Departments Release FAQs on Implementing the Mental Health and Substance Use Disorder Parity Requirements under the Consolidated Appropriations Act

As described in a recent blog post, the Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2021 amended the Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act (MHPAEA) to require group health plans and health insurance issuers (collectively, “group health plans”) that impose non-quantitative treatment limitations (NQTLs) on mental health or substance use disorder (MH/SUD) benefits to perform and document comparative analyses, in order to demonstrate that such NQTLs comply with the requirements of the MHPAEA1.  This requirement became effective on February 10, 2021, along with the requirement that a group health plan must provide the comparative analyses to the Department of Labor (DOL), Health and Human Services (HHS), or applicable State authority upon request.

The Consolidated Appropriations Act also directed the DOL, HHS, and the Treasury (together, the “Departments”) to issue additional guidance for group health plans, intended to clarify and provide examples of methods group health plans may implement to comply with the comparative analyses and disclosure obligations.

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IRS Clarifies Relief for Health FSA Benefits under the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2021

As noted in our prior blog posts here and here, Section 214 of the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2021 (“Act”) permits employers to amend their flexible spending account (FSA) plans to help participants avoid forfeiting unused amounts for the 2020 and 2021 plan years.  The Act offers employers a myriad of temporary relief options for health FSAs—including expanded carryover relief, extended grace period relief, mid-year election change relief and post-termination spend down relief.  The IRS recently issued Notice 2021-15 (“Notice”) giving employers significant flexibility to tailor these relief options to their particular concerns and objectives.  This blog post answers common questions about how the guidance applies to health FSA benefits; the application to dependent care FSA benefits will be discussed in a forthcoming blog post.

Employers should keep in mind that:

  • All of the relief options are optional. An employer can choose not to adopt any of them or can adopt only some options.
  • All of the relief options require plan amendments.
  • The options do not permit participants to receive refunds of their unused contributions.
  • The options do not permit participants to use health FSA balances for dependent care expenses or vice versa.

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Department of Labor Confirms It Will Not Enforce Controversial “Pecuniary Factors” Rule for ERISA Plan Investments

On March 10, 2021, the Department of Labor’s Employee Benefits Security Administration (EBSA), the agency charged with interpreting and enforcing ERISA, announced that it will not enforce the Trump-era “Financial Factors in Selecting Plan Investments” rule, which has been perceived as potentially discouraging retirement plan fiduciaries from selecting investment alternatives which emphasize environmental, social, and governance factors (commonly referred to as “ESG investments”).

The rule, which was finalized in November 2020 and technically became effective on January 12, 2021, does not prohibit ESG investments.  However, it has been widely criticized as fostering a misapprehension that ESG investments may be subjected to a higher degree of fiduciary scrutiny than others.  Following the election, EBSA’s announcement of its non-enforcement policy comes as no surprise, as the Biden administration had already identified the rule on its “List of Agency Actions for Review.”

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Rehiring Employees by March 31, 2021 Could Prevent Partial Plan Terminations

The Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2021, enacted on December 27, 2020 (the CAA), includes limited relief pertaining to the partial termination of a qualified retirement plan that may have been inadvertently triggered by employer-initiated severances during the COVID-19 pandemic. Generally, as discussed further in our May 2020 post, the determination as to whether a partial plan termination has occurred depends on the facts and circumstances; however, there is a rebuttable presumption of a partial plan termination if, during the applicable period, the employee turnover rate is at least 20 percent. The employee turnover rate is the number of participating employees who had an employer-initiated severance divided by the total number of participating employees. A partial plan termination triggers 100% vesting for affected participants.

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Health Plan Transparency Final Rule Requires New Health Plan Disclosures

On October 29, 2020, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), Department of the Treasury (Treasury) and Department of Labor (DOL) issued the final rule on transparency in health plan coverage. The final rule imposes significant new requirements on group health plans, including all issuers of non-grandfathered individual and group health insurance coverage and self-insured plans (that are not account based plans), to disclose information on pricing and cost-sharing under their plans. Grandfathered health plans and excepted benefit health plans are not subject to the transparency rules.

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Plan Sponsor and Plan Administrator Escape 401(k) Plan Cybertheft Suit, But Recordkeeper Remains

An Illinois district court issued a split decision in a case involving the cybertheft of retirement plan assets, allowing the plan administrator and plan sponsor to be dismissed, but requiring the recordkeeper to defend allegations that it breached its fiduciary duties under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA). Bartnett v. Abbott Laboratories, et. al. (N.D. Illinois, Case No. 1:20-cv-02127) is one of several recent lawsuits filed against plan sponsors and recordkeepers for allowing cyber-thieves to pilfer large distributions from participants’ retirement plan accounts.

Heide Bartnett, a former employee of Abbott Laboratories (Abbott) and participant in Abbott’s 401(k) plan, alleges that a hacker accessed her 401(k) account online, changed the password, added a new bank account and requested a $245,000 distribution from the 401(k) plan’s recordkeeper, Alight Solutions LLC (Alight) to be deposited into the newly added account. The imposter also called Alight several times to ask questions about the distribution.

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DOL Issues Guidance on Private Equity Investments in 401(k) Plans

The Department of Labor (DOL) recently issued guidance in the form of an Information Letter describing the process that plan fiduciaries should undertake in determining whether an investment fund having a private equity component satisfies ERISA fiduciary standards. Specifically, the DOL emphasized that there are factors unique to such investment funds that should be considered as part of a prudent process.

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IRS Guidance on Employer-Based Leave Donation Programs for COVID-19 Relief Organizations

In recent years, it has become the norm for the IRS to respond to a federally declared disaster by issuing guidance enabling employers to establish “Leave Donation Programs,” which allow employees to “convert” accrued vacation, sick, or personal leave benefits into an employer-paid monetary donation to a charitable relief organization, without the employee being taxed on the value of donated leave.1 Therefore, it is not surprising, but certainly welcome, that the IRS recently issued Notice 2020-46 (the Notice) to allow employers to adopt the same type of employer-based Leave Donation Programs in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

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Agency Guidance on Health & Welfare Issues Related to COVID-19

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues, our clients are dealing with rapidly evolving compliance issues with respect to health and welfare benefit plans and the implementation of existing and new regulatory requirements. Below is a chart providing links to guidance issued by various government agencies with respect to health and welfare plan issues related to COVID-19. This chart is current as of May 12, 2020. There are a number of questions and issues outstanding, and we expect further guidance. Please contact your Faegre Drinker attorney with questions and/or updates regarding this guidance.

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Code Section 139: Little Known Disaster Relief Benefits Now in the Spotlight

As most of the nation continues under lockdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic, we have received inquiries about ways employers can provide additional benefits to employees during this unprecedented time.

On March 13, 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic was declared a “disaster” by President Trump under the Stafford Act. While this designation may not be enough to permit hardship distributions from all retirement plans, the “disaster” declaration under the Stafford Act does trigger availability of Code Section 139 – a little known and seldom used provision in the tax code added after the 9/11 terrorist attacks – that will permit an employer to provide tax-free “qualified disaster relief payments” to employees, if they meet certain requirements. First highlighted by our tax colleagues in a blog post on April 6, 2020, here we expand on how Code Section 139 works for our employer clients considering such a program.

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