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ACA PCORI FEES ARE BACK

On January 14, 2020

By: Philip Qualo, J.D.

The Trump Administration has been very transparent in their efforts to undermine and dismantle the Affordable Care Act (ACA). There have been several milestones in these efforts, such as essentially gutting the ACA Individual Mandate by reducing the penalty to $0 for individuals who forego health plan coverage for the tax year. The Trump Administration has also passed on the torch to the federal courts, as the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals has recently ruled that the Individual Mandate is unconstitutional, and has kicked the case back to the lower courts to determine whether other parts of the ACA should be overturned as well.

However, there appears to be at least one aspect of the ACA that the Trump Administration appears to support – the revenue generated by PCORI fees. The Patient-Centered Outcomes Research Institute (PCORI) fee was established as a part of the ACA to fund medical research. Insurers and employers with self-insured plans are subject to the fee. The last PCORI fee payment was expected to occur on July 31, 2019 (or July 31, 2020 for non-calendar year plans). The ACA mandated payment of an annual PCORI fee was intended to be a temporary measure as it only applied to plan years ending after September 30, 2012, and before October 1, 2019, to provide initial funding for the Washington, D.C. based institute.

This past year, we have consistently advised our clients that PCORI fees would be a thing of the past – based on the law at that time. However, each time I wrote or spoke those words I had this gnawing feeling in my gut. Although the PCORI fee was intended to be a temporary assessment, it was difficult for me to imagine that we would let a revenue-generating assessment just slowly fade away into oblivion.

Well… it looks like I was right (I should have placed a wager on this!). On December 20, 2020, President Trump signed 2020 spending legislation (the 2020 “Further Consolidated Appropriations Act”), repealing three ACA related taxes: the 40% “Cadillac” Tax on high-cost employer-provided health coverage, a 2.3% excise tax on medical devices, and the Health Insurance Tax (HIT) on fully-insured plans. Although these cuts would appear to be in line with the Administration’s efforts to obliterate the ACA’s existence, for some reason, the Trump Administration make a last-minute decision to preserve and extend the PCORI fee for another 10 years through the Act. This means employers with self-funded plans must continue paying the administratively burdensome PCORI fee.

Although the future of the ACA is still a question mark at this time, based on this recent extension of a small portion of the ACA, I think it is fair to conclude that PCORI fees are here to stay. In about 9 years from now, whether the ACA is still here or not, I predict PCORI fees are either extended … again, or written into another legislation to make it a permanent excise tax on health plans.

Please note, that the next PCORI fee is due by July 31, 2020. The IRS has yet to announce the rates for this year, so say tuned!

What Happens to a Health Plan during a Merger or Acquisition?

On January 9, 2020

By: Kevin Brady. Esq.

While businesses who are considering a potential merger or acquisition have a lot on their plates, one thing that should always be addressed is the impact that the transaction will have on the benefit plans of both the buyer and the seller. While it probably does not represent the biggest concern, overlooking the potential impact on benefit plans can cause major headaches when it comes to potential mergers and acquisitions.

Because the impact on the benefit plans will often be determined by the nature of the transaction and the specific agreement between the buyer and seller, it is important that both parties are aligned when determining how employees affected by the merger or acquisition will be provided benefits after the transaction is complete.

For our limited purposes, there are typically three types of transactions when it comes to mergers and acquisitions; an asset sale, a stock sale, and a merger.

In an asset sale for example, the buyer will typically purchase selected assets from another business (i.e. a particular department, facility, or service line). The employees who are affected by the transaction are typically considered terminated and immediately rehired by the new employer. The buyer does not have a legal obligation to hire those employees but often will do so if it aligns with their business practices. Those employees (while they may not notice a significant change in their employment or benefits) are most likely going to be considered terminated and immediately transitioned to the new employer’s health plans. Generally speaking, buyers do not continue ERISA benefit plans in asset purchases. Some, if not most, continue to offer similar benefits either under an existing employer group health plan or a new plan established after the purchase of the assets. If the buyer intends to offer similar benefits under their existing plan, they must ensure that their plan allows coverage for these individuals.

On the other hand, in the event of a stock purchase, the buyer will typically “step into the shoes of the seller” in terms of its rights and responsibilities as it relates to ownership of the business (including ERISA plans). The employees of the seller are not considered terminated in the event of a stock purchase (although this does not guarantee future employment) and ERISA plans in effect at the time of the sale are typically continued after the stock purchase has taken place.

Finally, in a merger, two entities will combine to become one business entity. In this situation, similar to a stock purchase, the employees are not considered terminated at the time of the merger and if an ERISA plan was in effect at the time of the merger it will likely be continued. However, the impact on a particular entities benefit plan will often be determined based on the specific agreement between the parties.

As the nature of the transaction will have a major impact on benefit plans, it is always important to discuss the intent of both parties as it relates to their employees and those employees’ benefits. Often times, a potential merger or acquisition will include a thorough review of an entity’s compliance as well. Has the seller complied with the strict requirements to file form 5500s? Is the plan properly funded? Does the plan document itself allow for another employer to continue benefit under the plan? These are all questions, among many more, that should be asked and answered before moving forward with a potential merger or acquisition.

Finally, the buyer or the new entity (in the event of a merger), must ensure that they are compliance as it relates to their new employees and the benefits being offered to them. Buyers and sellers who could find themselves in a potential merger or acquisition should keep these things in mind as they move forward with those decisions. While a potential merger or acquisition can be a great thing for those involved, it would be a shame for unidentified issues with a benefit plan to hold things up or even prevent a potential transaction.

Embracing the Pain, Avoiding the Suffering

On January 6, 2020

By: Ron E. Peck, Esq.

I really enjoy the quote, attributed to Haruki Murakami, that “Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional.”  This really hits home for me for a few reasons, personal and professional, but for our purposes – let’s consider how it relates to the health benefits industry and healthcare as a whole.

Anyone paying attention to the media and political debates will no doubt make note of the constant rhetoric regarding healthcare, and more to-the-point, the “cost” of healthcare.  I’ve (here and elsewhere) discussed ad-nauseam my position that health “care” and health “insurance” are not the same.  That insurance is a means by which you pay for care, and is not care itself.  That by addressing solely the cost of insurance, and not the cost of care, you build a home on a rotten foundation.  So, you can likely imagine some of the “ad-nauseam” I feel in my stomach when I hear the candidates talking on and on about how they’ll “fix” the problem of rising healthcare costs by punishing insurance carriers and making health “insurance” affordable (including Medicare-for-All).

The issue is that, ultimately, whether I pay via cash, check or credit… and whether I pay out of my own bank account, my wife’s account, or my parent’s account… at the end of the day, a beer at Gillette Stadium still costs more than a beer from the hole-in-the-wall pub, and if I keep buying beer from (and thereby encouraging the up-charging by) the stadium, prices will increase and whomever is paying (and in whatever form they are paying) will be drained, and no longer be able to pay for much longer.  In other words, making insurance affordable (or free) without addressing the actual cost itself is simply passing the buck.

So, this brings me to the quote: “Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional.”

Pain – the pain we feel as we are forced to deal with a costly, yet necessary, thing … healthcare.  As technologies improve, research expands, and miracles take place every day, I absolutely understand that with the joys of modern medicine, come too the pain of cost.  We must identify ways to reward the innovators, the care takers, the providers of life saving care.

Yet, we – as not only an industry, but as a nation – also assume that with this inevitable pain, so too must come the suffering.  Suffering in the form of bankruptcy for hard working Americans and their families.  Suffering in the form of unaffordable care, patients being turned away by providers, and steadily rising out of pocket expenses.

I do not believe that this suffering needs to be inevitable.  If instead we accept the inevitability of the “pain” inherent in healthcare, and the costs of providing healthcare, but instead identify innovative ways to address those costs, then we can avoid the suffering.  Our own health plan, for instance, rewards providers that identify and implement ways to provide the best care, for the least cost.  Our plan rewards participants who utilize such providers as well.  We educate our plan participants regarding how, unlike in many other aspects of life, in healthcare you do NOT “get” what you “pay for.”  That fancy labels, advertisements, and price tags do not equate to better care.  We teach our participants how to leverage not only “price transparency,” but also quality measurements to identify the “best of the best” when seeking care – providers that perform as well or better than the rest, for the lowest cost.  Rather than accept the “inevitability” of suffering, we embrace the pain – we endure the costs, the time, the resources necessary to actually care, and make ourselves educated consumers of healthcare.

The result?  Plan participants – employees that have been on the plan for five or more years – will, beginning in 2020, not make any contribution payment to our plan.  That’s right; their “premium” is zero dollars.  The cost of their enrollment is covered, 100%, by the plan sponsor.  The plan sponsor, meanwhile, can afford to do this thanks to efforts it has made, as well as efforts made by its plan participants, to keep the costs down.  Indeed, a self-funded employer like us can make a choice – either assume that the suffering is inevitable, and pass the cost onto the plan members (incurring the wrath of your own employees and politicians alike), or, see that the suffering is optional, and nip it in the bud.  We have identified ways to better deal with the inevitable pain, thereby minimizing the suffering endured by our plan participants.

It can be done, and we did it.  You can too, but the first step is accepting that some things are inevitable, and others are not.  Assigning inevitability to something that is not in fact inevitable is a form of laziness and blame shifting; and the time has come to stop that behavior, accept responsibility, do the painful work necessary to change things, and recognize that – no pain, no gain. 

Empowering Plans: P75 – Free Health Benefits at Phia

On January 3, 2020

We finally did it! Join Adam Russo and Ron Peck as they discuss the different tactics used to offer Phia's employees FREE health benefits! This is not a podcast that you can afford to miss.

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

Robbing Peter to Pay Paul: The Trouble with Cross-Patient Offsetting

On December 30, 2019

By: Jon Jablon, Esq.

Our consulting team (via PGCReferral@phiagroup.com) is often presented with the following scenario: Patient A visits Hospital, and the Plan pays certain benefits to Hospital which are later discovered to have actually been excluded by the terms of the plan document. This is a classic overpayment scenario, except that Hospital refuses to refund the overpayment to the plan (which it is well within its rights to do). In response, to try to avoid the loss, the Plan decides to activate the right it has given itself to offset future benefits payable against amounts due to the Plan. The right to offset future benefits is a common one, and there is nothing inherently unenforceable about offsetting benefits due to a patient, when that particular patient owes the plan money.

This health plan interprets its offset provision to apply across different patients. Since it is unknown whether or when Patient A will incur more covered claims, the plan instead decides to recoup its overpaid funds by withholding benefits due to Patient B (who had the misfortune of being the next patient to visit Hospital).

The question posed to our consulting team is whether this is an acceptable practice.

Our answer is no.

First, regarding overpayments in general: with some exceptions – such as payments by the Plan in excess of a contracted amount, or in excess of billed charges (for non-contracted claims) – providers do not have a legal obligation to refund money to a health plan. Instead, courts have indicated that the overpayment was technically made to the patient, since the plan paid money that would have been patient responsibility, had the plan correctly denied that amount.

Plan Administrators have certain fiduciary duties pursuant to ERISA and common law, including to act solely in the interest of plan participants, to act with the exclusive purpose of providing benefits and paying reasonable plan expenses, and to strictly abide by the terms of the Plan Document. The most apt interpretation of the practice of cross-patient offsetting is that the Plan has withheld benefits to Patient B in order to benefit the plan, such that Patient B is denied benefits to account for a prior error on the part of the plan. The plan’s attempt to make itself whole at Patient B’s expense – even though Patient B played no role in, nor benefitted in any way from, nor was even aware of, the overpayment – could be interpreted as a violation of an important fiduciary duty.

Cross-patient offsetting negates benefits due to patient B because of the Hospital’s refusal to refund money to the Plan. When we consider that it is not the provider that has technically been overpaid, but Patient A, it becomes more clear that Patient B cannot have benefits withheld to compensate for the overpayment made to Patient A. It’s an attempt to punish Hospital for not refunding money that is legally due from Patient A. Meanwhile, Patient B has paid her contributions in exchange for benefits from the plan; to withhold benefits due to Patient B because another, unrelated patient has not repaid the plan money allegedly owed is a practice we strongly recommend against.

Overpayments happen, and The Phia Group can assist in recouping them – but please, please do not offset a perceived overpayment against future claims incurred by other patients!

The Phia Group Announces the Offering of Free Health Benefits to Employees and Their Families

On December 19, 2019

For Immediate Release

December 19, 2019

Braintree, MA – The Phia Group, LLC is pleased to announce that with the ringing in of the new year, it will be offering FREE HEALTH BENEFITS to employees and their families.  Specifically, plan participants that have been enrolled in the plan for five or more years will be enrolled in 2020 and have zero contribution or premium; 100% of the cost of their and their families’ membership is paid for by The Phia Group. 

This remarkable achievement is made possible thanks to the application and utilization of cost containment measures developed and provided by The Phia Group to the self-funded health benefits community, and proactive efforts on the part of its own plan membership to be educated, and cost-conscious “consumers” of healthcare.

The Phia Group’s CEO, Adam V. Russo, Esq., remarked – in response to those that believe cost-shifting the burden of rising healthcare costs onto employees is inevitable – that, with the right tactics in place, health benefits can be affordable and employees do not need to bear the burden of an inefficient health plan.  “If our approach to health benefits didn’t work,” Adam continued, “… could we afford to maintain our contribution levels, year after year?  Could we continue to offer benefits with no co-pays or deductible?  The answer is no.”

Ron E. Peck, Esq., Executive Vice President and General Counsel of The Phia Group explained, “Our mission is to ensure health benefits are robust and affordable for hard working Americans.  Very few people work as hard as our own employees, so providing them with the best, most affordable benefits is us living our mission.”

“We are very proud to be able to offer our employees and their families the types of benefits they’d only see at a very small number of businesses, nationwide;” Adam concluded.

For more information regarding The Phia Group, it’s benefit plan, and the services that make these incredible results possible, please contact Vice President Tim Callender by email at tcallender@phiagroup.com or by phone at 781-535-5631.

About The Phia Group:

The Phia Group, LLC, headquartered in Braintree, Massachusetts, is an experienced provider of health care cost containment techniques offering comprehensive claims recovery, plan document and consulting services designed to control health care costs and protect plan assets.  By providing industry leading consultation, plan drafting, subrogation and other cost containment solutions, The Phia Group is truly Empowering Plans.

Empowering Plans: P74 – Medicare Podcast for All!

On December 19, 2019

This is it!  This is it!  Ron and Brady pick apart Elizabeth Warren’s Medicare-for-All proposal, and the concept as a whole; the good, the bad, and the really bad. You can’t afford to ignore this one.

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

Prescription Drug Pricing – On a Back Burner, but Still on the Stove

On December 18, 2019

By: Nick Bonds, Esq.

With Presidential impeachment eating up the above-the-fold coverage pretty much universally, it is important to remember that Congress has other pressing issues to attend to. While a number of Democratic candidates are worried their mandatory attendance at the Senate trial will eat up valuable campaign time on the ground in the early primary states, the rest of Congress is still trying to keep the country running.

For instance, while Democrats and Republicans have an “agreement in principle” on a stopgap appropriations deal to fund the government through the end of the fiscal year, the spending package still needs to be finalized an passed before December 20 to avoid another looming shutdown. Meanwhile, the House Ways and Means Committee is working to ratify the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA), the Trump Administration’s replacement for NAFTA. Both of these urgent matters of business appear to have bipartisan support, but Congress is certainly feeling the pressure as this week gets underway.

The major sticking point in the USMCA negotiations appears to be the debate around the trade deal’s prescription drug provisions. The pharmaceutical lobby has long been pushing for prescription drug protections in trade deals – remember the TPP – but this time around the White House’s primary objective appears to be lowering drug prices. A concession to strike protections for biologics from the trade agreement appears to have clinched Democratic support, who opposed the deal’s 10 years of regulatory data protection for biologics innovations. Democrats argued that the biologics protections would increase drug prices in the U.S. and delay development of cheaper biosimilar drugs.

While the USMCA appears on track for ratification, Speaker Pelosi’s prize fight of the moment is her drug pricing bill – which passed the House along party lines last Thursday. The bill, named for late Representative Elijah Cummings, aims to expand Medicare, reign in drug prices, and allow the HHS Secretary to negotiate prices of between 50 and 250 prescription drugs (including insulin). President Trump appears poised to veto the Elijah Cummings Lower Drug Costs Now Act, while the Senate is debating a more moderate proposal – the Prescription Drug Pricing Reduction Act (PDPRA). The PDPRA would add consumer protections to cap out-of-pocket (OOP) prescription drug spending, and take measures to redesign Medicare Part D and reign in drug prices.

Congress has a lot of irons in the fire this week. We shall see what they can hammer out.

A Perfect Vision for 2020

On December 17, 2019

Looking back at the year that was, 2019 gives us perspective and allows us to view 2020 with both optimism and concern. Open your eyes (and ears) and join the team as they review the issues, topics, and innovations of 2019 that they believe will impact 2020, as well as the strategies you need to implement now to conquer the coming year.

Click Here to View Our Full Webinar on YouTube

Click Here to Download Webinar Slides Only

Empowering Plans: P73 – Preparing Your Plan Document for 2020

On December 11, 2019

 

The Phia Group’s Executive Vice President and General Counsel, Ron E. Peck, and Senior Vice President of Consulting, Jen McCormick, sit down to discuss the top-rated topic chosen by Phia’s webinar listeners. Our webinar listeners spoke (hypothetically) and we listened! Make sure you tune in to find out what Ron and Jen have to say about plan documents and learn the do’s and don’ts when it comes to reviewing and updating your plan document in 2020!

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