequate provision for HIPAA compliance, and appropriately monitoring developments that could impact the adequacy of their existing measures and timely update their systems and security, policies, procedures, training and other relevant safeguards.

The Settlements make clear that Covered Entities and their business associates should ensure that their organization possesses a well-documented current enterprise-wide risk assessment, as well as has in place and is administering as necessary to maintain the currency and adequacy of its risk assessment strong practices for conducting documented evaluations of their own HIPAA security, policies, practices, audits and investigations and other procedures necessary to comply with HIPAA, taking into account recent OCR guidance,  its initiation of its Phase II audit program, the insights offered by OCR’s ever growing list of enforcement actions and compliance tools, as well as changes in systems, documentation, software, equipment or other occurrences within the operations of the Covered Entity or business associate’s operations that could impact the currency and adequacy of its risk assessment or otherwise raise compliance risks.

In this respect, Covered Entities and business associates are encouraged to take special note of the advisability of specifically reviewing and updating their HIPAA policies, practices, business associate agreements, training, oversight and documentation to in response to the guidance and insight that OCR provides, including:

Employer and other health plan sponsors, health plan fiduciaries and business associates, and their service providers also generally will want to consider their responsibilities to provide and enforce employer certifications, as well as the fiduciary obligations health plan fiduciaries under the fiduciary responsibility rules of the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA). Among other things, wrongful disclosure of PHI to a sponsoring employer or others could violate HIPAA or other plan terms.  Furthermore, Department of Labor officials have indicated stated that a fiduciary’s general fiduciary responsibilities can apply to the protection and administration of PHI and other health plan information as well as create a duty by a responsible fiduciary to prudently investigate and take steps to address breaches or other potential concerns that place PHI at risk.  See, HIPAA Settlement Warns Health Plans, Sponsoring Employers & Business Associates To Manage HIPAA Risks.

Furthermore, as breaches of PHI and other violations of HIPAA also frequently give rise to responsibilities or risks under a broad range of other federal and state laws medical and financial privacy and data security, Medicare and other terms of federal program participation, medical credentialing, licensure and ethics, insurance and Employee Retirement Income Security Act fiduciary responsibilities in the case of health plans, contractual,  tort and other exposures, Covered Entities and their business associates also generally are best served to take into account these other responsibilities and exposures in conjunction with the design and administration of their HIPAA compliance and risk management policies and practices.

Covered Entities and their business associates also should seek advice from legal counsel regarding the adequacy of their compliance, investigatory, training, management oversight, training, reporting, documentation, document retention and other processes and procedures that could reduce risks of HIPAA violations and position the organization to effectively and more efficiently respond to a potential breach, audit, investigation or enforcement action and mitigate the costs and potential liability exposures that increasingly attends these events.  In addition, given the typically high financial, operational and legal costs typically incurred to conduct investigations, report and redress breaches, and respond to OCR audits or investigations, much less make any payments and implement any corrective actions required to settle OCR changes, most Covered Entities and their business associations will want to consider the advisability and adequacy of insurance and other sources of funding or indemnification for the often substantial costs that often attend a HIPAA breach, audit or enforcement event. Since HIPAA violations under certain circumstances also can give rise to felony criminal liability, boards of directors and other leaders of Covered Entities and business associates also will want to ensure that their HIPAA compliance policies and practices also are incorporated and monitored by management as part of their organization’s overall Federal Sentencing Guideline Compliance programs and practices.

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 and management consultant, author, public policy advocate and lecturer widely known for work, teachings and publications on HIPAA and other privacy and data security concerns earned in connection with her more than 28 years’ of involvement advising and representing business and government clients domestically and internationally about workforce and human resources, employee benefits; health care; insurance and financial; privacy and data security and other performance management, regulatory, internal controls and other compliance, risk management, public policy and operational other key concerns.

Board Certified in Labor & Employment Law by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization, a Fellow in the American College of Employee Benefit Counsel, past Group Chair and current Defined Contribution Plans Committee Co-Chair, Groups and Substantive Committee and Membership Committee Members, past Welfare Plans Committee Chair and Co-Chair, and former Fiduciary Responsibility Vice Chair of the American Bar Association (ABA) RPTE Section Employee Benefits Group, Vice Chair of the ABA Tort & Insurance Practice Section Employee Benefits Committee, current ABA International Section Life Sciences Committee Vice Chair, past Chair of the ABA Health Law Section Managed Care & Insurance Interest Group, former ABA Joint Committee on Employee Benefits Council Representative and Marketing Committee Chair and a prolific author and highly popular speaker and consultant, Ms. Stamer helps management manage.

Ms. Stamer’s legal and management consulting work throughout her nearly 30-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, internal controls and regulatory compliance, change management and other performance and operations management 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.

As a core component of her work,  Ms. Stamer has worked extensively throughout her career with health care providers, health plans, health care clearinghouses, their business associates, employers, banks and other financial institutions, their technology and other vendors and service providers, and others on legal and operational risk management and compliance with HIPAA, FACTA, PCI, trade secret, physician and other medical confidentiality and privacy, federal and state data security and data breach and other information privacy and data security rules and concerns; prevention, investigation, response, mitigation and resolution of known or suspected data or privacy breaches or other incidents; defending investigations or other actions by plaintiffs, OCR, FTC, state attorneys’ general and other federal or state agencies; reporting and redressing known or suspected breaches or other violations; business associate and other contracting; insurance or other liability management and allocation; process and product development, contracting, deployment and defense; evaluation, commenting or seeking modification of regulatory guidance, and other regulatory and public policy advocacy; training and discipline; enforcement, and a host of other related concerns for public and private health care providers, health insurers, health plans, technology and other vendors, employers, and others.

Beyond her extensive involvement advising and representing clients on privacy and data security concerns and other health industry matters, Ms. Stamer also has served for several years as a scrivener for the ABA JCEB’s meeting with OCR, the Chair of the Southern California ISSA Health Care Privacy & Security Summit, and an editorial advisory board member, author, program chair or steering committee member, and faculties for a multitude of other programs and publications regarding privacy, data security, technology and other compliance, risk management and operational concerns in the health care, health and other insurance, employee benefits and human resources, retail, financial services and other arenas.

A Fellow in the American College of Employee Benefit Counsel, the American Bar Foundation and the Texas Bar Foundation, Ms. Stamer also shares shared her thought leadership, experience and advocacy on HIPAA and other concerns by her service in the leadership of a broad range of other professional and civic organization including her involvement as the Vice Chair of the North Texas Healthcare Compliance Association, Executive Director of the Coalition on Responsible Health Policy and its PROJECT COPE: Coalition on Patient Empowerment, a founding Board Member and past President of the Alliance for Healthcare Excellence, past Board Member and Board Compliance Committee Chair for the National Kidney Foundation of North Texas; former Board President of the early childhood development intervention agency, The Richardson Development Center for Children; former Board Compliance Chair and Board member of the National Kidney Foundation of North Texas, current Vice Chair of the ABA Tort & Insurance Practice Section Employee Benefits Committee, current Vice Chair of Policy for the Life Sciences Committee of the ABA International Section, Past Chair of the ABA Health Law Section Managed Care & Insurance Section, a current Defined Contribution Plan Committee Co-Chair, former Group Chair and Co-Chair of the ABA RPTE Section Employee Benefits Group, immediate past RPTE Representative to ABA Joint Committee on Employee Benefits Council Representative and current RPTE Representative to the ABA Health Law Coordinating Council, former Coordinator and a Vice-Chair of the Gulf Coast TEGE Council TE Division, past Chair of the Dallas Bar Association Employee Benefits & Executive Compensation Committee, a former member of the Board of Directors of the Southwest Benefits Association and others.

Ms. Stamer also is a highly popular lecturer, symposia chair and author, who publishes and speaks extensively on health and managed care industry, human resources, employment and other privacy, data security and other technology, regulatory and operational risk management. Examples of her many highly regarded publications on these matters include “Protecting & Using Patient Data In Disease Management: Opportunities, Liabilities And Prescriptions,” “Privacy Invasions of Medical Care-An Emerging Perspective,” “Cybercrime and Identity Theft: Health Information Security: Beyond HIPAA,” as well as thousands of other publications, programs and workshops these and other concerns for the American Bar Association, ALI-ABA, American Health Lawyers, Society of Human Resources Professionals, the Southwest Benefits Association, the Society of Employee Benefits Administrators, the American Law Institute, Lexis-Nexis, Atlantic Information Services, The Bureau of National Affairs (BNA), InsuranceThoughtLeaders.com, Benefits Magazine, Employee Benefit News, Texas CEO Magazine, HealthLeaders, the HCCA, ISSA, HIMSS, Modern Healthcare, Managed Healthcare, Institute of Internal Auditors, Society of CPAs, 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 symposia and 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 and speaks and conducts training for a broad range of professional organizations and for clientson the Advisory Boards of InsuranceThoughtLeadership.com, HR.com, Employee Benefit News, and many other publications. For additional information about Ms. Stamer, see CynthiaStamer.com  or contact Ms. Stamer via email here or via telephone to (469) 767-8872.

About Solutions Law Press, Inc.™

Solutions Law Press, Inc.™ provides human resources and employee benefit and other business risk management, legal compliance, management effectiveness and other coaching, tools and other resources, training and education on leadership, governance, 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, Inc.™ resources at http://www.solutionslawpress.com such as:

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©2016 Cynthia Marcotte Stamer. Non-exclusive right to republish granted to Solutions Law Press, Inc.™  All other rights reserved.  


ERISA Violations Cost More Now

October 19, 2016

ERISA Civil Penalties For Employers, Fiduciaries & Plan Administrators Rose August 1

Employer and other employee benefit plan sponsors, fiduciaries and administrators required by the Department of Labor Employee Benefit Security Administration (EBSA) to pay a civil monetary penalty for a post-November 2, 2015 violation of the employee benefit related obligations of the  Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA) should expect to pay more if EBSA assesses the penalty after August 1, 2016.

In 2015, Congress passed the Federal Civil Penalties Inflation Adjustment Act Improvements Act, which requires the Department of Labor (DOL) and other agencies adjust their penalties for inflation each year.  In response to this mandate, the DOL has published two interim final rules to adjust its penalties for inflation effective August 1:

Both rules define rules that DOL plans to use to apply the 2015 Inflation Adjustment Act’s formula on how to determine the proper adjustment for each penalty effective August 1, 2016 to civil penalties that DOL can access against employers for violations.

The new method will adjust penalties for inflation, though the amount of the increase is capped at 150 percent of the existing penalty amount. The baseline is the last increase other than for inflation. The following chart shows the new civil penalty amounts assessable by EBSA after August 1, 2016 for post November 2, 2015 ERISA violations.

ERISA Civil Monetary Penalties

Effective 8/16/2016

The Federal Civil Penalties Inflation Adjustment Act Improvements Act of 2015 requires federal agencies to increase the amounts of civil monetary penalties annually for inflation. The new penalties under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (ERISA) shown below took effect August 16, 2016 and apply to a penalty assessed after August 1, 2016 that relates to a violation that occurred after November 2, 2015.

Offending Party Action in Question ERISA Section Penalty

As of August 15, 2016

Penalty Effective August 16, 2016
Employer  

Failure to maintain records or furnish information sufficient to determine benefits

209(b) $11 per employee $28 per employee
Plan administrator  

Failure/refusal to file annual report (Form 5500) with DOL

502(c)(2) $1,100 per day $2,063 per day
Administrator of multiemployer plan  

Failure to certify endangered or critical (funding) status

 

502(c)(2) $1,100 per day $2,063 per day
Single-employer defined benefit plan  

Failure to provide notice of funding-based limit on certain forms of distribution

101(j) and 502(c)(4) $1,000 per day $1,632 per day
Administrator of multiemployer plan  

Failure to provide financial and actuarial reports on written request

101(k) and 502(c)(4) $1,000 per day $1,632 per day
Sponsor/Administrator of multiemployer plan  

Failure to provide timely estimate of withdrawal liability upon request

101(l) and 502(c)(4) $1,000 per day $1,632 per day
Administrator of 401(k) plan with automatic contribution arrangement  

Failure to provide notice to participants of their rights and obligations under the arrangement before the start of the plan year

514(e)(3) and 502(c)(4) $1,000 per day $1,632 per day
Multiple employer welfare arrangement (MEWA)  

Failure/refusal to meet applicable reporting and disclosure requirements

502(c)(5) $1,100 per day $1,502 per day
Plan administrator  

Failure to provide benefit plan information (including SPD) to DOL

502(c)(6) $110 per day; capped at $1,100 per request $147 per day; capped at $1,472 per request
Administrator of defined contribution plan with participant-directed investments  

Failure/refusal to provide participants and beneficiaries with “blackout” notice or notice of right to divest employer securities

502(c)(7) $100 per day per required recipient $131 per day per required recipient
Underfunded multiemployer pension plan  

Failure to timely adopt a funding improvement or rehabilitation plan or to  meet benchmarks by the end of the improvement period

502(c)(8) $1,100 per day $1,296 per day
Employer  

Failure to disclose group health plan benefits to states re Medicaid/CHIP eligible individuals

502(c)(9) $100 per employee per day $110 per employee per day
Employer  

Failure to provide employees with written notice of opportunities for state-provided premium assistance for health coverage

502(c)(9) $100 per employee per day $110 per employee per day
 

Group health plan or plan’s health insurance issuer

 

Failure to follow genetic information protocols

502(c)(10) $100 per participant per day $110 per participant per day
Group health plan or plan’s health insurance issuer  

Failure to follow genetic information protocols, where de minimis failure is not corrected before plan receives notice of violation from DOL

502(c)(10) Minimum penalty is $2,500 Minimum penalty is $2,745
Group health plan or plan’s health insurance issuer  

Failure to follow genetic information protocols, where violation is more than de minimis

502(c)(10) Minimum penalty is $15,000 Minimum penalty is $16,473
Group health plan or plan’s health insurance issuer  

Failure to follow genetic information protocols due to reasonable cause, not willful neglect

502(c)(10) Maximum  penalty is $500,000 Maximum penalty is $549,095
Plan fiduciary Making improper distribution 502(m) $10,000 per improper distribution $15,909 per improper distribution
Group health plan  

Willful failure to provide summary of benefits coverage to participant or beneficiary

715 and new Labor Reg. §2575.2(m) $1,000 per failure $1,087 per failure
 

Sponsor of Cooperative and Small Employer Charity (CSEC) plan

 

Failure to establish or update a funding restoration plan

502(c)(12) $100 per day $100 per day (no change)

The civil penalty increase provides yet another reason for employer and other plan sponsors,. fiduciaries and administrators to strive to prevent ERISA violations.

About The Author

Cynthia Marcotte Stamer is a noted Texas-based management lawyer and consultant, author, lecture and policy advocate, recognized for her nearly 30-years of cutting edge management work as among the “Top Rated Labor & Employment Lawyers in Texas” by LexisNexis® Martindale-Hubbell® and as among the “Best Lawyers In Dallas” for her work in the field of “Tax: Erisa & Employee Benefits” and “Health Care” by D Magazine.

Board Certified in Labor & Employment Law by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization, a Fellow in the American College of Employee Benefit Counsel, past Chair and current 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, a former ABA Joint Committee on Employee Benefits Council Representative and , Ms. Stamer helps management manage.

Ms. Stamer’s legal and management consulting work throughout her nearly 30-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, internal controls and regulatory compliance, change management and other performance and operations management 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. Common engagements include internal and external workforce hiring, management, training, performance management, compliance and administration, discipline and termination, and other aspects of workforce management including employment and outsourced services contracting and enforcement, sentencing guidelines and other compliance plan, policy and program development, administration, and defense, performance management, wage and hour and other compensation and benefits, reengineering and other change management, internal controls, compliance and risk management, communications and training, worker classification, tax and payroll, investigations, crisis preparedness and response, government relations, safety, government contracting and audits, litigation and other enforcement, and other concerns.

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, expat 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. As a key element of this work, 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.
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, Ms. Stamer annually leads the Joint Committee on Employee Benefits (JCEB) HHS Office of Civil Rights agency meeting and other JCEB agency meetings. 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 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 serves on the Advisory Boards of InsuranceThoughtLeadership.com, HR.com, Employee Benefit News, and as an editorial advisor and contributing author of many other publications. Her leadership involvements with the American Bar Association (ABA) include year’s serving many years as a Joint Committee on Employee Benefits Council representative; ABA RPTE Section current Practice Management Vice Chair and Substantive Groups & Committees Committee Member, RPTE Employee Benefits & Other Compensation Committee Past Group Chair and Diversity Award Recipient, current Defined Contribution Plans Committee Co-Chair, and past Welfare Benefit Plans Committee Chair Co-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; International Section Life Sciences Committee Policy Vice Chair; and a speaker, contributing author, comment chair and contributor to numerous Labor, Tax, RPTE, Health Law, TIPS, International and other Section publications, programs and task forces. Other selected service involvements of note include Vice President of the North Texas Healthcare Compliance Professionals Association; past EO Coordinator and a Vice-Chair of the Gulf Coast TEGE Council TE Division; 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 former Southwest Benefits Association Board of Directors member, Continuing Education Chair and Treasurer; former Texas Association of Business BACPAC Committee Member, Executive Committee member, Regional Chair and Dallas Chapter Chair; former Society of Human Resources Region 4 Chair and Consultants Forum Board Member and Dallas HR Public Policy Committee Chair; former National Board Member and Dallas Chapter President of Web Network of Benefit Professionals; former Dallas Business League President and others. For additional information about Ms. Stamer, seeCynthiaStamer.com or contact Ms. Stamer via email here or via telephone to (469) 767-8872.

About Solutions Law Press, Inc.™

Solutions Law Press, Inc.™ provides human resources and employee benefit and other business risk management, legal compliance, management effectiveness and other coaching, tools and other resources, training and education on leadership, governance, human resources, employee benefits, data security and privacy, insurance, health care and other key compliance, risk management, internal control and operational concerns. If you find this of interest, you also be interested reviewing some of our other Solutions Law Press, Inc.™ resources at Solutionslawpress.com including:

  • OFCCP Ups Government Contractor Vet Hiring Targets
  • Average American Family 2016 Healthcare
  • Brace For OCR HIPAA Audits
  • Health Plans Disclosing Data To State All Payer Data Banks Face HIPAA Risks
  • Confirm Copy Charges Comply With New HIPAA Guidance
  • Frontier Says “Conversion Issues” for
  • Obama Offers Grants To States To Boost Paid Leave Availability With State Grants
  • Business Associate Rule Violations Behind $750K HIPAA Settlement
  • Final Investment Advice Fiduciary Rules Mean Work For Employers, Fiduciaries & Advisors
  • Employers, Insurers & TPAS: Budget Time, $ For 2017 Summary of Benefits and Coverage Updates
  • Expect New Fed Regs To Increase Childcare Costs
  • OSHA Raises Silica Safety Requirements
  • DOL “Persuader Rule” Changes Broaden Employer & Consultant Anti-Union Contract Disclosure Duties
  • Check Health Plan Privacy For New Guidance Compliance
  • Marketplace Data Deficiencies Signal Employer ACA Headaches
  • SCOTUS: States Can’t Require Reporting of ERISA Health Plan Data
  • IRS OK’s Skipping Certain 2015 Form 5500 Questions
  • DOL Proposes Changes To Summary of Benefit & Coverage Rules
  • More proof government should stay out of healthcare
  • Health Care Quality: Different Meaning For Care Vs. Coverage
  • IRS Changes Plan Qualification Procedures, Returns, Other Procedures
  • Remember Microsoft: The Need for Effective Risk Management as to Contract Employees
  • Obama Administration Proposes Rules Giving Jobseeker Equal Opportunity Protections
  • Health Benefit Still Top Employer Benefit Cost
  • S. Businesses & Their Leaders Face Rising FLSA Collective Action Liability Risks
  • Improve HR Value To Company By Making HR A Performance Rather Than People Department
  • Sponsoring Employers Face Excise Taxes, Other Liabilities Unless Health Plans Comply With ACA Out-Of-Pocket & Other Federal Rules
  • Legal Review Of Health Plan Documents, Processes Needed To Mitigate Employer’s Excise Tax & Other Health Plan Risks
  • EEOC ADA Suit Against Magnolia Health Highlights US Employer’s Growing Disability Discrimination Risks
  • Proposed OSHA Regs Will Clarify Employer’s Continuing Duty To Ensure OSHA 300 Log Completeness
  • 10 Practical Pointers To Use Law To Better Strengthen The Legal Defensibility Of Your Business & Its Leaders

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. ©2016 Cynthia Marcotte Stamer. Non-exclusive right to republish granted to Solutions Law Press, Inc. ™. All other rights reserved.


Criminal Conviction Of Plan Trustee, Outside Legal Counsel Shows Risks of Retaliating Against Whistleblowers For Reporting ERISA Violations

August 1, 2016

The U.S. Department of Labor’s just announced successful whistleblower prosecution in Perez v. Scott Brain, et al of an employee benefit plan trustee, and an individual lawyer and her law firm that served as the employee benefit plan’s outside legal counsel of violating the fiduciary responsibility and whistleblower rules of the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (ERISA) illustrates why employee benefit plan sponsors, trustees or other fiduciaries, their management, legal counsel, auditors and other service providers must both prudently investigate whistleblower allegations or other evidence of potential wrongdoing involving their employee benefit plans and resist the temptation to retaliate against employees or others for reporting or cooperating in the investigation of alleged improprieties involving an employee benefit plan.

The Brain decision highlights the care that employee benefit plan sponsors, fiduciaries, advisors and service providers and their management must use when responding to allegations or other evidence of wrongdoing relating to an employee benefit plan or its administration, investigating and addressing alleged misconduct or other performance or disciplinary concerns involving parties whose report or involvement in investigations of ERISA or other misconduct could form the basis of a potential ERISA 510 or other retaliation complaint.

The decision also makes clear that outside legal counsel advising an employee benefit plan or its fiduciaries in relation to the investigation or response to charges of ERISA misconduct involving an employee benefit plan must use care to avoid actions that could render them liable for participation in acts of illegal retaliation, violating their duty of loyalty to the plan by allowing themselves to become involved in a conflict of interest when investigating or defending potential wrongdoing involving an employee benefit plan, or engaging in other discretionary actions that could constitute a breach of fiduciary duty in violation of ERISA.

In Perez v. Scott Brain, et al., the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California ruled that Cement Masons Southern California Trust Fund’s trustee and Cement Masons Local 600 business manager, Scott Brain (Brain) and outside trust fund legal counsel, Melissa Cook, violated sections 510 and 404 of ERISA by causing the firing a trust fund employee Cheryle Robbins (Robbins) and an employee of the plan’s third party administrator, Cory Rice (Rice), in retaliation for their involvement in filing an internal complaint about and cooperating with the Labor Department’s Employee Benefit Security Administration’s federal criminal investigation of reports of Brain’s wrongful interference as a trustee with collections and contributions from unionized employers.

In 2011, Robbins, director of the trust funds’ audit and collections department, responded to a federal criminal investigation into Brain’s activities with contractors. The same year, she and Rice, who worked for the third-party administrator to the trust fund, American Benefit Plan Administrators, now, Zenith American Solutions (Zenith), participated in an effort to complain about Brain’s interference with efforts to collect delinquent contributions from contractors. Within weeks of this conduct, Robbins was suspended from her employment with the trust fund. Less than six months later, both Robbins and Rice were fired.

The court’s 71-page decision chronicles the coordinated retaliatory campaign orchestrated by Brain and Cook that led to Robbins’ suspension and firing by the employee benefit plan as well as the termination of Cook by his employer, Zenith..

With respect to Robbins’ suspension, the court found that the evidence showed Brain and Cook “were very upset with Robbins due to her contact with the [Department of Labor],” and that Brain and Cook “used their positions and influence to cause the other trustees to vote in favor of” suspending Robbins. To do so, the court explained, Brain and Cook “took the lead at the . . . [b]oard meeting with respect to the discussion of Robbins’ contact with the [Department of Labor]” and “created an environment that was hostile to her,” which “caused the trustees to vote to place her on leave.” The court noted that the two “‘set in motion’ the decision by the Joint Board to put Robbins on leave [.]”

As for Rice’s firing, the court explained how Brain and Cook retaliated against Rice by pressuring his employer, Zenith, into firing Rice and manipulating the Zenith relationship to deter Zenith from rehiring Rice in retaliation for his involvement in efforts to make an internal complaint about Brain.

Based upon evidence introduced during a five-day trial, the District Court ruled that Brain, Cook and Cook’s law firm violated ERISA section 510 by suspending and then discharging Robbins, and causing Zenith to refuse to hire Robbins and to discharge Rice in retaliation for their participation in reporting Brian’s misconduct to the General President of the Operative Plasterers’ and Cement Masons’ International Association and because Robbins participated in a federal criminal investigation of Brain.  Specifically, the District Court ruled:

  • Brain, Cook and Cook’s law firm wrongfully retaliated against Robbins in violation of ERISA 510 for her communications with the DOL by placing her on administrative leave; causing the work performed by the department that Robbins previously managed to be outsourced to Zenith and by causing Zenith not to hire Robbins to participate in its work;
  • Brain, Cook and Cook’s law firm wrongfully retaliated against Rice in violation of ERISA 510 by causing Zenith to terminate Cook;
  • Brain breached his fiduciary duty under ERISA 404 by retaliating against Robbins and causing her to be placed on administrative leave and that Cook knowingly participated in that breach.

The court held that Brain and Cook’s retaliatory conduct violated section 510 of ERISA, which prohibits retaliation against whistleblowers for complaining of ERISA violations or cooperating with a governmental investigation of such violations. The court also held that the couple’s retaliation against Robbins breached Brain’s fiduciary duties under ERISA section 404 to the trust funds and that Cook participated knowingly in that breach.

In reaching its decision, the court rejected attorney Cook’s argument that she was somehow immunized from her unlawful conduct because she was an attorney to the trust funds.  Among other things, the court noted the “apparent conflict of interest” Cook had in representing the trust funds while being in an undisclosed “romantic relationship” with Brain, which existed as defendants carried out their retaliatory scheme. Reminding lawyers of their ethical duties in California, the court cited California Rule of Professional Conduct 3-310(B), which the court explained “requires that an attorney disclose to a client any personal relationship or interest that he or she knows, or with the exercise of reasonable diligence should know, could substantially affect her his or her professional judgment in advising the client.”

As punishing for these criminal violations of ERISA, the District Court ordered the permanent removal of Brain as a trustee. It also ordered the permanent barring of Brain, Cook and her law firm from serving the Cement Masons Southern California Trust Funds. In addition, the court ordered Cook and her law firm to repay all attorneys’ fees she billed the trust funds for the actions she took in retaliating against whistleblowers Robbins and Rice.  These criminal sanctions were in addition to the $630,000 civil damage award that the Labor Department previously secured in lost wages and damages for Robbins, Rice and another worker victimized by Brain and Cook in August 2015.

In addition to its successful prosecution of Brain, Cook and Cook’s law firm on these charges, the DOL also had sought, but failed to convince the District Court based on the evidence presented at trial to find Brain, Cook, Cook’s law firm and Brain’s fellow trust fund trustee Local 600 business agent and Joint Board of Trustees member Jaime Briceno guilty of wrongful retaliation against another alleged whistleblower or Briceno of breaching his fiduciary duties under ERISA by failing to prudently investigate Robbins’ allegations against Brain; or by voting to use assets of the Trust Funds to pay the cost of the settlement of the civil action brought by Robbins. The District Court also refused to consider a newly raised charge that Brain breached his fiduciary duty by failing to collect all monies owed to the Trust Funds on the grounds that the Labor Department had failed to timely raise the charge. While the court refused to convict Briceno, Brain, Cook or Cook’s law firm on the additional charges, the Labor Department’s prosecution of these claims illustrates that along with abstaining from retaliating against ERISA whistleblowers, employee benefit plan fiduciaries also should position themselves to defend against potential breach of fiduciary duty claims based on alleged inadequacies in their investigation or response to reports or other evidence of misconduct involving the plan by prudently investigating and acting to redress allegations or other evidence of potential wrongdoing in the administration of employee benefit plans or their assets.

About The Author

A Fellow in the American College of Employee Benefit Counsel, the American Bar Foundation and the Texas Bar Foundation, Board Certified in Labor & Employment Law by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization, the author of this update, attorney Cynthia Marcotte Stamer, is AV-Preeminent (the highest) rated attorney repeatedly recognized as a Martindale-Hubble as a “LEGAL LEADER™” and “Texas Top Rated Lawyer” in Health Care Law, Labor and Employment Law, and Business & Commercial Law and among the “Best Lawyers In Dallas” in ERISA, Labor and Employment and Healthcare Law by D Magazine for her nearly 30 years of experience and knowledge representing and advising employers, employee benefit plans, their sponsors, fiduciaries, service providers and vendors and others on these and other planning, business transaction and contracting, administration, compliance, risk management, audits, investigations, government and private litigation and other enforcement and other related matters.

past Chair and current 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, a former ABA Joint Committee on Employee Benefits Council Representative ,

Ms. Stamer’s legal and management consulting work throughout her nearly 30-year career has focused on helping management manage.  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,  she de[;pus jer her extensive legal and operational knowledge and experience to help organizations and their management use the law and process to manage people, process, compliance, operations and risk.

As a key part of this work, 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, internal controls and regulatory compliance, change management and other performance and operations management 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. Common engagements include internal and external workforce hiring, management, training, performance management, compliance and administration, discipline and termination, and other aspects of workforce management including employment and outsourced services contracting and enforcement, sentencing guidelines and other compliance plan, policy and program development, administration, and defense, performance management, wage and hour and other compensation and benefits, reengineering and other change management, internal controls, compliance and risk management, communications and training, worker classification, tax and payroll, investigations, crisis preparedness and response, government relations, safety, government contracting and audits, litigation and other enforcement, and other concerns.

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, expat 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. As a key element of this work, 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.

A former lead consultant to the Government of Bolivia on its Social Security reform law Ms. Stamer also is well-known for her leadership on U.S. health and pension, wage and hour, tax, workforce, tax, education, 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. 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, Ms. Stamer for many years acted as the scribe responsible for leading the Joint Committee on Employee Benefits (JCEB) HHS Office of Civil Rights annual agency meeting and regularly participates in the OCR and other JCEB annual agency meetings, and participates in the development and submission of comments and other input to the agencies on regulatory, enforcement and other concerns. 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 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 serves on the Advisory Boards of InsuranceThoughtLeadership.com, HR.com, Employee Benefit News, and as an editorial advisor and contributing author of many other publications. Her leadership involvements with the American Bar Association (ABA) include year’s serving many years as a Joint Committee on Employee Benefits Council representative; ABA RPTE Section current Practice Management Vice Chair and Substantive Groups & Committees Committee Member, RPTE Employee Benefits & Other Compensation Committee Past Group Chair and Diversity Award Recipient, current Defined Contribution Plans Committee Co-Chair, and past Welfare Benefit Plans Committee Chair Co-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; International Section Life Sciences Committee Policy Vice Chair; and a speaker, contributing author, comment chair and contributor to numerous Labor, Tax, RPTE, Health Law, TIPS, International and other Section publications, programs and task forces. Other selected service involvements of note include Vice President of the North Texas Healthcare Compliance Professionals Association; past EO Coordinator and a Vice-Chair of the Gulf Coast TEGE Council TE Division; 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 former Southwest Benefits Association Board of Directors member, Continuing Education Chair and Treasurer; former Texas Association of Business BACPAC Committee Member, Executive Committee member, Regional Chair and Dallas Chapter Chair; former Society of Human Resources Region 4 Chair and Consultants Forum Board Member and Dallas HR Public Policy Committee Chair; former National Board Member and Dallas Chapter President of Web Network of Benefit Professionals; former Dallas Business League President and others. For additional information about Ms. Stamer, see CynthiaStamer.com or contact Ms. Stamer via email here or via telephone to (469) 767-8872.

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©2016 Cynthia Marcotte Stamer, P.C. Non-exclusive license to republish granted to Solutions Law Press, Inc. All other rights reserved.

 


Health Plans Disclosing Data To State All Payer Data Banks Face HIPAA Risks

May 31, 2016

Self-insured employer or union sponsored health plans (Plans), their fiduciaries, third party administrative or other service providers, and sponsors should consult legal counsel for advice about whether their Plans might violate the Privacy Rule of the Health Insurance Portability & Accountability Act (HIPAA) by disclosing individually identifiable claims or other Plan records or data to a state “all payer” claims or other data base in response to a state law or regulation mandating those disclosures in light of the Supreme Court’s recent ruling in Gobeille v. Liberty Mutual, 136 S. Ct. 936 (2016).

Gobeille involved a challenge to a Vermont “all payer” law similar to laws enacted by at least 20 other states, that requires health plan payers, their administrators or both to disclose individually identifiable health claims and other claims data about Plan members to a state created all payer data base. The Vermont law challenged in Gobeille required health insurers and other payers to disclose treatment information about Plan members as well as other certain health care claim payment and other data to an all payer claims database, which under the law is made “available as a resource for insurers, employers, providers, purchasers of health care, and State agencies to continuously review health care utilization, expenditures, and performance in Vermont.  See Gobeille at 941.  Vermont’s law requires third party administrators of self-insured Plans and other payers to disclose the information regardless of whether the member resides or received the treatment in Vermont.

In Gobeille, the Supreme Court ruled that the preemption provisions of Section 514 of the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA) bar Vermont from requiring self-insured ERISA Plans

In addition to excusing self-insured Plans from the trouble and expense of complying with Vermont’s disclosure law, the Supreme Court’s ruling in Gobeille that Vermont cannot enforce the law against self-insured ERISA Plans raises a concern that the Privacy Rules of HIPAA may prohibit Plans from disclosing certain individually identifiable claims information.  The HIPAA compliance concern arises because the  claims information and other data that the Vermont and most other similar laws require Plans and other payers to disclose generally is or include information that qualifies as “protected health information” within the meaning of the HIPAA Privacy Rule. These laws generally are structured either to directly require self-insured Plans to disclose the claims data directly, indirectly compel the disclosure by requiring third party administrators of such Plans to disclose the claims information for Plans they administer, or both.

Under the HIPAA Privacy Rule, Plans and other HIPAA-covered entities and service providers acting as business associates of the Plans are prohibited from using or disclosing individually identifiable protected health information unless the use or disclosure is expressly authorized by the Privacy Rule. Since violations of the Privacy Rule trigger substantial civil or even criminal penalties under HIPAA, Plans, their fiduciaries, service providers acting as business associates and other members of their workforce need to verify that the disclosure meets all of the requirements to fall within an exception to the Privacy Rule’s prohibition against disclosure before allowing such a disclosure

Before Gobeille, many self-insured Plans and their administrators treated the disclosures of individually identifiable claims data of the Plans as permitted as a disclosure “required by law” Privacy § 164.512(a), which provides in relevant part:

  1. a) Standard: Uses and disclosures required by law.

 (1)  A covered entity may use or disclose protected health information to the extent that such use or disclosure is required by law and the use or disclosure complies with and is limited to the relevant requirements of such law.

 (2)  A covered entity must meet the requirements described in paragraph (c), (e), or (f) of this section for uses or disclosures required by law.

The Gobeille ruling that that the Vermont law is unenforceable against self-insured Plans appears to eliminate the availability of this exception as a basis for allowing disclosures in response to the Vermont law as well as calls into question the ability of Plans to rely upon the “required by law” exception to the Privacy Rule to justify disclosures of protected health information to state all payer data bases in response to similar requirements enacted in the other 20 states that have enacted similar mandates.  Plans that previously disclose or intend in the future to disclose protected health information to a state all payer data base in Vermont or another state generally will want to carefully document their justification, if any for making that disclosure under the Privacy Rule.

Unless the disclosure otherwise falls within another exception to the HIPAA Privacy Rule against disclosures without authorization, Plans, their sponsors, fiduciaries, third party administrators and other service providers and other members of the Plan workforce at minimum should be concerned that the HIPAA risks of disclosing protected health information in response to these state mandates after Gobeille. Plans that decide not to disclose information otherwise required by such state law requirements in light of the Gobeille ruling or HIPAA concerns may want to consult with qualified legal counsel about the steps, if any, that the Plan might want to take to document its ERISA preemption or other justifications for not providing the otherwise required disclosures.

Beyond evaluating the advisability of future disclosures in response to the Vermont or another similar all payer statute, Plans whose data previously was disclosed by the Plan or its administrator to an all payer data base under the belief that the disclosure was required by law also may want to seek the advice of qualified legal counsel about whether these prior disclosures triggered breach notification responsibilities under the Breach Notification rules of HIPAA with respect to any disclosures previously made. When electronic protected health information is used or disclosed in violation of HIPAA, the Breach Notification Rules of HIPAA generally require Plans and their business associates timely notify impacted individuals and the Department of Health & Human Services Office of Civil Rights (OCR) in accordance with the detailed requirements set forth in OCR’s implementing regulations.  Furthermore, where a breach involves 500 or more individuals, the timetable for providing notification to OCR is accelerated and the Plan also is required to provide notification to the media and others.

About The Author

Cynthia Marcotte Stamer is a noted Texas-based management lawyer and consultant, author, lecturer and policy advocate, recognized for her nearly 30-years of cutting edge management work as among the “Top Rated Labor & Employment Lawyers in Texas” by LexisNexis® Martindale-Hubbell® and as among the “Best Lawyers In Dallas” for her work in the field of “Tax: Erisa & Employee Benefits” and “Health Care” by D Magazine.

Board Certified in Labor & Employment Law by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization, a Fellow in the American College of Employee Benefit Counsel, past Chair and current 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, a former  ABA Joint Committee on Employee Benefits Council Representative and , Ms. Stamer helps management manage.

Ms. Stamer’s legal and management consulting work throughout her nearly 30-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, internal controls and regulatory compliance, change management and other performance and operations management 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. Common engagements include internal and external workforce hiring, management, training, performance management, compliance and administration, discipline and termination, and other aspects of workforce management including employment and outsourced services contracting and enforcement, sentencing guidelines and other compliance plan, policy and program development, administration, and defense, performance management, wage and hour and other compensation and benefits, reengineering and other change management, internal controls, compliance and risk management, communications and training, worker classification, tax and payroll, investigations, crisis preparedness and response, government relations, safety, government contracting and audits, litigation and other enforcement, and other concerns.

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, expat 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. As a key element of this work, 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.

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, Ms. Stamer annually leads the Joint Committee on Employee Benefits (JCEB) HHS Office of Civil Rights agency meeting and other JCEB agency meetings. 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 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 serves on the Advisory Boards of InsuranceThoughtLeadership.com, HR.com, Employee Benefit News, and as an editorial advisor and contributing author of many other publications. Her leadership involvements with the American Bar Association (ABA) include year’s serving many years as a Joint Committee on Employee Benefits Council representative; ABA RPTE Section current Practice Management Vice Chair and Substantive Groups & Committees Committee Member,  RPTE Employee Benefits & Other Compensation Committee Past Group Chair and Diversity Award Recipient,  current Defined Contribution Plans Committee Co-Chair, and  past Welfare Benefit Plans Committee Chair Co-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; International Section Life Sciences Committee Policy Vice Chair; and a speaker, contributing author, comment chair and contributor to numerous Labor, Tax, RPTE, Health Law, TIPS, International and other Section publications, programs and task forces.  Other selected service involvements of note include Vice President of the North Texas Healthcare Compliance Professionals Association; past EO Coordinator and a Vice-Chair of the Gulf Coast TEGE Council TE Division; 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 former Southwest Benefits Association Board of Directors member, Continuing Education Chair and Treasurer; former Texas Association of Business BACPAC Committee Member, Executive Committee member, Regional Chair and Dallas Chapter Chair; former Society of Human Resources Region 4 Chair and Consultants Forum Board Member and Dallas HR Public Policy Committee Chair; former National Board Member and Dallas Chapter President of Web Network of Benefit Professionals; former Dallas Business League President and others. For additional information about Ms. Stamer, see CynthiaStamer.com or contact Ms. Stamer via email here or via telephone to (469) 767-8872.

About Solutions Law Press, Inc.™

Solutions Law Press, Inc.™ provides human resources and employee benefit and other business risk management, legal compliance, management effectiveness and other coaching, tools and other resources, training and education on leadership, governance, human resources, employee benefits, data security and privacy, insurance, health care and other key compliance, risk management, internal control and operational concerns. If you find this of interest, you also be interested reviewing some of our other Solutions Law Press, Inc.™ resources at Solutionslawpress.com such as:

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.  ©2016 Cynthia Marcotte Stamer. Non-exclusive right to republish granted to Solutions Law Press, Inc. ™. All other rights reserved.


Confirm Health Plan Contraceptive & Colonoscopy Coverage Meets Latest FAQ ACA Preventive Care Guidance

April 27, 2016

Employer and other group health plan sponsors, fiduciaries and administrators and  individual and group health insurers should confirm their plan documents and practices comply with new additional guidance on when the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA) preventive care mandates set forth in Public Health Services (PHS) Act section 2713, the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA) and the Internal Revenue Code (the Code) require non-grandfathered group health plans to cover colonoscopies and Food and Drug Administration (FDA)-approved contraceptives as preventive services without co-pays or deductibles in light of yet more guidance on the preventive care rule jointly published April 20, 2016 by the Departments of Labor (DOL), Health and Human Services (HHS), and the Treasury (collectively, the “Agencies”) in FAQs about Affordable Care Act Implementation (Part 31) (FAQ 31).

Employer and other plan sponsors, group health plan fiduciaries and insurers alike should make compliance with the ACA preventive care mandates a priority because violations of the preventive coverage rule not only exposes group health plans and insurers to potential liability for wrongful denial of benefits, breach of fiduciary duty for ERISA covered arrangements and other similar insurance claims for insurers under state law, noncompliance with these mandates generally triggers liability for an employer to self-assess, self-report on Internal Revenue Service Form 8928 an excise penalty of $100 per participant per day for each day of uncorrected violation.  With most employers sponsoring plans facing a deadline to file Form 8928’s for any uncorrected disclosures soon, now is the time to review and correct any violations of the preventive care guidelines over the past year and preventing future deadlines.

ACA Preventive Care Mandate Overview

The preventive care mandates of ACA generally require that health insurance or plan coverage offered in the individual or group market cover the following items or services without imposing any cost-sharing requirements:

  • Evidence-based items or services that have in effect a rating of “A” or “B” in the current recommendations of the United States Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) with respect to the individual involved, except for the recommendations of the USPSTF regarding breast cancer screening, mammography, and prevention issued in or around November 2009, which are not considered in effect for this purpose;
  • Immunizations for routine use in children, adolescents, and adults that have in effect a recommendation from the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP) of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) with respect to the individual involved;
  • With respect to infants, children, and adolescents, evidence-informed preventive care and screenings provided for in comprehensive guidelines supported by the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA); and
  • For women, evidence-informed preventive care and screening provided for in comprehensive guidelines supported by HRSA, to the extent not included in certain recommendations of the USPSTF subject to special rules with respect to coverage of contraceptive services for group health plans and group health insurance coverage provided in connection with group health plans established or maintained by religious employers.

See 1.26 CFR 54.9815-2713, 29 CFR 2590.715-2713, 45 CFR 147.130.

If a recommendation or guideline does not specify the frequency, method, treatment, or setting for the provision of a recommended preventive service, then the plan or issuer may use reasonable medical management techniques to determine any such coverage limitations.  See 26 CFR 54.9815-2713(a)(4), 29 CFR 2590.715-2713(a)(4), 45 CFR 147.130(a)(4).

FAQ 31 On Coverage of Colonoscopies Pursuant to USPSTF Recommendations

Concerning colonoscopies, FAQ 31 states that because the Agencies view preparation for a preventive screening colonoscopy an integral part of the procedure, bowel preparation medications, when medically appropriate and prescribed by a health care provider, are an integral part of the preventive screening colonoscopy that group health plans and health insurers must cover without cost sharing, subject to reasonable medical management).

Coverage of Food and Drug Administration (FDA)-approved Contraceptives

FAQ 31 also supplements an already extensive list of Agency guidance concerning when group health plans and health insurers must cover contraceptives as preventive care without cost sharing under ACA stemming from the HRSA Guidelines’ inclusion of a recommendation of all FDA-approved contraceptive methods, sterilization procedures, and patient education and counseling for all women with reproductive capacity, as prescribed by a health care provider.

FAQs about Affordable Care Act Implementation (Part XII), Q14  (FAQ 12) previously released in 2013 states the HRSA Guidelines ensure women’s access to the full range of FDA-approved contraceptive methods including, but not limited to, barrier methods, hormonal methods, and implanted devices, as well as patient education and counseling, as prescribed by a health care provider.   FAQ 12 also states group health plans and insurers may use reasonable medical management techniques to control costs and promote efficient delivery of care, such as covering a generic drug without cost sharing and imposing cost sharing for equivalent branded drugs provided that the plan or insurer accommodates any individual for whom a particular drug (generic or brand name) would be medically inappropriate, as determined by the individual’s health care provider, by having a mechanism for waiving the otherwise applicable cost sharing for the brand or non-preferred brand version.

In FAQs about Affordable Care Act Implementation (Part XXVI), Q2 and Q3 (FAQ26) subsequently published on May 15, 2016, the Agencies clarified that group health plans and health insurers:

  • Must cover without cost sharing at least one form of contraception in each of the methods (currently 18) identified for women by the FDA;
  • To the extent plans and issuers use reasonable medical management techniques within a specified method of contraception, must have an easily accessible, transparent, and sufficiently expedient exceptions process that provides for making a determination on the claim according to a timeframe and in a manner that takes into account the nature of the claim (e.g., pre-service or post-service) and ensures the medical exigencies involved for a claim involving urgent care is not unduly burdensome on the individual or provider (or other individual acting as a patient’s authorized representative, including a provider) to ensure coverage without cost sharing of any service or FDA-approved item within the specified method of contraception;
  • Must defer to the determination of the attending provider and cover a service or item without cost sharing a particular service or FDA-approved item that the individual’s attending provider recommends based on a determination of medical necessity with respect to that individual, where medical necessity could include considerations such as severity of side effects, differences in permanence and reversibility of contraceptives, and ability to adhere to the appropriate use of the item or service, as determined by the attending provider; and
  • In the case of health insurers required to provide essential health benefits (EHB) under the ACA, must have an exceptions process that meets the standards in 45 CFR 156.122(c).

FAQ 31 supplements this previous Agency guidance by confirming that group health plans and health insurers may develop a standard exception form with instructions that an attending provider may use to prescribe a particular service or FDA-approved item based on a determination of medical necessity with respect to the individual involved and suggests the Medicare Part D Coverage Determination Request Form as an appropriate model for the development of such forms.

Act To Verify Compliance, Leverage Opportunities

FAQ 31 and the other guidance presents a two-edged sword for health insurers and group health plans and their sponsors.  On one hand, failing to design and administer their health benefit programs to comply with these and other rules and interpretations about the preventive care and other federal health plan mandates imposed by the ACA or other laws can trigger significant liability for insurers as well as group health plans and theirsponsoring employers.  On the other hand, group health plans and insurers that carefully design and administer their arrangements to comply with the guidance also can take advantage of opportunities to manage utilization and costs using the narrow windows of opportunity offered within the guidance.

In either case, careful, well-documented efforts to verify compliance in response to the evolving guidance is important to prevent unanticipated violations and position group health plans, their sponsoring employers and fiduciaries and insurers to mitigate potential exposures in the event of a violation of existing or subsequently published guidance.

About The Author

A practicing attorney and Managing Shareholder of Cynthia Marcotte Stamer, P.C.,  Ms. Stamer’s more than 28 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.

A Fellow in the American College of Employee Benefit Counsel, the American Bar Foundation and the Texas Bar Foundation, Cynthia Marcotte Stamer is a noted Texas-based management lawyer and consultant, author, lecturer and policy advocate, recognized as among the “Top Rated Labor & Employment Lawyers in Texas” by LexisNexis® Martindale-Hubbell® and as among the “Best Lawyers In Dallas” for her work in the field of “Tax: Erisa & Employee Benefits” and “Health Care” by D Magazine.

Ms. Stamer’s legal and management consulting work throughout her 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.

Board Certified in Labor & Employment Law by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization, Ms. Stamer helps management manage. 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.  Common engagements include internal and external workforce hiring, management, training, performance management, compliance and administration, discipline and termination, and other aspects of workforce management including employment and outsourced services contracting and enforcement, sentencing guidelines and other compliance plan, policy and program development, administration, and defense, performance management, wage and hour and other compensation and benefits, reengineering and other change management, internal controls, compliance and risk management, communications and training, worker classification, tax and payroll, investigations, crisis preparedness and response, government relations, safety, government contracting and audits, litigation and other enforcement, and other concerns.

A Fellow in the American College of Employee Benefit Counsel, Ms. Stamer uses her deep and highly specialized 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. As a key element of this work, 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, Ms. Stamer annually leads the Joint Committee on Employee Benefits (JCEB) HHS Office of Civil Rights agency meeting and other JCEB agency meetings.  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 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.

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 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 here or contact Ms. Stamer directly by email here or by telephone at (469) 767-8872.

About Solutions Law Press, Inc.™

Solutions Law Press, Inc.™ provides human resources and employee benefit and other business risk management, legal compliance, management effectiveness and other coaching, tools and other resources, training and education on leadership, governance, 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 may be interested reviewing other Solutions Law Press, Inc.™ resources at www.solutionslawpress.com such as:

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.

©2016 Cynthia Marcotte Stamer. Non-exclusive right to republish granted to Solutions Law Press. All other rights reserved.


Business Associate Rule Violations Behind $750K HIPAA Settlement

April 21, 2016

Health Plans, Sponsors & Business Associates Should Verify Plan’s HIPAA Compliance

Employers and other health plan sponsors and the health plan fiduciaries and business associates providing services involving dealings on behalf of the plan with protected health information just received another reminder to confirm and be prepared to prove all required business associate agreements are in place and that the health plans otherwise properly are administering all policies, practices, safeguards and procedures for handling, using and disclosing electronic and other protected health information from the April 20, 2016 Department of Health & Human Services Office of Civil Rights (OCR) announcement of its latest resolution agreement settling Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) Privacy and Security Rule charges OCR made against a HIPAA-covered entity for violating HIPAA’s business associate agreement rules.

OCR Charges Brought For Business Associate Agreement Violations

HIPAA’s Privacy Rules generally apply to “covered entities,” which under HIPAA are health plans and insurers, health care providers, health care clearinghouses (Covered Entities) and “business associates,” which are individuals or entities that perform services that aid the  Covered Entity to perform its duties as a Covered Entity.

The Resolution Agreement and Corrective Action Plan (Resolution Agreement) with Raleigh Orthopaedic Clinic, P.A. of North Carolina (Raleigh Orthopaedic) announced by OCR on April 20th requires Raleigh Orthopaedic to pay $750,000 to settle  charges OCR it violated the Privacy Rule by handing over protected health information of approximately 17,300 patients to a potential business partner without first executing a business associate agreement.

Raleigh Orthopaedic is a provider group practice that operates clinics and a surgery center in the Raleigh, North Carolina area. OCR initiated its investigation of Raleigh Orthopaedic after receiving a breach report on April 30, 2013.  OCR’s investigation indicated that Raleigh Orthopaedic violated the Privacy Rules by releasing the x-ray films and related protected health information of 17,300 patients to an entity that promised to transfer the images to electronic media in exchange for harvesting the silver from the x-ray films.  Raleigh Orthopaedic failed to execute a business associate agreement with this entity before turning over the x-rays and PHI.

OCR says this sharing of the x-ray files and other protected health information by Raleigh Orthopaedic violated the Privacy Rules.

Specifically, the Privacy Rules prohibit Covered Entities and their business associates from using, accessing and disclosing protected health information except as specifically permitted in the Privacy Rules. As part of these rules, the “Business Associate” requirements of the Privacy Rule prohibit Covered Entities from disclosing or allowing business associates to use, and business associates from receiving or using protected health information unless the parties first enter into a written business associate agreement that complies with the requirements of the Privacy Rules.

The Resolution Agreement settles OCR charges that Raleigh Orthopaedic violated this Business Associate Agreement requirement by sharing the x-rays and other protected health information with the service provider without first entering a business associate agreement. Under the Settlement Agreement, Raleigh Orthopaedic must pay a $750,000 payment, as well as revise its policies and procedures to: establish a process for assessing whether entities are business associates; designate a responsible individual to ensure  business associate agreements are in place prior to disclosing PHI to a business associate; create a standard template business associate agreement; establish a standard process for maintaining documentation of a business associate agreements for at least six (6) years beyond the date of termination of a business associate relationship; and limit disclosures of PHI to any business associate to the minimum necessary to accomplish the purpose for which the Covered Entity hires the business associate.

Although the Resolution Agreement only addresses charges OCR brought against the Covered Entity, Raleigh Orthopaedic, business associates need to keep in mind that both Covered Entities and business associates now are responsible for ensuring compliance with the business associate agreement requirements of the Privacy Rules since the Stimulus Bill amended HIPAA to make most provisions of the Privacy Rule directly applicable to business associates as well as Covered Entities.

 Take Aways For Covered Entities & Their Business Associates 

OCR’s announcement of the Resolution Agreement includes a strong message for other Covered Entities and business associates of the importance of taking seriously their responsibility under the Privacy Rule to ensure that the business associate agreement requirements of the Privacy Rule are met before business associates are allowed to receive, access or use protected health information. The announcement quotes Jocelyn Samuels, Director of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Office for Civil Rights (OCR) as stating.  “It is critical for entities to know to whom they are handing PHI and to obtain assurances that the information will be protected.” and “HIPAA’s obligation on covered entities to obtain business associate agreements is more than a mere check-the-box paperwork exercise.”

In light of the Business Associate Rule and Director Samuels’ comments, Covered Entities and business associates alike should review the adequacy of their documentation, policies and practices regarding dealings with service providers who are or could collect, receive or use electronic or other protected health information to propose or perform services in the capacity as a business associate. Certainly both Covered Entities and business associates to ensure that they possess and are able to produce if needed signed business associate agreements for each current business associate agreement as well as that appropriate policies, practices and procedures are in place to ensure that all required business associate agreements are implemented before any disclosure or use of protected health information to the business associate in the future.  As part of these activities, both Covered Entities and business associates also should ensure their policies and practices appropriately provide for the retention of signed copies of all business associate agreements and other records, and the implementation of all other processes and procedures required to position the entity to be able to demonstrate it not only had policies requiring compliance, but appropriately implemented and administered those policies in accordance with the Privacy Rule.

When conducting this review, Covered Entities and business associates also generally should consider the advisability of also reviewing their business associate agreements and the adequacy of these arrangements in light of any other contractual confidentiality and or contractual rights and commitments, regulatory requirements and other operational and risk management concerns that impact or interrelate with the relationship between the business associate and the Covered Entity. It is important to ensure that appropriate steps are taken to evaluate and properly integrate the confidentiality and other commitments that the Privacy Rules mandate a business associate agreement include with audit, performance assessment, and other data access or disclosure, trade secrets, confidentiality, performance standards and guarantees, indemnity and other contractual obligations of other agreements that could impact or be impacted  by the business associate agreements. Steps also should be taken to incorporate appropriate processes and procedures for ensuring that the Covered Entity and members of its workforce understand and consistently administer and document their use of appropriate processes to ensure that the business associate agreement and other requirements of the Privacy Rules are fulfilled.  In the case of employer sponsored plans subject to the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974, for instance, the selection and proper oversight of business associates and the management of plan data both are subject to the fiduciary responsibility rules of ERISA.  Meanwhile, insurers, business associates and other plan vendors also generally should anticipate that beyond HIPAA, they also may be subject to data security, privacy and other mandates and exposures under state HIPAA-like rules for protected health information, as well as other obligations under insurance, data security, identity theft, breach, privacy and other state laws.

The process of evaluating the adequacy of current arrangement and considering the advisability of changes to tighten existing practices in many cases will result in the discovery and discussion of potentially sensitive information about the adequacy of current or past compliance with the Privacy Rules or other matters. For example, it is possible that in the course of review, parties may be unable to locate a signed business associate agreement governing a relationship that the Privacy Rules require be subject to a business associate agreement or in the course of review, information indicating breaches of protected health information or other Privacy Rule violations may have occurred.  For this reason, most Covered Entities and their business associates will want to consider arranging for this review and analysis to be conducted within the scope of attorney-client privilege by or under the direction of qualified legal counsel with HIPAA experience that has entered into a business associate agreement with the Covered Entity or business associate.

About The Author

A Fellow in the American College of Employee Benefit Counsel, the American Bar Foundation and the Texas Bar Foundation, Cynthia Marcotte Stamer is a noted Texas-based management lawyer and consultant, author, lecturer and policy advocate, recognized as among the “Top Rated Labor & Employment Lawyers in Texas” by LexisNexis® Martindale-Hubbell® and as among the “Best Lawyers In Dallas” for her work in the field of “Tax: Erisa & Employee Benefits” and “Health Care” by D Magazine who works, writes and speaks extensively about HIPAA and other data privacy and security concerns.

Ms. Stamer’s legal and management consulting work throughout her 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.

Board Certified in Labor & Employment Law by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization, Ms. Stamer helps management manage. 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.  Common engagements include internal and external workforce hiring, management, training, performance management, compliance and administration, discipline and termination, and other aspects of workforce management including employment and outsourced services contracting and enforcement, sentencing guidelines and other compliance plan, policy and program development, administration, and defense, performance management, wage and hour and other compensation and benefits, reengineering and other change management, internal controls, compliance and risk management, communications and training, worker classification, tax and payroll, investigations, crisis preparedness and response, government relations, safety, government contracting and audits, litigation and other enforcement, and other concerns.

A Fellow in the American College of Employee Benefit Counsel, Ms. Stamer uses her deep and highly specialized 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. As a key element of this work, 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.

Throughout her career, Ms. Stamer has advised these and other clients about health care, health plan, financial information, trade secret, privacy and other related compliance, data breach response and remediation and related compliance, risk management and related concerns.  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 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, Ms. Stamer annually leads the Joint Committee on Employee Benefits (JCEB) HHS Office of Civil Rights agency meeting and other JCEB agency meetings.  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 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.  She will share updates on HIPAA and other health care and data security concerns when returns to speak and chair at the 4th Annual Healthcare Privacy and Security Forum scheduled on May 20, 2016 in Los Angeles.

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 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 here or contact Ms. Stamer directly by email here or by telephone at (469) 767-8872.

About Solutions Law Press, Inc.™

Solutions Law Press, Inc.™ provides human resources and employee benefit and other business risk management, legal compliance, management effectiveness and other coaching, tools and other resources, training and education on leadership, governance, 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 may be interested reviewing other Solutions Law Press, Inc.™ resources at www.solutionslawpress.com such as:

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.

©2016 Cynthia Marcotte Stamer. Non-exclusive right to republish granted to Solutions Law Press. All other rights reserved.


Final Investment Advice Fiduciary Rules Mean Work For Employers, Fiduciaries & Advisors

April 12, 2016

Employer and other employee benefit plan sponsors, benefit plan committees and fiduciaries, and the broker-dealers, financial advisors, insurance agents and other plan service providers that provide investment-related platforms, advice, recommendations or other services for employee benefit plans need to reevaluate the fiduciary status of their service providers and begin restructuring as necessary their associated relationships, service provider commission or other compensation, service agreements and arrangements or other services in response to a new Regulatory Guidance Package (Rule) that explicitly classifies parties providing “covered investment advice” as fiduciaries subject to the conflict of interest and other fiduciary responsibility rules of the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA).

Supplementing existing precedent and EBSA’s already existing broad, functional definition of “fiduciary,” the Rule clarifies when individuals and entities that provide “covered investment advice” to plans, plan sponsors, fiduciaries, plan participants, beneficiaries and Individual Retirement Accounts (IRAs) and IRA owners are:

  • Fiduciaries of the Plan or IRA for purposes of Title I of ERISA;
  • Required to acknowledge their status and the status of their individual advisers as “fiduciaries” of the plan for purposes of ERISA;
  • Accountable as fiduciaries for making prudent investment recommendations without regard to their own interests, or the interests of those other than the plan or plan participant or beneficiary that is the customer;
  • Restricted to charging only “reasonable compensation” for their advice or service;
  • Prohibited from making misrepresentations to their customers regarding recommended investments; and
  • Prohibited from providing advice or making payments that involve any conflicts of interest prohibited by ERISA unless the arrangements fully complies with a prohibited transaction exemption issued by EBSA under ERISA Section 408 that otherwise complies with ERISA Section 404.

Concurrent with its adoption of final regulations implementing these new rules concerning investment advisors and their fiduciary responsibilities, the Rule also adopts certain new Prohibited Transaction Exemptions that define requirements that providers of covered investment advice and the plan fiduciaries that engage them generally will be required after April 7, 2017 to ensure are met for investment advisors to receive commission-based compensation for their services, to sell or purchase certain recommended debt securities and other investments out of their own inventories to or from plans and IRAs, or to receive compensation for recommending fixed rate annuity contracts to plans and IRAs.

Investment Advice Covered By The Rule

The final rule applies to “covered investment advice.” For purposes of the rule, “covered investment advice” generally includes:

  • A recommendation to a plan, plan fiduciary, plan participant and beneficiary and IRA owner for a fee or other compensation, direct or indirect, as to the advisability of buying, holding, selling or exchanging securities or other investment property, including recommendations as to the investment of securities or other property after the securities or other property are rolled over or distributed from a plan or IRA;
  • A recommendation as to the management of securities or other investment property, including, among other things, recommendations on investment policies or strategies, portfolio composition, selection of other persons to provide investment advice or investment management services, selection of investment account arrangements (e.g., brokerage versus advisory); or recommendations with respect to rollovers, transfers, or distributions from a plan or IRA, including whether, in what amount, in what form, and to what destination such a rollover, transfer, or distribution should be made.

Under the Rule, the fundamental threshold element in establishing the existence of fiduciary investment advice is whether a “recommendation” occurred. The Department has taken an approach to defining “recommendation” that is consistent with and based upon the approach taken by the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA), the independent regulatory authority of the broker-dealer industry, subject to the oversight of the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC).

The Rule specifies that a “recommendation” is a communication that, based on its content, context, and presentation, would reasonably be viewed as a suggestion that the advice recipient engage in or refrain from taking a particular course of action. Under the Rule, the more individually tailored the communication is to a specific advice recipient or recipients, the more likely the communication will be viewed as a recommendation.

The types of relationships that must exist for such recommendations to give rise to fiduciary investment advice responsibilities include recommendations made either directly or indirectly (e.g. through or together with any affiliate) by a person who:

  • Represents or acknowledges that they are acting as a fiduciary within the meaning of ERISA or the Internal Revenue Code (Code);
  • Renders advice pursuant to a written or verbal agreement, arrangement or understanding that the advice is based on the particular investment needs of the advice recipient; or
  • Directs the advice to a specific recipient or recipients regarding the advisability of a particular investment or management decision with respect to securities or other investment property of the plan or IRA.

Also, the Rule only applies where a recommendation is provided directly or indirectly in exchange for a “fee or other compensation.” “Fee or other compensation, direct or indirect” means any explicit fee or compensation for the advice received by the person (or by an affiliate) from any source, and any other fee or compensation received from any source in connection with or as a result of the recommended purchase or sale of a security or the provision of investment advice services including, though not limited to, such things as commissions, loads, finder’s fees, and revenue sharing payments. A fee or compensation is paid “in connection with or as a result of” such transaction or service if the fee or compensation would not have been paid but for the transaction or service or if eligibility for or the amount of the fee or compensation is based in whole or in part on the transaction or service.

 Investment Advice Not Covered By Rule

While the Rule reaches broadly, not all communications with financial advisers are covered fiduciary investment advice under the Rule. As a threshold issue, if the communications do not meet the definition of “recommendations” as described above, the communications will be considered non-fiduciary. In response to requests from commenters, and for clarification, the final rule includes some specific examples of communications that would not rise to the level of a recommendation and therefore would not constitute a fiduciary investment advice communication under the Rule.

When evaluating the applicability and effect of these exemptions, however, it is important to keep in mind that by adding the new Rule, EBSA seeks to make clear that individuals or organizations that engage in activities described in the Rule as covered investment advice are fiduciaries subject to these requirements. Since the Rule does not revoke existing EBSA fiduciary guidance or judicial precedent, service providers and other parties with discretionary authority or responsibility over employee benefit plans not covered by the Rule still could qualify as fiduciaries if their authority, responsibility or actions functionally causes them to fall within the definition of a fiduciary under these other pre-existing definitions of fiduciary status.    Subject to this cautionary proviso, the following are some of the activities that the Rule identifies as activities that might fall outside the Rule’s covered investment activities in the manner required by the Rule:

  • “Education” as defined and provided in accordance with the Rule;
  • “General communications that a reasonable person would not view as an investment recommendation;”
  • Simply making available a platform of investment alternatives without regard to the individualized needs of the plan, its participants, or beneficiaries if a plan fiduciary independent of the platform service provider actually decides what investment options are offered and the platform service provider also represents in writing to the plan fiduciary that they are not undertaking to provide impartial investment advice or to give advice in a fiduciary capacity; and
  • Transactions with independent plan fiduciaries where the adviser knows or reasonably believes that the independent fiduciary is a licensed and regulated provider of financial services (banks, insurance companies, registered investment advisers, broker-dealers) or those that have responsibility for the management of $50 million in assets, and other conditions set forth in the Rule are met;
  • Communications and activities made by advisers to ERISA-covered employee benefit plans in swap or security-based swap transactions when the swap transaction meets certain conditions set forth in the Rule, which EBSA designed in coordination with the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) and the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC) to avoid conflicts between the Rule and the swap and security-based swap rules promulgated by those agencies under the Dodd–Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act; and
  • Activities and communications of employees working in the payroll, accounting, human resources, and financial departments of the plan sponsor or its affiliated business who routinely develop reports and recommendations for the company and other named fiduciaries of the sponsors’ plans if the employees receive no fee or other compensation in connection with any such recommendations beyond their normal compensation for work performed for their employer.

New Prohibited Transaction Exemptions Published With Rule

 Concurrent with its publication of the Rule, EBSA also is adopting the following new “Prohibited Transaction Exemptions to the otherwise applicable statutory list of prohibited conflict of interest transactions in ERISA Section 406 and the companion rules of the Internal Revenue Code (Code) applicable to qualified retirement plans.

Noncompliance with the Rule, including where necessary to avoid violating ERISA Section 406’s prohibited transaction prohibitions, by parties providing covered investment advice or the engagement or retention of such a service provider by an employer or other party exercising or with responsibility or authority to make that engagement carriers big legal risk.  Advisers and financial institutions that don’t meet the BICE standards and other requirements of the Rule expose themselves to liability from breach of fiduciary duty claims under ERISA brought by ERISA plans, participants, and beneficiaries or in the case of IRAs or other non-ERISA plans, state law breach of contract or other state law claims brought by IRAs and other non-ERISA plans or accountholders.   Likewise an employer, member of its management or other party responsible for or having authority to choose the service provider risks breaching its own fiduciary duties under ERISA by engaging a party that renders covered investment advice without complying with the Rule.  In addition, to the extent that the engagement or activities of the service provider involves commission compensation payments, swaps or other activities that would constitute a prohibited conflict of interest under ERISA Section 406 not structured and conducted with an applicable prohibited transaction exemption, both the service provider and the fiduciary could bear personal liability for involving the plan or its assets in a prohibited transaction in violation of ERISA Section 406.   For this reason, to help positions themselves to mitigate or defend against liability for such potential claims, advisors generally should take steps to ensure that the advisor can prove the advisor acted in their clients’ best interest by documenting their use of a reasonable process and adherence to professional standards in deciding to make the recommendation and determining it was in the customer’s best interest, and by documenting their compliance with the financial institution’s policies and procedures required by the Best Interest Contract Exemption.

“Best Interest Contract Exemption” (BICE)

 ERISA and the Internal Revenue Code rules for qualified retirement plans generally prohibit individuals or entities providing fiduciary investment advice to plan sponsors, plan participants, and IRA owners to receive payments creating any of the listed statutory conflicts of interest listed in ERISA or the Code without a prohibited transaction exemption (PTE), employee benefit plan sponsors, benefit plan committees and other fiduciaries, and the broker-dealers, financial advisors, insurance agents and other plan service providers providing covered investment services to employee benefit plans also need to ensure that their compensation is structured to ensure that the compensation and other arrangements do not violate these prohibited transaction and conflict of interest prohibitions of the Code and ERISA, ERISA’s reasonable compensation rules, or the other requirements of ERISA.

Concerning ERISA Section 406’s party-in-interest and other conflict of interest requirements, EBSA issued in conjunction with its publication of the Rule a new “Best Interest Contract Exemption” (BICE), which provides a prohibited transaction exception that permits the payment of commission-based compensation to fiduciary investment advisors as long as the conditions specified in the BICE are met. Among other things, the BICE requires as a condition of the applicability of this exception that:

  •  The financial institution to acknowledge in writing fiduciary status for itself and its advisers;
  • The financial institution and advisers to adhere to ERISA’s basic standards of impartial conduct, including giving prudent advice that is in the customer’s best interest, avoiding making misleading statements, and receiving no more than reasonable compensation;
  • The financial institution to have policies and procedures designed to mitigate harmful impacts of conflicts of interest; and
  • The financial institution to disclose specified information about their conflicts of interest and the cost of their advice.

 The specified disclosures required to meet the conditions of the BICE include:

  •  Descriptions of material conflicts of interest;
  • Descriptions of fees or charges paid by the retirement investor
  • A statement of the types of compensation the firm expects to receive from third parties in connection with recommended investments;
  • Notification that investors have the right to obtain specific disclosure of costs, fees, and other compensation upon request; and
  • A requirement that a website must be maintained and updated regularly that includes information about the financial institution’s business model and associated material conflicts of interest, a written description of the financial institution’s policies and procedures that mitigate conflicts of interest, and disclosure of compensation and incentive arrangements with advisers, among other information. However, the BICE currently does not require that the website include individualized information about a particular adviser’s compensation.

Noncompliance with the Rule by parties providing covered investment advice or the engagement or retention of such a service provider by an employer or other party exercising or with responsibility or authority to make that engagement carriers big legal risk.  Advisers and financial institutions that don’t meet the BICE standards and other requirements of the Rule expose themselves to liability from breach of fiduciary duty claims under ERISA brought by ERISA plans, participants, and beneficiaries or in the case of IRAs or other non-ERISA plans, state law breach of contract or other state law claims brought by IRAs and other non-ERISA plans or accountholders.   Likewise an employer, member of its management or other party responsible for or having authority to choose the service provider risks breaching its own fiduciary duties under ERISA by engaging a party that renders covered investment advice without complying with the Rule.  In addition, to the extent that the engagement or activities of the service provider involves commission compensation payments, swaps or other activities that would constitute a prohibited conflict of interest under ERISA Section 406 not structured and conducted with an applicable prohibited transaction exemption, both the service provider and the fiduciary could bear personal liability for involving the plan or its assets in a prohibited transaction in violation of ERISA Section 406.   For this reason, to help positions themselves to mitigate or defend against liability for such potential claims, advisors generally should take steps to ensure that the advisor can prove the advisor acted in their clients’ best interest by documenting their use of a reasonable process and adherence to professional standards in deciding to make the recommendation and determining it was in the customer’s best interest, and by documenting their compliance with the financial institution’s policies and procedures required by the Best Interest Contract Exemption.

Principle Transactions Exemption

 The “Principal Transactions Exemption” published in connection with the Rule provides an exemption from the prohibitions of ERISA Section 406 to allow investment advice fiduciaries to sell or purchase certain recommended debt securities and other investments out of their own inventories to or from plans and IRAs where the requirements of the Exemption are met. As with the Best Interest Contract Exemption, the Principle Transaction Exemption requires, among other things, that investment advice fiduciaries adhere to certain impartial conduct standards, including obligations to act in the customer’s best interest, avoid misleading statements, and seek to obtain the best execution reasonably available under the circumstances for the transaction.

Existing PTE For Fixed Rate Annuity Contracts

In connection with its adoption of the Rule, EBSA also is amending existing exemption, PTE 84-24, which provides relief for insurance agents and brokers, and insurance companies, to receive compensation for recommending fixed rate annuity contracts to plans and IRAs. As amended in connection with the Rule, the requirements of PTE 84-24 are modified to provide increased safeguards for retirement investors while still providing “more streamlined conditions” than those required to meet the Best Interest Contract Exemption. Consistent with its enthusiasm for encouraging the offering and adoption of life time income products to retirees over the past several years, EBSA says these more streamlined conditions of PTE 84-24 are appropriate to “facilitate access by plans and IRAs to these relatively simple lifetime income products.” More complex products, such as variable annuities and indexed annuities, will be able to be recommended by advisers and financial institutions under the terms of the Best Interest Contract Exemption.

Other PTE Exemptions Modified To Raise Requirements

The Department is amending other existing exemptions, as well, to ensure that plan and IRA investors receiving investment advice are consistently protected by impartial conduct standards, regardless of the particular exemption upon which the adviser and the fiduciary engaging that advisor intend to rely upon to avoid violating of ERISA 406.

While the compliance deadline for the new Rule is not until April 8, 2017, the relief from ERISA Section 406 offered by the new Exemptions announced in connection with the Rule’s publication generally became available when EBSA published them in connection with the Rule on April 8, 2016. As this relief could provide helpful protection against fiduciary challenges or exposures that some service providers might already face under already existing fiduciary precedent or guidance, many service providers involved in dealings with plan or IRA investments may wish to take steps to position themselves to claim protection under one of these new PTE Exemptions even before the Rule takes effect.  When evaluating this option, some service providers should be aware of the availability of transitional relief that may make it easier for some service providers to claim relief under the new BICE or Principal Transactions Exemption between April 8, 2017 and January 1, 2018 (Transition Period).  In addition, parties that contemplate wishing to take advantage of the relief offered by the new BICE or Principal Transactions Exemption may benefit from taking advantage of reduced requirements for meeting these conditions during the phase in Transition Period. During this Transition Period, EBSA still will require firms and advisers to adhere to the Exemptions’ impartial conduct standards, provide a notice to retirement investors that, among other things, acknowledges their fiduciary status and describes their material conflicts of interest, and to designate a person responsible for addressing material conflicts of interest and monitoring advisers’ adherence to the impartial conduct standards; however compliance with certain other requirements is waived until January 1, 2018. Of course, full compliance with all requirements of the applicable Exemptions will be required as of January 1, 2018.

Rule Requires Action By Plan Sponsors, Fiduciaries & Service Providers

 The new Rule creates lots of new work both for advisors and other service providers in, as well as plan sponsors, plan administrative committees or other fiduciaries responsible for selection, retention and oversight of those providing these services. All such parties have much to do to fulfill their ERISA responsibilities by the April 8, 2017 deadline for compliance with the new Rule and to deal with other likely fallout from the new Rule.

Fallout for Covered Investment Advisors & Other Service Providers

Clearly, advisors, financial institutions and other service providers providing covered investment advice and others with involvement with investments or investment platforms have much work to do to prepare for the new rule. However, compliance with the Rule is not merely a service provider problem. Employer or other plan sponsors, plan fiduciaries or other responsible for the credentialing, selection, retention, and oversight of service providers dealing with investments also need to ensure that the party or parties responsible for these vendor dealings fulfills its own fiduciary responsibilities in dealing with vendors and service providers that may be impacted by these requirements.

 Advisers and financial institutions that don’t meet the requirements of the new Rule expose themselves to liability from breach of fiduciary duty claims under ERISA brought by ERISA plans, participants, and beneficiaries or in the case of IRAs or other non-ERISA plans, state law breach of contract or other state law claims brought by IRAs and other non-ERISA plans or accountholders. Obviously, advisors, financial institutions and other service providers providing advice or having dealings or involvement with IRA or employee benefit plan investments, their selection or administration will want to review and update their relationships and their associated compensation, contracts, disclosures and other arrangements and processes in light of the new Rule. Clearly, those that could be considered to offer or provide covered investment advice need to start revising contracts, compensation, policies, practices and other arrangements in anticipation of the Rule. At the same time, the Rule also is likely to create work for certain service providers with involvement or dealings with investments that the service provider considers to fall outside of the Rule:

  • To respond to changes in client requests for proposals, contracts or other due diligence in response to the Rule;
  • To respond to changes in response to the Rule by covered investment advisors to reconfigure services, relationships and contracts in response to the Rule;
  • To clarify and institutionalize and document communications by the uncovered service provider to clients and others of limits on the service provider’s services and capacity that are necessary or helpful to avoid or limit exposure of the service provider to coverage by or claims of liability arising out of the Rule; and/or
  • Otherwise.

Fallout For Plan Sponsors & Plan Fiduciaries Selecting & Overseeing Service Providers

Employer or other plan sponsors, plan fiduciaries or other responsible for the credentialing, selection, retention, and oversight of service providers dealing with investments also need to anticipate and be prepared to deal the effects of adoption of the Rule on their responsibilities and risks as they relate to the selection, retention, contracting, compensation and other dealings with service providers impacted by the Rule.

The Rule’s explicit designation as fiduciaries of certain service providers that previously may have been characterized as providing services as non-fiduciaries, much less its tightening of requirements for the investment advisors that are covered fiduciaries, creates a host of new responsibilities and considerations for employers sponsoring plans and its members of management that select, retain, contract with and oversee these service providers.

Under ERISA, parties designated in writing or function exercising discretionary authority or responsibility for the selection, retention, compensation and oversight of fiduciary or other service providers generally are considered fiduciaries for purposes of carrying out these responsibilities and bear personal liability for prudently selecting, retaining and monitoring the service provider in accordance with ERISA.

To fulfill this fiduciary obligation, those involved in selecting and retaining investment advisors covered by the rules should expect to bear responsibility for ensuring that the covered investment advisor is engaged in compliance with the Rule and the otherwise applicable requirements of ERISA, including that the engagement and compensation of the selected investment advisor will not involve the plan or its assets in a prohibited conflict of interest listed in ERISA Section 406.  Furthermore, failing to ensure that the engagement of an investment advisor does not violate these conflict of interest rules also exposes a sponsoring employer of a qualified plan to excise tax liability under the Code’s companion party-in-interest rules applicable to such plans.

Accordingly, whether the employer itself retains and directly exercises the discretionary authority to select and retain a service provider or appoints a committee or member of its staff to perform these responsibilities as a designated fiduciary, an accurate understanding of which service providers, taking into account the rule, now will be considered fiduciaries and the requirements of the Rule flowing from this status is essential to understand and make appropriate provisions to ensure that proper steps are taken to ensure that the Rule and ERISA’s other requirements for prudent credentialing, bonding, contracting, compensation, and other dealings with the service provider and to budget for the proper conduct of the activities needed to fulfill these obligations.

In light of these and other exposures and obligations, employer and other plan sponsors, plan fiduciaries and plan service providers alike all should start preparing to respond to the new Rule.

To help positions themselves to mitigate or defend against liability for such potential claims, each party generally will want to take prudent and well-documented steps to evaluate the fiduciary status of each applicable service provider, as well as its own fiduciary status, capacity, responsibility and other exposures in light of the new Rule.  Since ERISA fiduciary status attaches functionally based on the functional facts and circumstances, sponsoring employers, as well as service providers generally will want to consider taking appropriate steps to document this analysis and other compliance and risk management efforts to avoid violations of the Rule, as well as to position themselves to defend against other claims and liabilities.

 In all cases, each impacted party should make an effort to apply and retain evidence documenting its efforts including, in the case of all service providers, whether or not covered investment advisors under the Rule, their efforts to act in their clients’ best interest by documenting their use of a reasonable process and adherence to professional standards in deciding to make the recommendation and determining it was in the customer’s best interest, and by documenting their compliance with the financial institution’s policies and procedures and applicable requirements of the law.

 About The Author

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 Group Chair, past Welfare Benefit Committee Chair, and Current Defined Contribution Plan 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, a past ABA Joint Committee on Employee Benefits Council Representative Cynthia Marcotte Stamer is a practicing attorney, regulatory and public policy advocate, author, lecturer and industry and public policy thought leader recognized as a “Top” attorney in employee benefits, labor and employment and health care law for her more than 28 years’ of leading edge experience nationally and internationally providing practical and effective advice and representation to management.

Ms. Stamer’s legal and management consulting work throughout her career has focused on helping organizations and their management understand and use the law and process to manage people, performance, 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 and pragmatic 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.

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. In the course of this work, Ms. Stamer has accumulated an impressive resume of more than 28 years’ of experience advising and representing clients on Title I and other ERISA fiduciary responsibility concerns including assisting and advising plan sponsors, plan fiduciary and plan service providers to design and administer fiduciary and other compliance and risk management policies and practices, conducting investigations of potential fiduciary or other breaches, and serving as special counsel, advising and representing these and other clients in connection with EBSA, IRS, SEC and other governmental audits, investigations and enforcement actions; in private disputes and litigation regarding plan investments or other fiduciary concerns between plan participant and beneficiaries, plans, plan fiduciaries, plan sponsors and plan service providers; or both.

Ms. Stamer also is deeply involved in helping to influence 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. Deeply involved in both U.S. statutory and regulatory pension and health care reform throughout her career, Ms. Stamer 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.

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