Are Any Group Health Plans Exempt From the Federal Mental Health Parity?

Are Any Group Health Plans Exempt From the Federal Mental Health Parity?

QUESTION: We are wondering if our company’s medical plan might qualify for an exemption from the federal mental health parity requirements. What exemptions are available?

ANSWER: The federal mental health parity requirements apply to most employer-sponsored group health plans, but there are a few exceptions. As a reminder, the mental health parity rules under the Mental Health Parity Act (MHPA) and the Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act (MHPAEA) require parity between medical/surgical benefits and mental health or substance use disorder benefits in the application of annual and lifetime dollar limits, financial requirements (such as deductibles, copayments, coinsurance, and out-of-pocket maximums), quantitative treatment limitations (such as number of treatments, visits, or days of coverage), and nonquantitative treatment limitations (such as medical management standards). However, some exceptions apply:

  • Small Employer and Small Plan Exemptions. An exception is available for small employers that employed an average of at least two (one in the case of an employer residing in a state that permits small groups to include a single individual) but no more than 50 employees (100 or fewer employees for certain non-federal governmental plans) on business days during the preceding calendar year. When determining whether an employer qualifies as a small employer, certain related employers (including members of a controlled group or an affiliated service group) are treated as one employer. An employer not in existence throughout the preceding calendar year will determine whether it is a small employer based on the average number of employees that it reasonably expects to employ on business days during the current calendar year. There is also an exception for plans with fewer than two participants who were current employees on the first day of the plan year (including retiree-only plans). Note that if an employer provides coverage through a group policy purchased in the small group insurance market, that group policy will be required to cover mental health and substance use disorder services in a manner that complies with the mental health parity requirements.
  • Increased Cost Exemption. An increased cost exemption is available for plans that make changes to comply with the mental health parity rules and incur an increased cost of at least 2% in the first year that the MHPAEA applies to the plan (generally, the first plan year beginning on or after October 3, 2009, unless a later date applies, e.g., because the plan ceased to qualify for an exemption) or at least 1% in any subsequent plan year. Plans that comply with the parity requirements for one full plan year and satisfy the conditions for the increased cost exemption are exempt from the parity requirements for the following plan year (i.e., the exemption lasts for one plan year). After that year ends, the plan must again comply with the parity requirements for a full year before it may (potentially) qualify for the exemption again. Given the complexity of administering coverage with an every-other-year exemption, use of the increased cost exemption may be impractical.
  • Excepted Benefits. The federal mental health parity requirements do not apply to group health plans that provide only excepted benefits (e.g., certain limited-scope dental or vision plans and most health FSAs).

Self-insured non-federal governmental plans could previously opt out of the requirements, but the Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2023 eliminated that right as of December 29, 2022. No new mental health parity opt-out elections may be made on or after that date and opt-out elections expiring on or after June 27, 2023, may not be renewed. 

Source: Thomson Reuters

Are Any Group Health Plans Exempt From the Federal Mental Health Parity?

When Is a Qualified Beneficiary Considered “Entitled to Medicare” for Purposes of Terminating COBRA Coverage Early?

QUESTION: We understand that our group health plan can terminate COBRA coverage early if a qualified beneficiary becomes entitled to Medicare after electing COBRA. What does it mean to be “entitled” to Medicare?

ANSWER: When qualified beneficiaries (including covered employees) first become entitled to Medicare after electing COBRA coverage, their COBRA coverage can be terminated early—before the end of the maximum coverage period. For this purpose, the Medicare terms “eligibility” and “entitlement” are not synonymous, and it is important to understand the difference. “Entitlement” means that an individual who is eligible for Medicare has actually enrolled in Medicare and may currently receive benefits. An individual who must take additional steps to enroll in Medicare before receiving benefits is not yet “entitled” to Medicare for purposes of the COBRA rules.

Individuals who become eligible for Medicare Part A (hospital insurance) based on age, disability, or end-stage renal disease (ESRD) must apply to become entitled to Part A coverage in many cases, but entitlement is automatic for individuals who have already applied for and are receiving Social Security or Railroad Retirement Act benefits. Individuals become entitled to Medicare Part B (physicians’ services and other health expenses) either automatically when they become entitled to Part A, or later during specified enrollment periods.

Although group health plans are allowed to terminate a qualified beneficiary’s COBRA coverage early upon Medicare entitlement, it is important to remember that the COBRA rights of other qualified beneficiaries in the family unit who are not entitled to Medicare are not affected. For example, the plan could not terminate the COBRA coverage of the spouse and dependent children of a Medicare-entitled former employee.

Source: Thomson Reuters

Are Any Group Health Plans Exempt From the Federal Mental Health Parity?

Is Medicare Entitlement a COBRA Qualifying Event for Active Employees Who Do Not Lose Group Health Plan Coverage When They Become Entitled to Medicare?

QUESTION: Although Medicare entitlement is listed as a COBRA triggering event, our company’s COBRA TPA does not offer COBRA to covered employees when they become entitled to Medicare. Is Medicare entitlement a COBRA qualifying event for active employees who become entitled to Medicare but do not lose coverage under our group health plan?

ANSWER: Medicare entitlement is not a COBRA qualifying event for active employees who become entitled to Medicare but do not lose coverage under a group health plan. If a COBRA triggering event (such as Medicare entitlement) does not cause a loss of plan coverage, there is no qualifying event, and COBRA need not be offered. Medicare entitlement rarely causes a loss of plan coverage for active employees and, therefore, will rarely be a qualifying event. This is because the Medicare Secondary Payer (MSP) rules generally prohibit group health plans from making Medicare entitlement an event that causes a loss of coverage for active employees.

The MSP statute generally prohibits a group health plan from “taking into account” the age-based or disability-based Medicare entitlement of an individual who is covered under the plan by virtue of the individual’s current employment status. In addition, the plan generally must provide a current employee who is age 65 or older with the same benefits, under the same conditions, as those provided to employees who are under age 65. Among the employer or insurer actions that constitute an impermissible “taking into account” are (1) terminating coverage because the individual has become entitled to age-based Medicare; or (2) in the case of a large group health plan, denying or terminating coverage because the individual is entitled to disability-based Medicare without also denying or terminating coverage for similarly situated individuals who are not entitled to disability-based Medicare. (Special rules apply for ESRD-based Medicare.) Consequently, Medicare entitlement will rarely be a COBRA qualifying event because it will rarely cause a loss of plan coverage for active employees.

Be aware, however, that it is permissible under the MSP rules for Medicare entitlement to cause a loss of coverage for covered retired employees. In such a case, Medicare entitlement would constitute a qualifying event for the affected spouse and dependent children (not for the covered retiree), permitting them to elect up to 36 months of COBRA under the plan.

Source: Thomson Reuters

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