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Updating the Employee Handbook in Unprecedented Times

On October 21, 2020

By Philip Qualo, J.D.
 

In general, employers should review and revise their employee handbooks at least annually to account for changes in local, state, and federal laws and workplace safety requirements. As employers begin to focus on reviewing their employee handbooks in preparation for a… hopefully better… 2021, many are pondering how to update their handbooks to adequately respond to the challenges presented by the COVID-19 pandemic and continuing racial tensions sparked by the murder of George Floyd. Although employers have generally been quick to adopt and enforce policies addressing COVID-19-and diversity related issues, the rapidly changing guidance and dramatic shift in cultural perspectives has also necessitated swift revisions as best practices and requirements continue to change from day to day. In finalizing our own employee handbook for the upcoming year, we can share two important tips employers may want consider in reviewing and updating their employee handbooks in these challenging times.
 

Tip #1: Limit the Handbook to Static COVID-19 Language Where Possible

As updating an employee handbook multiple times within a fiscal year can be an administratively burdensome task, a best practice is to ensure all policies included or updated in the handbook are relevant, or static, for the duration of the applicable fiscal year. This has been simple in most years, however, in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the federal government passed a series of comprehensive laws with rapidly approaching expiration dates aimed at protecting American workers by regulating group health plans and providing for new leave paid entitlements, such as the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA). In addition to FFCRA, state and local guidance and laws continue to be updated at an unpredictable frequency that often necessitates a quick and temporary change to employment policies changes in order to comply work safety work requirements. 

In order to avoid the challenge of updating and re-releasing multiple times throughout these unprecedented times, it may be helpful to limit specific references to COVID-19. We chose to use terms such as “Public Health Emergency” or “Pandemic” where possible. If COVID-19 has taught us anything, it is that life is unpredictable. Now that we have collectively experienced and continue to endure this pandemic, including language in an employee handbook referencing an employer’s responsibility to contain a public health emergency or pandemic could apply to other critical situations that pose a threat to future safety.

For policies with an approaching expiration date, or that are likely to change frequently based on changing guidance, it may be helpful to generally refer to them in the employee handbook and detail them in a referenced platform or notice that can be updated with ease. For example, we use an intranet platform to house our most up to date COVID-19 policies which allows for quick enhancements and immediate notification to employees. Although any platform accessible to all employees would be appropriate, an employer should take the additional step of distributing, announcing, or where applicable, requiring sign-off for each and every change to document compliance with notification requirements.


Tip #2: Closely Review and Update Anti-Harassment, Nondiscrimination and Sexual Harassment Policies

In the “Black Lives Matter” and “MeToo” era, organizations are taking the extra step of ensuring all policies and employment practices reflect their organizations commitment to diversity inclusion. As such, we encourage employers pay special attention to their anti-harassment, non-discrimination, and sexual harassment policies to ensure proper reporting, investigation, and anti-retaliation protocols are documented and in place. These policies send a message to employees about expected behavior.  In the event of a claim against the organization, they also help to demonstrate that the organization takes its obligations seriously.  Social media policies are similarly becoming a focus of concern for many employers in this day and age, when a single unwise employee post or public statement can subject the organization to a litany of negative publicity to their places. As demonstrated by the increasingly popular wave of “Karen” videos that have gone viral in recent months, employers may want to consider establishing or updating their policies to clearly reflect the handling of employees involved in large scale publicity due to inflammatory behavior or comments that could shed a negative light on the employer.

We hope these tips are helpful and provide some insight on how to enhance your employee handbook in challenging times.

New Opportunities to Save, Create Revenue & Avoid Scary Practices

On October 19, 2020

Join The Phia Team as they share some of the industry’s scariest blunders and gruesome practices. Turn down the lights and prepare to be horrified; but fear not... with this trick there are also treats. Not only will attendees learn from others' mistakes, but we will also pull from our bag of goodies new sources of revenue and savings for plans and administrators alike. If you miss this one, it will haunt you for the rest of your life.

Click Here to View Our Full Webinar on YouTube

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Empowering Plans: P93 - Behind the Scenes – Town Halls, Nominees & Medicare-for-All

On October 19, 2020

In this episode of the Empowering Plans podcast, Ron Peck and Brady Bizarro take you behind the scenes, avoiding the bright lights of presidential town halls and Supreme Court confirmation hearings. What is really going on? Is Medicare-for-All still a threat? Where is the Trump administration’s healthcare plan? How will a potential Justice Amy Cony Barrett rule on the Affordable Care Act case? Tune in to find out!

Click here to check out the podcast!  (Make sure you subscribe to our YouTube and iTunes Channels!)

Empowering Plans: P92 - Healthcare on Stage & COVID-19 in the White House

On October 13, 2020

In this episode, Ron Peck and Brady Bizarro guide you through a chaotic week for healthcare news. What did we learn (if anything) from the first presidential debate? With COVID-19 infecting the President and much of the West Wing, what can we learn from the President’s experimental treatment? Would self-funded plans cover this treatment? What impact could all of this have on the Affordable Care Act lawsuit? Join us to find out!

Click here to check out the podcast!  (Make sure you subscribe to our YouTube and iTunes Channels!)

Offer More for More!

On October 8, 2020

By: Ron E. Peck, Esq.
 

COVID-19 and the current pandemic has caused even more attention to be paid to health care and health insurance.  Yet, despite health care being a topic of discussion “in general,” during this Presidential election, I am surprised by how “little” airtime the specific issue of “Medicare-for-All” is receiving, compared to (for instance) the Democratic primaries.  Yet, I wonder if that is due (in part) to a false belief that, by nominating Joe Biden (as compared to, for instance, Elizabeth Warren) the people of this nation have rejected the idea of Medicare-for-All, and can move on to the issue of saving or eliminating the ACA.
 

Yet, some eagle-eyed viewers will note Vice President Biden’s oft referenced “Medicare-for-All-Who-Want-It” and “Public Option” rhetoric.  Make no mistake; if such a plan proceeds, it will amount to – eventually – a Medicare-for-All scenario. 
 

Looking at individual States that have already proposed public options for its citizens, the backbone of such programs is a payment methodology, with that methodology centering on payment of a “percent of Medicare.”  In other words, these public options will pay using a Reference Based Pricing (“RBP”) approach.  Unlike private plans that dare such an approach, however, these public option plans will protect their participants from balance billing, using law and regulation.  In other words, a private plan using an RBP methodology will see its members balance billed, and no legal protections exist to combat it.  The public option plan, however, will pay the same (or lesser) percent of Medicare, and protect its members with the power of the law.
 

This will, obviously, result in the public option costing less than private options; (absent other cost drivers).  If things do indeed go this way, more people will migrate from their private plans to the public option.  Only the sickest members (fearful that coverage under the public option will be inadequate) will remain on the private plans, making those private plans too costly to sustain.  This is called adverse selection, and it would – presumably – be the last straw that breaks the private industry’s back.
 

Yet, this long, drawn out road to an eventual “singer payer” scenario is not guaranteed.  Only if our industry strives to beat the public option at its own game – specifically, “price” – will it lose.  Yet, in so many other markets, private industry competes – and beats – government programs despite being more costly.  In many scenarios, sending a parcel via the USPS is less costly than, for instance, via DHL, UPS or FedEx… yet… many choose to pay more for the private carrier’s service.  Why?  Likewise, taking public transit is often less expensive than driving (and parking) your own vehicle, catching a ride share, or other private means of transportation.  Yet, we don’t all take the train.  Public schools are readily available for most, at little to no cost, but some choose to pay tuition and send their children to private schools.
 

Note that I am not here to opine on these decisions or suggest why people make the choices they make.  What I will say, however, is that – presumably – the people who pay more for the private option do so because, right or wrong, they perceive they are receiving more for their money.  They believe they are receiving added quality, features, or benefits that make the added cost worthwhile.  Further, the service provider has advertised the difference in quality – true or simply perceived – so much so that the consumer readily chooses the more costly, private option.
 

Members of the current health benefits industry are so accustomed to competing with each other over price.  Yes, each entity offers things that differentiate their services from those offered by the competition, but the consensus is that these services are similar enough that price is the big difference maker.  If they maintain this attitude, they will not be able to compete with a public option. 
 

Enter “premium” services; enter “luxury.”  In so many other industries, service providers exist – and thrive – despite prices that exceed those offered by the competition.  Ask these entities whether their prices are higher than the competition, however, and they only consider vendors offering similar levels of luxury (for similar prices) as the “competition.” 
 

It may be the case that, if and when private health benefits cannot compete with a public option on price, they will need to re-invent the industry, and instead view themselves as purveyors of “luxury” benefits.  Offer services people want to buy.

Value is not synonymous with inexpensive.  Value means getting more for your money.  This industry’s future may, therefore, depend upon providing value – something or some things the public option does not offer – resulting in an admittedly higher price still representing value.

COVID-19 Impact on Self-Funded Health Plans

On September 29, 2020

COVID-19 has impacted just about every aspect of our lives, and self-funded health plans have not been spared. Along with being mindful of employees' health during the pandemic, employers and HR managers must also be mindful of the state of their self-funded health plans.

More than half of the non-elderly population in the United States receives health care coverage through an employer-based plan. The majority of this group are covered by either fully or partially self-funded health care plans. As such, the health care plans of many Americans could be impacted by COVID-19. 

What Are Self-Funded Health Plans?

Despite so many Americans having self-funded health plans, many are unfamiliar with the term. So what exactly are self-funded health plans? A self-funded health plan, also referred to as a self-insured plan, is a health an welfare plan through which the employer takes on the full financial risk associated with providing health care benefits to employees. Usually, self-insured employers establish a special trust fund to cover incurred claims.

Self-funded and fully insured health plans operate similarly. Money is collected and covers medical expenses for the insured population. Where self-funded plans differ from fully insured health care plans is that self-funded plans do not pass the responsibility for the financial risk onto a third party, which fully insured plans do; in a self-funded plan, claims are usually paid with a mixture of the plan sponsor's (i.e. the employer’s) assets and employee contributions.

Fully insured plans are what most people think of when they think of health insurance; it is a more traditional model, and self-funded healthcare has changed that model for the better. 

COVID-19 Impact on the Self-Funded Industry

How has COVID-19 impact on health care spread to the self-funded industry? What has been the financial impact of COVID-19 on the self-funded industry? Currently, benefits professionals are working hard to ensure stability for organizations during this chaotic time, and to figure out the answers to these difficult questions.

Employers with self-funded health plans are also working hard to ensure that their employees and employees' dependents can access COVID-19 testing, treatment, and medical assistance while the entire country copes with this pandemic. A self-funded health plan insures many people generally over a long period of time, which is why protecting the plan's financial viability and assessing the possible financial effects of COVID-19 is essential for employers and HR managers.

Projecting the possible financial impact of COVID-19 on a self-funded health plan is no simple task, as numerous variables should factor into projections, such as the number of infected plan members, the duration of shelter-in-place orders, employee furloughs, and many more factors. Despite these challenges, employers are still working diligently to address challenges related to COVID-19 and health care, such as adjusting eligibility standards, expanding benefits, and waiving cost-sharing for treatment related to COVID-19 performed by in-network providers.

Many employers are also relaxing open enrollment restrictions and offering more flexibility to individuals who want to join a company's benefits plan outside the traditional open enrollment period. Due to job losses, many individuals and their dependents are finding themselves without coverage, so many are scrambling to find other insurance coverage wherever possible. 

Next Steps for Employers

Many employers are unsure about how COVID-19 will impact group health care plans. While expenses for the treatment and testing of COVID-19 are rising, utilization is down for elective and preventive services. Even employee benefits experts are still unsure of how the pandemic will continue to impact health plans, with some experts predicting an increase in employer health care costs and others predicting a decrease.

Employers who have self-funded group health care plans need to be particularly mindful of this wide range in predictions and take steps to ensure the financial viability and stability of health plans during the COVID-19 crisis. Since every plan is different, employers and HR managers will need to consider their own employee populations when trying to predict future costs and utilization, as well as their own business needs. 

1. Adjust Plan Documents

If your company has adjusted coverages to account for services related to COVID-19, you need to amend plan documents to reflect these adjustments. Coverage requirements have been expanded for all health plans as a result of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act and the Families First Coronavirus Response Act. Many major insurance carriers in the U.S. have chosen to go beyond requirements set by the new legislation, such as by waiving cost-sharing for COVID-19 related hospitalizations.

2. Accrue Funds

Though there may be a drop in health care costs in the short-term, most experts agree that this will not be the case forever. After the pandemic, there could even be an unusually sharp increase in health care costs as a result of individuals delaying care during the pandemic, and resuming care immediately afterwards.

Shelter-in-place orders could also lead to a spike in behavioral health claims due to issues with anxiety, stress, and depression. Many Americans are dealing with the loss of loved ones and loss of employment, along with loneliness as a result of unprecedented isolation. Changes in supply and demand could also contribute to an increase in health care costs. As such, you should continue accruing funds in anticipation of a need for these funds in the future. 

3. Determine Whether to Add Telemedicine

Consider whether you want to add telemedicine to your self-funded health plan. Though historically telemedicine has seen a low level of usage, the appeal of telehealth services has spiked during the COVID-19 pandemic. Through telemedicine, which often now includes video conferences, individuals can access medical services without leaving their homes.

Even post-pandemic, telemedicine is likely to remain a popular option for Americans who want to receive medical services from the convenience of their own homes. 

4. Reassess the Risk Level of Your Group

Now is the time to reevaluate how the characteristics of your company's insured population could negatively affect a self-funded health plan. Are the employees frontline restaurant workers, retail workers, health care professionals, or other employees who frequently come into contact with the public and may be at a higher risk of becoming infected with COVID-19? Factors like that can greatly alter a self-funded plan’s viability.

Has your company reduced staff? Furloughing or laying off employees could increase the volatility of claims. Volatility increases as the number of insured employees decreases. These changes in risk level could negatively affect your health plan and should be addressed. 

Learn More About Our Independent Consultation and Self-Funded Health Plan Evaluation at The Phia Group, LLC

The Phia Group, LLC has been working to ensure that health benefits remain affordable for employers and employees. We tailor our various cost-containment services to our clients' specific needs. If you are ready to regain control of your operations, including switching from “traditional” insurance to a self-funded health plan, we can help you minimize costs while maximizing benefits.

We provide consulting services to address a wide range of compliance concerns, business disputes, and claim-specific dilemmas. Learn more about our independent consultation and self-funded health plan evaluation or contact us today.

Empowering Plans: P91 - The Pandemic & The Employer Mandate

On September 24, 2020

In this episode of the Empowering Plans podcast, Brady is joined by Kelly Dempsey to discuss a particularly damaging impact of the pandemic that does not get much media attention: with many businesses forced to operate at reduced capacity, they still have to comply with the ACA's employer mandate. That can be very burdensome given falling revenues. What can be done by the regulators and by Congress? Find out in our latest podcast.

Click here to check out the podcast!  (Make sure you subscribe to our YouTube and iTunes Channels!)

Drug Pricing Still on the Ballot in 2020

On September 24, 2020

By: Nick Bonds, Esq.
 

I doubt I am alone in feeling that 2020 has already crammed in roughly a decade’s worth of health crises, and we still have months to go. From murder hornets to the ever-present threat of the coronavirus, from wildfires turning the West Coast skies orange to so many hurricanes we are running out of names; our collective physical, mental, and emotional health has been through the ringer this year. Not to mention the tumbling dominoes of economic impacts wrought by all of the above, which by itself can have a substantial impact on our health.
 

The cost of prescription drugs, already high even before 2020 built up a head of steam, continues to be a source of financial pain for American households. Nearly 30% of Americans have reported not taking their prescription medicine as directed due to its cost. This is one of the most glaring examples of individuals’ medical decisions being driven not by medical judgment, but by financial circumstance. 
 

At the beginning of the year, prescription drug prices ranked top among the “pocketbook” issues most primary voters were focused on. Though the debate around Medicare for all became a clear fault line among the Democratic presidential nominee hopefuls, virtually all the candidates threw their support behind a plan to give Medicare authority to negotiate drug prices with manufacturers. They also tended to favor plans to facilitate importation of cheaper medications from overseas and reigning in drug makers’ penchant for manipulating the patent system to artificially delay development and marketing of low-cost generic drugs.
 

Since clinching the Democratic nomination, Vice President Biden’s stance on drug pricing reform has come into sharper focus. The Biden-Sanders “unity task force” published a detailed list of policy recommendations, including a plan for “bringing down drug prices and taking on the pharmaceutical industry.” The primary prongs of which include empowering Medicare to negotiate drug prices, pushing to keep drug price increases in line with inflation, capping prescription costs for seniors, and cracking down on anti-competitive practices among drug manufacturers.
 

Not to be outdone, President Trump recently announced a “hail Mary” effort on drug prices, signing his “Executive Order on Lowering Drug Prices by Putting America First” on September 13. Ostensibly, this order is designed to bring down domestic prices for prescription drugs by tying what Medicare pays for prescription drugs to the “most-favored-nation price” of those same drugs abroad. Specifically, capping Medicare’s rate to the lowest price for a pharmaceutical product that drug maker sells in a member country of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).
 

It seems unlikely that this plan could be effectively implemented before the upcoming election, but it does show that the President still sees prescription drug prices as a viable campaign issue, even after campaigning on it in 2016 and hitting mostly dead ends in his efforts to address the issue in his first term. Recent polling shows that drug pricing remains one of the few healthcare issues where the President outstripped his Democratic challenger, and the President’s most-favored-nations policy appears to resonate among his base.
 

Whomever lands behind the Resolute desk in 2021, we can be sure that drug pricing reform will be high on their agenda. In the meantime, everyone stay safe, stay healthy, and be ready to vote on November 3.

Benefits on the Ballot – A Political Update for Health Benefits Professionals

On September 22, 2020

Election season is underway.  The future of healthcare will be decided via the ballot box, court rooms, and congressional halls.  Pandemic or no pandemic, the gears of democracy are turning and what happens now will have long term effects for us all.  Join The Phia Group as they discuss the most important elections (including candidates’ positions on health), ongoing legal cases, and proposed laws.  They will dissect each and provide you with not only thoughts on how they may impact us, but how we can best prepare for likely outcomes.

Click Here to View Our Full Webinar on YouTube

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New Guidance on HIPAA – Using PHI to Contact Recovered COVID-19 Patients Regarding Plasma Donation

On September 21, 2020

By: Andrew Silverio, Esq.

Recently, the Department of Health and Human Services released updated guidance outlining some permissible uses of Protected Health Information (PHI) under HIPAA in regard to recovered COVID-19 patients (available at www.hhs.gov/sites/default/files/guidance-on-hipaa-and-contacting-former-covid-19-patients-about-plasma-donation.pdf).  This guidance, which applies to health care providers, health plans, and their business associates, is an expansion of previous guidance which applied only to health care providers.

In essence, the guidance provides that these entities can use PHI to identify and contact individuals who have recovered from COVID-19 in order to inform them about how to donate their plasma, which will contain antibodies to SARS-CoV-2 which are useful in potentially treating COVID-19 patients. This activity has been classified as falling within the category of “health care operations,” and thus PHI can be used for this purpose without an individual’s authorization. 

HHS outlines that these activities constitute “health care operations” in that “facilitating the supply of donated plasma would be expected to improve the covered health care provider’s or health plan’s ability to conduct case management for patients or beneficiaries that have or may become infected with COVID-19.”  In regard to a health plan (as opposed to a particular provider who may use collected plasma itself to treat other patients), this justification’s connection to the “health care operations” of the specific covered entity seems tenuous.  It is difficult to see how, for a health plan as opposed to a provider, an interest in increasing the availability of antibody-containing plasma generally actually furthers the “health care operations” goals of the particular plan.  However, the public interest rationale here is crystal clear.

The guidance does come with an important caveat – the use of PHI for this purpose is only permitted to the extent that the outreach does not constitute marketing, which HHS outlines as “a communication about a product or service that encourages the recipient of the communication to purchase or use the product or service.”  This should not be an issue for plans, but providers likely have to walk a fine line when they provide the services in question.