A key feature of the COVID-19 National Emergency (NE) and the COVID-19 Public Health Emergency (PHE) was the government's ability to provide access and coverage of COVID-19 tests. This resulted in overlapping legislation targeted at providing tests to benefit plan participants for free.
With the end of the NE and PHE set for May 11, 2023, there is confusion about what will happen to COVID-19 testing.
Starting on March 18, 2020, the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA) required all public and private insurance coverage, including self-funded plans, to cover COVID-19 tests and costs associated with diagnostic testing with no cost-sharing for the duration of the PHE. The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act enacted shortly after expanded this requirement to cover out-of-network tests during the PHE. The Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2021 (CAA) then took a new approach and applied the requirement to over-the-counter (OTC) COVID-19 tests and added additional obligations. Under guidance issued by the US Departments of Labor, Health and Human Services, and Treasury, effective January 15, 2022, health plans were required to cover up to eight free OTC at-home tests per covered individual per month. Health plans could limit the reimbursement of these tests to the lesser of the actual or negotiated price or $12 per test. Health plans could also provide tests through participating network providers, such as pharmacies or retailers.
When the PHE ends, health plans will no longer be required to cover COVID-19 tests, either diagnostic or OTC, or testing-related services with no cost-sharing.
Employers should consider whether they want to continue to cover COVID-19 tests as required by a doctor or OTC without cost sharing. There is no requirement to stop doing this after the PHE but doing so may have some implications on group health plans. Importantly, if an employer decides to continue covering testing at no cost, they should consider how this affects any employer-sponsored high-deductible health plan (HDHP). IRS Notice 2020-15 permitted HDHP coverage of COVID-19 testing with no cost-sharing without conflicting with HSA eligibility (see our article here). This relief continues until further guidance is issued. Though COVID-19 testing could be considered preventative care under Section 223 of the Internal Revenue Code, the US Department of Treasury will need to provide further clarification. Employers should also consider whether they want to continue to apply a $12 reimbursement cap on COVID-19 or some other limitation.
After the PHE, employers who choose to continue to cover COVID-19 tests at no cost or apply a reimbursement cap may need to amend their plans or summary plan descriptions for these practices. They will also need to coordinate with any insurer or third-party administrator of the employer's group health plan to ensure proper administration. Depending on the timing of these amendments, they may also need to provide a summary of material modifications to participants. Employers who decide not to continue coverage of COVID-19 tests or apply a reimbursement cap may need to amend their plans, depending on whether the changes announced were tied to the PHE. These employers may also be required to send a 60-day advance notice of a material reduction in benefits. Employers may also want to consider communications regarding the price of testing. Doing so may help to minimize claims under the plan and ensure that participants understand the benefits available to them.
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