While Congress and the Trump Administration continue to ponder and debate what if anything to do with the health care reforms of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA), employer and other health plan sponsors, health plan insurers, plan fiduciaries and others responsible for health plan design, administration or funding must take steps to verify their past and continuing compliance with the ACA and other federal mandates while laying the groundwork to respond quickly to any eventual reforms.
Regardless of what, if anything, the existing Congress or the Trump Administration does to repeal or reform the ACA or other federal health plan rules, all health plan sponsors, insurers, fiduciaries and administrators should act to mitigate their substantial and ever-growing health plan exposures by arranging for an independent compliance audit of their health plan terms, materials and operations for potential uncorrected past or current violations of the 40 federal mandates covered by the Form 8928 reporting and associated Internal Revenue Code excise tax liability exposure, as well as other applicable plan liabilities under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA), the Social Security Act, the Internal Revenue Code and other federal laws within open statute of limitation periods.
The cost, complexity and riskiness of health plan sponsorship and administration has grown exponentially over the past two decades. Thanks to the ACA and the continuous stream of other federal laws and regulations implemented over the past 20 years, sponsoring employers, as well as their health plans and those responsible as fiduciaries for administering, funding and insuring these programs now face huge costs, responsibilities and liabilities. While the ACA substantially expanded the federal health plan mandates and liabilities, the ACA is not the lone cause and its amendment or repeal alone won’t fully resolve these risks prospectively or retrospectively insulate sponsoring employers, their plans or their fiduciaries and insurers from the liabilities and costs of compliance issues occurring before Congress repeals or amends the ACA.
Of particular note for employer and other sponsors of group health plans are the self-reporting and excise tax self-assessment and payment requirements for employers coupled with the companion responsibilities and liabilities fiduciaries, plan administrators and others face under these federal mandates make it important that employers and others sponsoring group health plans and their management or other leaders overseeing or participating in plan design or vendor selection, plan administration or other plan related activities get advice and help from qualified legal counsel experienced in health plan matters:
- To conduct an independent compliance review and risk assessment of their health plans,
- To recommend and assist in the performance of recommended steps to correct or mitigate risks from any potential past or existing violations or other exposures that have arisen or are likely to arise from existing contractual, plan design or other health plan actions;
- To explore the potential advisability of taking additional steps to prevent or mitigate health plan associated compliance or other risks going forward whether or not health reform happens; and
- To begin preparing to take advantage of any impending health care reforms by evaluating the requirements and procedures that existing plan terms, contracts, vendors and arrangements are likely to require to implement changes necessary to respond to any reforms as quickly and efficiently as possible.
Spring Clean Your Health Plan House
Since any reforms eventually enacted are unlikely to retroactively eliminate liability of employers, their health plans or fiduciaries for violations of federal health plan mandates, health plan terms, or associated contracts occurring before the effective date of reform, employer and other health plan sponsors, fiduciaries, insurers and administrators should begin by identifying, cleaning up any existing, unresolved, and preventing any new health plan compliance problems.
While overall compliance with applicable federal mandates and health terms generally should be the goal, employers or others sponsoring group health plans need to be particularly concerned with their responsibilities and potential liability under the Internal Revenue Code to self-identify, report and pay stiff excise tax penalties of $100 per day per violation of any of 40 federal health plan mandates imposed by the ACA and various other federal laws when the sponsor files its annual tax return.
This employer or other plan sponsor excise tax liability generally arises in addition to the liabilities that plans, their fiduciaries and their insures face for failing to administer and pay benefits under the plans in accordance with the listed 40 federal mandates, whether actually written into or imputed by operation of law into the plan, the costs of which sponsoring employers often will bear responsibility for funding in whole or in part pursuant to their contractual liabilities under the health plan contracts, as plan fiduciaries or both. See, Businesses Must Confirm & Clean Up Health Plan ACA & Other Compliance Following Supreme Court’s King v. Burwell Decision; More Work For Employers, Benefit Plans Following SCOTUS Same-Sex Marriage Ruling; 2016 & 2017 Health Plan Budgets, Workplans Should Anticipate Expected Changes To SBCs.
Sponsors and plan fiduciaries also need to be concerned about other risks beyond sponsoring employers’ excise tax liability exposures for sponsoring a non-compliant group health plan. Among other things, group health plans and their fiduciaries can face audits, litigation and enforcement actions by the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services and other health plans for improperly coordinating plan claims with other coverage as well as lawsuits from covered persons, their health care providers or other beneficiaries, the Department of Labor and CMS, or others seeking to enforce rights to benefits, penalties in the case of CMS or the Department of Labor, and attorneys’ fees and other costs of enforcement. Beyond benefit litigation, the employer or representatives of the sponsoring employer, if any, named or acting as fiduciaries, insurer or third-party service providers named or acting as fiduciaries, also could face fiduciary lawsuits seeking damages, equitable relief, and attorneys’ fees and costs of court, for failing to prudently administer the plan in accordance with its terms and the law brought by covered persons or their beneficiaries or the DOL as well as fiduciary breach penalties if the fiduciary breach action is brought by the DOL. If the plan fails to comply with claims and appeals procedures or other ERISA notification requirements, parties named or functioning as the plan administrator for this purpose also could face penalties of up to $125 per violation per day in the case of enforcement actions brought by participants and beneficiaries or $1025 per violation per day in the case of actions brought by the DOL, plus attorneys’ fees and other costs of enforcement. Unless the employer previously took steps to draft its health plan documents and negotiate its vendor contracts to provide otherwise, most vendor provided plans typically assign these liabilities to the sponsoring employer or a member of its management by naming that employer or the management person the “plan administrator” and/or “named fiduciary” responsible for those activities and liabilities, requiring the plan sponsor to indemnify the vendor for costs and liabilities arising from the performance of actions under the plan even when those actions don’t comply with ERISA fiduciary or other legal standards applicable to the performance of those duties under the plan, or both, and other contractual or plan provisions that shift liabilities and costs to the plan sponsor.
To mitigate their exposure to these liabilities and costs, employer or other health plan sponsors should consider arranging for an independent legal compliance and risk assessment of their health plan, its terms, materials and operations to help mitigate the sponsoring employer’s exposure to self-identify, self-report on IRS Form 2848 and pay the $100 per day per violation excise tax liability now generally required under the Internal Revenue Code for any such violation.
Beyond mitigating a plan sponsor’s Form 8928 reporting and associated excise tax exposures, an independent compliance audit also can mitigate other risks and exposures for the sponsoring employer, the plan and its fiduciaries, the cost of which the sponsoring employer often bears financial responsibility for funding pursuant to the contractual indemnification and funding obligations entered into in connection with the establishment and maintenance of the plan, the fiduciary role, if any, of the employer with respect to the plan, or both. Accordingly, a timely and appropriate review is likely to help mitigate other risks and liabilities such as:
- Fiduciary liability that can arising from failing to administer the plan in accordance with these and other federal health plan mandates under ERISA;
- Unanticipated benefit costs and liabilities, which for self-insured plans are likely to be particularly burdensome if compliance issues are not identified and corrected before applicable deadlines to pay and submit claims to the stop-loss or other insurer expire (usually at or shortly after the close of a plan year or if earlier, contract termination);
- Benefit costs and penalties for wrongful coordination of benefits with Medicare, Medicaid, DOD and certain other plans or coverage in violation of Secondary Payer and other mandates; and
- Costs of defending and settling audits, litigation and other government or participant enforcement actions.
Since prompt self-audit and correction can help mitigate all of these liabilities, business leaders of employers sponsoring health plans should act promptly to engage experienced legal counsel experienced with health plan laws and operations to advise the plan sponsor about how to audit their group health plan’s plan documents, materials and operations for compliance with these and other federal health plan rules within the scope of attorney-client privilege while managing tax, financial, benefit and fiduciary liability exposures to deal with potential compliance concerns that the review might discover as well as mitigate risks that could result if the audit is improperly structured or conducted.
Prepare To Respond To Potential Health Reform & Other Health Plan Improvement
Beyond identifying and addressing existing compliance concerns and other risks associated with prior or existing plan design or administration, most employer and other sponsors also will want to review the health plan document and materials and associated insurance, third-party administration and other health plan vendor contracts pursuant to which the health plan is established, maintained and administered to identify requirements and opportunities to respond quickly to make changes when and if health care reform happens as well as for other opportunities to mitigate existing risks and costs.
As most commentators expect some type of regulatory or statutory health plan relief to result from the current health care reform debates in Congress, employer and other health plan sponsors desiring to accelerate their ability to take advantage of any forthcoming relief should familiarize themselves with the procedures required under existing plan terms, contracts and rules to modify their programs in response to these changes. Almost certainly, plan sponsors should anticipate needing to adopt some amendments to plan documents, summary plan descriptions and other materials to take advantage of any legislative or statutory relief. Plan sponsors also need to keep in mind that their vendor contracts with administrators, group, stop-loss or captive insurers, and other vendors likely also will require the plan sponsor to notify and negotiate with its vendors to secure their agreement before adopting these changes to avoid violating those vendor agreements and prudently to arrange for appropriate implementation and administration of the modified plan design and terms. Identification of the contractual and plan requirements and commencement of discussions with the relevant vendors can help expedite the planning and implementation of any desired plan modifications the plan sponsor elects to make in response to any statutory or regulatory reforms.
While preparing for anticipated health care reforms, most plan sponsors also will want to review their plans and vendor contracts for other potential opportunities to mitigate risks or expenses. With respect to existing and future liability mitigation, each plan sponsor generally should carefully assess the allocation of fiduciary responsibility and liability between the sponsoring employer, members of its management or other workforce team, and vendors to identify potential areas where the contract may assign named or other plan administrator or other fiduciary status and liability to the plan sponsor or a member of its workforce for duties outsourced to a vendor. Sponsoring employers or their management may want to initiate negotiations with the vendor to reallocate the fiduciary role and responsibility to the party responsible for performance of the specific duties, enhancement of performance guarantees, indemnifications and insurance coverage for proper performance of the outsourced duties by the vendor in accordance with the plan terms, including any mandates imposed by the ACA and other federal laws in form and operation, and other safeguards or, if the vendor is unwilling to consider these changes, begin searching for a replacement vendor willing to provide better accountability for its actions with respect to the services it is hired to perform.
Except in rare circumstances where the sponsoring employer has carefully contracted to transfer fiduciary liability to its insurer or administrator and otherwise does not exercise or have a fiduciary obligation to exercise discretion or control over these responsibilities, employers sponsoring group health plans that violate federal mandates like the out-of-pocket limit often ultimately bear some or all of these liabilities even if the violation actually was committed by a plan vendor hired to administer the program either because the plan documents name the employer as the “named fiduciary” or “plan administrator” under ERISA, the employer or a member of its management named in the plan generally bears fiduciary responsibility functionally for selection or oversight of the culpable party, the employer signed a contract, resolution or plan document obligating the employer to indemnify the service provider for the liability, or a combination of these reasons.
Since prompt self-audit and correction can help mitigate all of these liabilities as well as help to preserve access to stop-loss or other reinsurance coverage, if any, applicable to help pay for some or all of any additional benefit liabilities resulting from these benefit mandates, business leaders of companies offering group health plan coverage should act quickly to engage experienced legal counsel for their companies for advice about how to audit their group health plan’s compliance with these and other federal health plan rules within the scope of attorney-client privilege while managing tax, financial, benefit and fiduciary liability exposures to deal with potential compliance concerns that the review might discover as well as mitigate risks that could result if the audit is improperly structured or conducted.
While businesses inevitably will need to involve or coordinate with their accounting, broker, and other vendors involved with the plans, businesses generally will want to get legal advice in a manner that preserves their potential to claim attorney-client privilege to protect against discovery in the event of future enforcement or litigation actions sensitive discussions and analysis about compliance audits, plan design choices, and other risk management and liability planning as well as to get help identifying potential plan design, contracting, procedural or other changes that may be needed to fix compliance deficiencies and mitigate other risks, particularly in light of complexity of the exposures and risks.
About The Author
Recognized by LexisNexis® Martindale-Hubbell® as a “AV-Preeminent” (Top 1%/ the highest) and “Top Rated Lawyer,” with special recognition 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 “Health Care,” “Labor & Employment,” “Tax: Erisa & Employee Benefits” and “Business and Commercial Law” by D Magazine, the author of this update is widely known for her 29 plus years’ of work in health care, health benefit, health policy and regulatory affairs and other health industry concerns as a practicing attorney and management consultant, thought leader, author, public policy advocate and lecturer.
Throughout her adult life and nearly 30-year legal career, Ms. Stamer’s legal, management and governmental affairs work has focused on helping health and othre employee benefit, financial services, health care and other organizations and their management use the law, performance and risk management tools and process to manage people, performance, quality, 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 supports these organizations and their leaders on both a real-time, “on demand” basis as well as outsourced operations or special counsel on an interim, special project, or ongoing basis with strategic planning and product and services development and innovation; workforce and operations management, crisis preparedness and response as well as to prevent, stabilize and cleanup legal and operational crises large and small that arise in the course of operations.
Throughout her career, she has helped a diverse array of clients manage, administer and defend employee and other workforce, vendors and suppliers, their recruitment, selection, performance management, contracting, investigation, discipline and termination; health and other employee benefits; compensation; safety; governance; compliance and internal controls; strategic planning, process and quality improvement; change management; trade secret and other privacy, data security and data breach;; crisis preparedness and response; internal, government and third-party reporting relations, audits, investigations and enforcement; government affairs and public policy; and other compliance and risk management, government and regulatory affairs and operations concerns.
The American Bar Association (ABA) International Section Life Sciences Committee Vice Chair, a Scribe for the ABA Joint Committee on Employee Benefits (JCEB) Annual OCR Agency Meeting, former Vice President of the North Texas Health Care Compliance Professionals Association, past Chair of the ABA Health Law Section Managed Care & Insurance Section, past ABA JCEB Council Representative, past Board President of Richardson Development Center (now Warren Center) for Children Early Childhood Intervention Agency, past North Texas United Way Long Range Planning Committee Member, and past Board Member and Compliance Chair of the National Kidney Foundation of North Texas, Ms. Stamer has worked extensively throughout her career with employers, health and other employee benefit plans, insurers, managed care organizations, health care clearinghouses, health care providers, their business associates, employers, banks and other financial institutions, management services organizations, professional and trade associations, accreditation agencies, auditors, technology and other vendors and service providers, and others on benefit and insurance program legal and operational compliance, risk management, public policies and regulatory affairs, contracting, payer-provider, provider-provider, vendor, patient, governmental and community relations and matters including extensive involvement advising, representing and defending plan sponsors, fiduciaries, service providers, managed care organizations, insurers, self-insured health plans and other payers. Her experience includes both leading edge work designing and administering programs, as well as defending clients in connection with audits and enforcement actions by OCR Privacy and Civil Rights, Department of Labor, IRS, HHS, DOD, FTC, SEC, CDC, OSHA, Department of Insurance, Department of Justice and state attorneys’ general and other federal and state agencies; accreditation and quality organizations; private litigation and other federal and state health care industry investigation, enforcement including 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.and other compliance, public policy, regulatory, staffing, and other operations and risk management concerns.
Past Chair of the ABA Managed Care & Insurance Interest Group and, a Fellow in the American College of Employee Benefit Counsel, the American Bar Foundation and the Texas Bar Foundation, Ms. Stamer also has extensive health care reimbursement and insurance experience advising and defending health care providers, payers, and others about Medicare, Medicaid, Medicare and Medicaid Advantage, Tri-Care, self-insured group, association, individual and group and other health benefit programs and coverages including but not limited to advising public and private payers about coverage and program design and documentation, advising and defending providers, payers and systems and billing services entities about systems and process design, audits, and other processes; provider credentialing, and contracting; providers and payer billing, reimbursement, claims audits, denials and appeals, coverage coordination, reporting, direct contracting, False Claims Act, Medicare & Medicaid, ERISA, state Prompt Pay, out-of-network and other nonpar insured, and other health care claims, prepayment, post-payment and other coverage, claims denials, appeals, billing and fraud investigations and actions and other reimbursement and payment related investigation, enforcement, litigation and actions.
Heavily involved in health care and health information technology, data and related process and systems development, policy and operations innovation and a Scribe for ABA JCEB annual agency meeting with OCR for many years who has authored numerous highly-regarded works and training programs on HIPAA and other data security, privacy and use, Ms. Stamer also is widely recognized for her extensive work and leadership on leading edge health care and benefit policy and operational issues including meaningful use and EMR, billing and reimbursement, quality measurement and reimbursement, 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 many other concerns. Her work includes both regulatory and public policy advocacy and thought leadership, as well as advising and representing a broad range of health industry and other clients about policy design, drafting, administration, business associate and other contracting, risk assessments, audits and other risk prevention and mitigation, investigation, reporting, mitigation and resolution of known or suspected violations or other incidents and responding to and defending investigations or other actions by plaintiffs, DOJ, OCR, FTC, state attorneys’ general and other federal or state agencies, other business partners, patients and others.
A lead policy advisor to the Government of Bolivia on its pension privitization project and involved in U.S. federal and state as well as cross border workforce, pension, health care, Social Security, immigration, and tax regulatory and statutory reform throughout her adult life, Ms. Stamer also is widely sought out for her thoughtleadership and assistance with domestic and international public policy concerns in Pensions, healthcare, workforce, immigration, tax, education and other areas.
A popular lecturer and widely published author on health industry concerns, Ms. Stamer continuously advises health industry clients about compliance and internal controls, workforce and medical staff performance, quality, governance, reimbursement, privacy and data security, and other risk management and operational matters. Ms. Stamer also publishes and speaks extensively on health and managed care industry regulatory, staffing and human resources, compensation and benefits, technology, public policy, reimbursement and other operations and risk management concerns.
A Fellow in the American College of Employee Benefit Counsel, the American Bar Foundation and the Texas Bar Foundation, Ms. Stamer also shares her thought leadership, experience and advocacy on these and other related concerns by her service in the leadership of the Solutions Law Press, Inc. Coalition for Responsible Health Policy, its PROJECT COPE: Coalition on Patient Empowerment, and a broad range of other professional and civic organizations including North Texas Healthcare Compliance Association, 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 (now Warren Center For Children); 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, past Representative and chair of various committees of ABA Joint Committee on Employee Benefits; a ABA Health Law Coordinating Council representative, 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, symposium and chair, faculty member 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 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, Insurance Thought Leadership and many other prominent publications and speaks and conducts training for a broad range of professional organizations.
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©2017 Cynthia Marcotte Stamer. Non-exclusive right to republish granted to Solutions Law Press, Inc.™ All other rights reserved. For information about republication or other use, please contact Ms. Stamer here.
If you or someone else you know would like to receive future updates about developments on these and other concerns, please be sure that we have your current contact information including your preferred e-mail by creating or updating your profile here.
©2017 Cynthia Marcotte Stamer. Non-exclusive right to republish granted to Solutions Law Press, Inc.™. All other rights reserved.