QUESTION: We are considering offering a telehealth benefit to our employees that would be separate from our major medical plan. Will this arrangement be an ERISA plan?
ANSWER: Telehealth benefits (also referred to as telemedicine benefits) are often offered under an employer’s group health plan, which is governed by ERISA if sponsored by a private sector employer. Even if telehealth benefits are offered separately from the employer’s group health plan, the benefits are likely subject to ERISA.
In general, an arrangement is an ERISA welfare benefit plan if it is a plan, fund, or program established or maintained by an employer to provide its employees with ERISA-listed benefits. Here is a summary of each element of the definition:
Plan, fund, or program. An arrangement that provides “one-off” benefits and thus does not require an “ongoing administrative scheme” might not be considered a plan, fund, or program subject to ERISA. It is difficult to imagine a telehealth benefit that would not involve ongoing administration, so this element will likely be met.
Established or maintained by an employer for its employees. You have indicated that this benefit would be offered by the company, so this element will be met.
Providing ERISA-listed benefits. Medical benefits are among the benefits listed in ERISA, and telehealth is clearly medical care, so this element will be met.
Under a DOL regulatory safe harbor, certain group insurance arrangements with minimal employer involvement may be exempt from ERISA even if they provide ERISA-listed benefits. If your arrangement is a voluntary employee-pay-all telehealth benefit offered by a third party, with employer involvement limited as set forth in the safe harbor, it would not be an ERISA plan. If it does not meet all the requirements of the safe harbor, it will be an ERISA plan and must comply with the generally applicable rules, such as having a plan administrator, claim and appeal procedures, and a summary plan description.
As a group health plan, a telehealth plan raises legal issues aside from ERISA’s applicability, including considerations under COBRA, HIPAA, and coverage mandates such as first-dollar coverage of preventive services, not imposing annual or lifetime dollar limits on essential health benefits, and parity in mental health and substance use disorder benefits. Note that telehealth-only plans meeting specified criteria have been temporarily exempt from certain of these mandates for certain plan years beginning before the end of the COVID-19 emergency.
Moreover, telehealth coverage may affect an individual’s ability to contribute to a health savings account (HSA), although temporary relief provides that telehealth and other remote care services provided on or after January 1, 2020, will not cause a loss of HSA eligibility for plan years beginning on or before December 31, 2021; for months beginning after March 31, 2022, and before January 1, 2023; and for plan years beginning after December 31, 2022, and before January 1, 2025
Source: Thomson Reuters
Question: During the COVID-19 pandemic, we established a telehealth-only plan to provide benefits to individuals who were not eligible for coverage under our regular group health plan. Can we continue to offer this benefit?
ANSWER: During the COVID-19 pandemic, telehealth-only benefits have been exempt from certain requirements that otherwise apply to group health plans. This relief is linked to the COVID-19 public health emergency (PHE), which appears slated to end on May 11, 2023. Once the exemption is no longer available, a telehealth-only plan may continue but it would have to meet those requirements.
As group health plans, telehealth plans must comply with the many rules applicable to group health plans under ERISA, COBRA, HIPAA, and the Affordable Care Act (ACA). The COVID-19 telehealth relief exempts certain plans from the ACA’s prohibition on annual and lifetime limits and its preventive services mandate—but not from other ACA mandates. The relief applies to any arrangement sponsored by a large employer (generally, one with at least 51 employees) that provides solely telehealth and other remote-care benefits and is offered only to employees or dependents who are not eligible for coverage under any other group health plan offered by that employer.
The relief took effect in 2020 and applies for the duration of any plan year beginning before the end of the COVID-19 PHE. If the PHE ends on May 11, 2023, a calendar year telehealth-only plan could remain covered by the exemption until the end of 2023. But if the plan year is, for example, June 1–May 31, the relief applies only until the end of the current plan year on May 31, 2023; as of June 1, 2023, that plan would have to comply with the preventive services mandate and the prohibition on annual and lifetime limits.
Source: Thomson Reuters
HHS’s Center for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) has issued a fact sheet addressing the end of the COVID-19 public health emergency (PHE), which (along with the COVID-19 national emergency) is anticipated to end on May 11, 2023. The fact sheet, which is addressed to individuals, confirms that HHS is expecting the PHE to expire at the end of the day on May 11 and provides information about the implications for coverage under private health insurance, as well as Medicare, Medicaid, and CHIP. Here are highlights relevant to employer-sponsored group health plans:
- COVID-19 Vaccines, Testing, and Treatments. Most plans must continue to cover vaccines furnished by in-network providers without cost sharing but may require individuals receiving vaccines from out-of-network providers to share part of the cost. When the PHE ends, mandatory coverage for OTC and laboratory-based COVID-19 PCR and antigen tests will end. Plans may choose to cover these tests but may require cost sharing, prior authorization, or other forms of medical management. The end of the PHE will not change how COVID-19 treatments are covered; plans that require cost sharing or apply deductibles may continue to do so.
- Access to Telehealth Services. As is currently the case during the PHE, coverage for telehealth and other remote care services may vary from plan to plan after the PHE ends. When covered, plans may impose cost-sharing, prior authorization, or other forms of medical management.
Source: Thomson Reuters