Our April 3, 2023, webinar explored the impacts that the end of the PHE and NE will have on employee benefit plans and what actions employers and benefit plan sponsors should be taking to prepare. A recording of the webinar is available here.
The Biden administration has announced its intention to end the COVID-19 National Emergency (NE) and the COVID-19 Public Health Emergency (PHE) on May 11, 2023 (read our series introduction for more information). Among other things:
- The NE and the PHE modified the rules governing financial requirements and quantitative treatment limitations under the Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act (MHPAEA). The end of the NE and the PHE will require modifications to group health plans' and health insurance issuers' MHPAEA testing as it relates to financial requirements and quantitative treatment limits. The NE and the PHE also affect the design and operation of some employee assistance plans (EAPs).
- The NE and the PHE allowed plan sponsors to expand coverage under excepted benefit EAPs in certain respects without risking their status as the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA)-excepted benefits.
MHPAEA requires that the financial requirements (such as coinsurance and copays) and quantitative treatment limits (such as visit limits) imposed on mental health or substance use disorder (MH/SUD) benefits cannot be more restrictive than the predominant financial requirements and treatment limitations that apply to substantially all medical/surgical benefits in a particular benefit classification. During the public health emergency period, group health plans and health insurance issuers were permitted to disregard certain items and services related to testing for the detection of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, when performing the "substantially all" and "predominant" tests. Absent this relief, the costs of covering COVID-19 testing items and services without cost-sharing would be the amounts allocated to medical/surgical benefits, thereby putting group health plans and health insurance issuers at risk of running afoul of MHPAEA quantitative treatment limits.
From and after the end of the PHE, group health plans and health insurance issuers must include the cost of covering COVID-19 tests, either diagnostic or over-the-counter, or testing-related services, when calculating MHPAEA quantitative treatment limits.
Action Items: Employers should revisit their MHPAEA compliance testing to ensure that the coverage of COVID-19 tests is properly accounted for in applying the relevant quantitative treatment limits. There is, however, no longer a requirement that a group health plan or health insurance issuer cover these services without charge.
EMPLOYEE ASSISTANCE PLANS
The end of the NE and the PHE could have various impacts on EAPs depending on the specific plan design. Employers may, for example, see a spike in the need for mental health support that could be met through EAP services. While the pandemic may be winding down, the mental health impacts of the past three years may continue for by many employees. Employers may need to continue to offer mental health services and resources through their EAPs, and potentially explore expanding mental health services through an EAP or otherwise, to support employees who are struggling with anxiety, depression or other mental health issues related to the pandemic.
Particular attention is required in the case of excepted benefit EAPs. Excepted benefit EAPs do not provide minimum essential coverage for Affordable Care Act (ACA) purposes. This means that coverage under an excepted benefit EAP does not disqualify a participant from qualifying for a premium tax credit from an ACA state healthcare exchange. To qualify as an excepted benefit EAP, an EAP must not provide benefits that are significant in the nature of medical care . During the NE and the PHE, the tri-agencies (US Departments of Labor, Health and Human Services, and Treasury) clarified that an excepted benefit EAP will not be considered to provide benefits that are significant in the nature of medical care solely because it offers benefits for diagnosis and testing for COVID-19 while a public health emergency declaration or a national emergency declaration is in effect.
Action Items: Plan sponsors should evaluate their EAPs to determined whether any benefits added to provide coverage for COVID-19 diagnosis and testing must now be removed from the EAP as a result of the end of the NE and PHE. More broadly, it will also be important for employers to stay attuned to the changing needs of their employees and consider any adjustments to their EAP offerings as the pandemic continues to evolve.
The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.