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Technology ≠ Education

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Benjamin Smith is the Editorial/QA manager for BerryDunn’s Government Consulting Group. He oversees editorial, proofreading, and formatting projects, and leads instructional courses on business writing best practices.

Benjamin Smith
11.13.19

Editor's note: Read this if you are a CTO, CIO, or administrator at a college or university. This is the first blog in a series on business lessons and best practices from American literature. For this series, interviewees select from a list of American literary quotes through which to view, and discuss, their focus or industry. The goal? To generate some novel insight.

The interviewees: David Houle and Joseph Traino, consultants at BerryDunn
The focus: Higher education
The quote: “Our inventions are wont to be pretty toys . . . They are but improved means to an unimproved end.”  -- Henry David Thoreau, Walden; or, Life in the Woods

Thoreau wrote this shortly after the Industrial Revolution. How does its cynicism apply to higher education during the Digital Revolution?

David Houle (DH): It speaks to my basic philosophy about applying technology to the needs of higher education clients. I’m not a “technology for the sake of technology” cheerleader. 

Joseph Traino (JT): People often believe that applying new technology to a business problem is going to solve the business problem. That rarely happens. For example, most higher education clients have a student information system. These clients often feel that, in order to resolve certain issues, they should update the system software, whereas the issues are often resolved by updating business practices to be more efficient and effective. 

DH: Right. We are often brought in to identify needed technology changes but end up stressing practices, processes, and people. If staff can’t correctly use a new technology, then the technology will not provide a real, valuable service.

When implementing a new technology, what’s the #1 thing that a higher education institution can do to prevent or avoid “an unimproved end”?

JT: Fully understand the technology’s impact on stakeholders, such as students, faculty, and staff, and answer the “why?”

DH: Keep people in mind and gain their buy-in when making technology decisions.

What technology, or technology-related change, is going to have the biggest effect on higher education over the next five years?

DH: Clients love to ask us this question (laughs). And if I truly knew the answer, I’d be on some Caribbean island right now, filthy rich and sipping a piña colada. That said, I think the technology demands of the new workforce are going to have the biggest effect. To paraphrase the new workforce: “I don’t want to stare at a green screen. And what in the world is DOS?” Conversely, the personnel who used to support these homegrown, in-house “green screen” products want to retire and leave the workforce. 

JT: I agree that the demands of the new workforce will continue to affect higher education and steer institutions away from term-based courses and programs and toward more flexible, student-centric courses and programs. From a technology standpoint, I think AI and bots are going to replace many of the manual processes that we still see today in higher education. These new technologies will create greater efficiencies—but also possibly reduce jobs—at institutions.

DH: Higher education leaders with vision have already grasped this idea of cutting administrative costs wherever possible, because those costs are not what place students in seats—or in front of screens. On the flip side, advising is currently an underserved area in higher education. So there is an opportunity for leaders to reallocate administrative resources to fulfill advising roles and to help students—such as at-risk and first-generation students—not just in the classroom, but through their learning journey.

Circling back to the Thoreau quote, I’m sure many higher education staff fear technology will lead to “unimproved ends” for their careers. How do you navigate those fears when working with clients? 

JT: It’s certainly a challenge. We currently face some of those fears when working with IT departments—more services are being moved to the cloud, and there is less of a need for on-site database administrators and system administrators, as an example. Alluding to what Dave said about advising, I think many higher education jobs can be shifted to provide interactive high-tech, high-touch services to students.

DH: And to be blunt, some people don’t want to shift, don’t want to change. The people part is the most challenging part of technology adoption. 

In this discussion about technology, we keep returning to people—and the people side of change. Are higher education clients typically responsive to the concept of change management?

JT: There’s typically some reticence, and a lack of understanding about the value of change management. In most cases, change management requires an investment beyond the technology investment. But change management is key to success. 

DH: Reticence is a good word. Yet I do think that views about change management are changing rapidly. Higher education leaders who have been through a significant system or process change now seem to understand the value of change management and know that change management is a necessity, not a luxury. 

In the end, are you confident that new technology is going to benefit students and their educational goals? 

DH: I’m unsure if technology improves the quality of education. However, I am sure that technology increases the options for the delivery of education. And greater flexibility in education delivery is certainly beneficial, especially because the traditional student is now non-traditional. Ongoing and 24/7 access demands in education are here to stay.

JT: I agree with Dave wholeheartedly. I think technology will help improve the means to the end, but I’m not sure if technology is going to improve the end. Technology is just one part of the education equation. 
 

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Read this if you are an employer with employees on COBRA. There are tax credits available to you. 

The American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 (ARP) creates a requirement that employers treat the total payment for Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act (COBRA) continuation coverage due from certain eligible individuals as being “paid in full” for April 1 through September 30, 2021 (Subsidy Period). The eligible individuals with COBRA coverage will not receive the subsidy directly from the government; rather, they will have a premium holiday during which time the employer pays 100% of the applicable COBRA premium. The employer will be reimbursed in full through refundable payroll tax credits.

The ARP provisions do not apply to all COBRA-eligible individuals; eligibility is limited to employees who lost health care benefits due to an involuntary termination or reduction in hours. While the loss of coverage event can be linked to COVID-19, it is not required to be. A loss of coverage event could have occurred as far back as November 1, 2019, since the law requires an employer to offer a continuation of COBRA coverage for 18 months after an involuntary termination (18 months from November 1, 2019 is April 30, 2021). Eligible individuals who opted not to pay for COBRA coverage will be given another opportunity to elect the free coverage.

Employers and COBRA administrators should prepare to distribute new COBRA election and subsidy notices and to make operational changes soon after further guidance is released. Eligible individuals not already on COBRA will need to act quickly after receiving the notice to elect subsidized COBRA coverage. Failing to timely elect COBRA coverage could result in forfeiting this valuable benefit.

It is expected many people will rush to take advantage of this opportunity, which can provide up to six months of health insurance at no cost. However, employers should keep in mind that the subsidy is available only for certain limited situations.

Which employers are eligible for the new subsidy?

Employers subject to federal COBRA provisions or to a state program that provides comparable group health care continuation coverage are not allowed to charge eligible individuals for COBRA coverage during the Subsidy Period. The subsidy applies to workers in every industry, most tax-exempt employers (except churches who are exempt from COBRA) and union, governmental, and Indian tribal government workers. The federal COBRA provisions generally apply to all private-sector group health plans maintained by employers that had at least 20 employees on more than 50% of its typical business days in the previous calendar year. Both full- and part-time employees are counted to determine whether a plan is subject to federal COBRA coverage. Many states have “mini-COBRA” laws that apply to employers who have fewer than 20 employees. The subsidy is mandatory for all employer-sponsored group health plans (i.e., all employers must offer the subsidy, regardless of whether the plan is fully or partially insured, or self-insured).

During the Subsidy Period, generally, the federal government will reimburse COBRA costs to employers by allowing credits against employers' Medicare (not Social Security or income) taxes (but for union plans, the plan would receive the subsidy and for insured, state “mini-COBRA” plans, the insurer would receive the subsidy). Guidance is needed to clarify how the flow of funds for the subsidy would work. The full cost of COBRA continuation coverage (including up to a 2% administrative fee) at any coverage level (e.g., single, “single-plus-one”, or family coverage) for employees and former employees and their spouses and dependents is eligible for the subsidy via the payroll tax credit. The subsidy applies to health, prescription drug, dental and vision plans, but does not apply to health flexible spending accounts (FSAs), health savings accounts (HSAs), or long-term care plans (further guidance is needed to clarify the scope of the subsidy).  

Due to the fact that most individuals who elect COBRA group health care continuation coverage usually pay 100% of those premiums (and in many cases they must also pay up to a 2% administrative fee), the new subsidy via the employment tax credit keeps the free COBRA coverage at zero cost to the employer. While the employment tax credit is taxable income, it will be offset by the employer’s deductible payment of the healthcare premiums.

Impact on eligible individuals

An eligible individual with an existing or new COBRA election will be provided tax-free health care coverage (both the premium and any administrative charge) at no charge for their remaining COBRA period that overlaps with the Subsidy Period.   

The free COBRA provided during the Subsidy Period would be “affordable” coverage under the Affordable Care Act (ACA). But it is not clear how this “affordable” coverage affects an individual who has purchased coverage on the exchange before they had an offer of affordable coverage.

A recipient of the free health care coverage must notify the employer or plan administrator when they become eligible for Medicare or another group health plan—other than coverage under an excepted benefit, an FSA or a qualified small employer health reimbursement arrangement (QSEHRA). Individuals who fail to promptly give this notice could be subject to a $250 fine and other penalties.

Who is eligible?

Generally, individuals are eligible for free COBRA coverage if (1) they are involuntarily terminated or have a reduction in hours that qualifies them for federal or state COBRA coverage and (2) the Subsidy Period overlaps with their COBRA coverage period.

The new COBRA premium assistance is not available to the following individuals:

  • Employees who are terminated for gross misconduct.
  • Employees who voluntarily terminated their employment or who retired.
  • Individuals who are eligible for COBRA due to other reasons, like divorce, death, or loss of dependency status.
  • Individuals who are eligible for other group health care coverage (such as from a new employer) or Medicare.
  • Individuals who are beyond their normal COBRA coverage period connected to the original qualifying event (i.e., the employee’s involuntary termination or reduction in hours that caused a loss of group health plan coverage).
  • Domestic partners who are not federal income tax dependents of the employee.

What’s the coverage?

Generally, the COBRA coverage will be the same as the coverage elected just prior to the involuntary termination or reduction in hours. However, employers can (but are not required to) allow individuals who are eligible for premium assistance to change their coverage provided it does not result in an increased premium cost. Further guidance is needed regarding the scope of who can change to a lower cost health plan as a result of the new law.

Eligible individuals who lost health care coverage after October 31, 2019 but do not have COBRA coverage on April 1, 2021 due to nonelection or lapse of payment will have a new, 60-day opportunity to elect COBRA coverage. If timely elected, the COBRA covered period will begin on the date of the individual’s qualifying event, but it appears that no payment is due for months prior to April 2021 and no claims can be filed prior to April 1, 2021. For the months remaining in the COBRA period that coincide with April 1 through September 30, 2021, the employee makes no payment but will have claims paid in accordance with the plan’s provisions. To have continued coverage after September 30, 2021, the employee must make the payments required under the plan. If the individual finds this unaffordable, they can simply drop the coverage.

What notices are needed?

The federal government is expected to issue model required notices addressing the existence of the subsidy, the availability of the 60-day election period and advance notice of when the Subsidy Period will be ending. In the meantime, employers should prepare for the following new notice requirements.

  • Group health plans must modify their COBRA election notices for individuals who become eligible for federal or state COBRA during the Subsidy Period to notify them of the premium assistance (and, if applicable, the option to enroll in a lower priced plan).
  • By May 31, 2021, individuals who previously rejected (or terminated) COBRA coverage and to whom a new election period must be offered, must be notified of their new election period and the availability of the premium assistance. This essentially creates a special COBRA enrollment period for such individuals.
  • Between August 17 and September 15, 2021, group health plans must provide a notice to individuals receiving the premium assistance stating that the subsidy will expire on September 30, 2021, and that they may be eligible for COBRA coverage without the subsidy. But if the subsidy would end earlier for any individual, the plan must provide a notice that the subsidy is expiring no earlier than 45 days and no later than 15 days before the subsidy expiration date.

It is not clear how these required notices must be delivered (sending paper mail to former employees may be needed).

How does the subsidy work?

Individuals who are eligible for COBRA premium assistance do not receive a payment from the federal government, group health plan, employer, or insurer. Rather, their COBRA costs are waived during the Subsidy Period.

Employers that sponsor a fully insured plan would continue paying the full premium to the insurer for the assistance eligible participants. Employers that sponsor a self-insured plan would pay the claims incurred by the assistance eligible participants. In both cases, the employer would receive no payment from the eligible individual during the Subsidy Period but would instead recover its COBRA costs (102% of the COBRA premium) for the assistance-eligible individuals by claiming a refundable federal tax credit against the employer’s Medicare taxes.

The COBRA subsidy is prospective only and cannot begin before April 1, 2021.

Although the law does not require employers to pay for any COBRA coverage, some employers pay for some or all of COBRA coverage (for example, as part of a severance package). Such employers can cease those contributions during the Subsidy Period and the federal government will provide the subsidy for 6 months. And although the subsidy is tax-free to employees, employers who take the COBRA premium tax credit must increase their gross income by the amount of such credit for the taxable year which includes the last day of any calendar quarter with respect to which such credit is allowed.
 
Also, under a “no double dipping” rule, employers cannot take the COBRA premium tax credit for any amount which is taken into account as qualified wages for the employee retention credit (ERC) under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES) and Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2021 (CAA), or as qualified health plan expenses for the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA), as amended by CAA and ARP. Likewise, amounts attributable to the COBRA premium tax credit would not be eligible payroll costs under the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP).

Guidance from the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) is needed to clarify how exactly employers would claim the tax credit, but it appears that employers would claim the credit on their quarterly IRS Form 941 or in advance on IRS Form 7200 if the actual or estimated amount of the credit exceeds the employer's Medicare taxes for any calendar quarter. Further guidance is also needed regarding the mechanics of the subsidy for employers that have insured state COBRA coverage, since under Section 9501(b) of the ARP the tax credits reimbursements would go to the insurer, not the employer.

Other considerations

For past COVID-19 relief tax credits, such as the ERC and FFCRA, IRS guidance allowed employers to dip into withheld income and Social Security taxes as a source of claiming those refundable tax credits. But the IRS has not yet authorized such actions for the ARP COBRA subsidy tax credit. Social Security taxes may not be available as a source for the new COBRA tax credits, since the ARP was enacted under budget reconciliation rules which prohibit any changes to Social Security.

Employers are not allowed to voluntarily expand the group of people who are eligible for the special COBRA premium subsidy, because the federal government is paying the full COBRA premium for the designated class of assistance-eligible individuals.

We expect the IRS to issue FAQs on the new COBRA Medicare tax credits, similar to the FAQs that the IRS issued on the ERC and FFCRA payroll tax credits.

This new COBRA subsidy may be economically more valuable than using qualified health care expenses for the ERC, because ERC nets 70% on the dollar whereas the COBRA subsidy is 102% (premium plus administrative charge).

What should employers do now?

Employers should immediately identify all employees who lost group health plan coverage after October 31, 2019 due to an involuntary termination or reduction in hours, without regard to their COBRA elections, because such event would have entitled the individual to 18 months of COBRA coverage (i.e., through April 30, 2021). Guidance is needed on whether notices must be given to individuals in this group that declined COBRA due to eligibility in another employer’s plan or Medicare. Employers will need to notify individuals who have an unexpired COBRA period that premium assistance is available, and they have a right to reconsider their original COBRA election.  

Employers will also need to review and perhaps modify any existing, automatic processes that might otherwise terminate COBRA coverage when premiums are not received during the Subsidy Period.

Year-end reporting on health benefits should also be reviewed to ensure these increased COBRA participants receive the appropriate Form 1095-B or C for 2021.

Employers should develop a procedure to identify COBRA recipients who are eligible for the premium assistance and those who do not qualify (for example, employers will need to distinguish a voluntary quit from an involuntary termination of employment and whether the employee was fired for gross misconduct). For premium-assistance eligible individuals, employers must refund within 60 days any premiums paid during the Subsidy Period. Not all COBRA participants will qualify for the subsidy, so the plan administrator will still need to handle some premium payments from non-eligible individuals.

Vendor outreach

Many employers use outside service providers for their COBRA administration, so employers should reach out to their vendors as soon as possible to coordinate their response to the ARP changes to current COBRA rules, especially the special election period for certain assistance-eligible individuals.

Keep in mind that, separate from the ARP COBRA subsidy, many employees (and their family members) may currently have extended COBRA election rights due to COVID-19 deadline extensions. For example, ERISA Disaster Relief Notice 2021-1 issued on February 26, 2021, announced an individualized one-year deadline extension for COBRA elections, which begins on the date the clock for the particular deadline would have started running (i.e., the one-year extension is applied on a rolling basis to each deadline for each affected individual). But individuals electing retroactive COBRA coverage under those extended deadlines will generally have to pay the full COBRA premiums for such periods. Guidance is needed on how the deadline extension coordinates with the new COBRA subsidy.

Employers may recall that in February 2009, under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (ARRA), the federal government subsidized 65% of COBRA premiums for certain individuals who were terminated or laid off between September 1, 2008 and March 31, 2010 due to the financial crisis linked to the bursting of the home mortgage lending bubble. The ARRA subsidy was extended through May 31, 2010, so perhaps with Democrats currently controlling both Congress and the White House, the ARP COBRA subsidy may be extended beyond September 30, 2021. Also, the ARRA may be a model for how the flow of funds will work for the ARP premium tax credits for insured state COBRA coverage.

If you have specific questions about your situation, please contact our Employee Benefits consulting team. We’re here to help. 

Article
"Free" COBRA for some employees: Employers may benefit, too

Read this if you are an employer with basic knowledge of benefit plans and want to learn more. 

This article is the third in a series to help employee benefit plan fiduciaries better understand their responsibilities and manage the risks of non-compliance with Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA) requirements. Our first article covers the background of ERISA, while our second article covers the definitions and rules of parties-in-interest and prohibited transactions.

Form 5500 is an informational return filed annually with the US Department of Labor (DOL). The purpose of Form 5500 is to report information concerning the operation, funding, assets, and investments of pension and other employee benefit plans to the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) and DOL. All pension benefit plans covered by the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA), and, generally, health and welfare plans covering 100 or more participants are subject to filing Form 5500. Any retirement plan covering less than 100 participants at the beginning of the plan year may be able to file Form 5500-SF, Short Form Annual Return/Report of Small Employee Benefit Plan. Read on for important filing requirements, as noncompliance can result in substantial penalties assessed by both the DOL and IRS. 

Who has to file, and which Form 5500 is required?

Pension plans

The most common types of pension benefit plan filers include:

  • Retirement plans qualified under Internal Revenue Code (IRC) § 401(a)
  • Tax sheltered annuity plans under IRC § 403(b)(1) and 403(b)(7)
  • SIMPLE 401(k) Plan under IRC § 401(k)(11)
  • Direct Filing Entity (DFE)

Which Form 5500 you should file depends on the type of plan. Small plans covering less than 100 participants as of the beginning of the plan year will normally file a Form 5500-SF. Conversely, large plans, mainly those plans covering 100 or more participants as of the beginning of the plan year, will file Form 5500 as a general rule. 

Participants include all current employees eligible for the plan, former employees still covered, and deceased employees who have one or more beneficiaries eligible for or receiving benefits under the plan.

Welfare plans

Generally, all welfare benefit plans covered by ERISA are required to file a Form 5500. Common types of welfare benefit plans include but are not limited to medical, dental, life insurance, severance pay, disability, and scholarship funds.

Similar to pension plans, the required Form 5500 to be filed typically depends on whether the plan is a small plan with less than 100 participants at the beginning of the year, or a large plan with 100 or more participants at the beginning of the plan year. However, certain welfare benefit plans are not required to file an annual Form 5500, including, but not limited to:

  • Plans with fewer than 100 participants at the beginning of the plan year and that are unfunded, fully insured, or a combination of the two
  • Governmental plans 
  • Employee benefit plans maintained only to comply with workers’ compensation, unemployment compensation, or disability insurance laws

Participants for welfare benefit plans include current employees covered by the plan, former employees still covered, and deceased employees who have one or more beneficiaries receiving or entitled to receive benefits under the plan (e.g., COBRA). 

Required financial schedules for Form 5500

Small plans that do not file Form 5500-SF require the following schedules to be filed along with the Form 5500:

  • Schedule A—Insurance information
  • Schedule D—DFE/Participating plan information
  • Schedule I—Financial information for a small plan

Large plans require the following schedules in addition to small plan schedules:

  • Plan Audit (Accountant’s Opinion)
  • Schedule C—Service provider information
  • Schedule G—Financial transaction schedules
  • Schedule H—Financial information (instead of Schedule I)

Welfare plans with 100 or more participants that are unfunded, fully insured or a combination of the two are not required to attach Schedule H or an Accountant’s Opinion. Also, pension plans will attach Schedule SB or MB reporting actuarial information, if required, along with Schedule R reporting retirement plan information.

When to File

Form 5500 must be filed electronically by the last day of the seventh calendar month after the end of the plan year. However, a two and one-half months’ extension of time to file can be requested. Penalties may be assessed by both the IRS and the DOL for failure to file an annual Form 5500-series return. For 2020, the IRS penalty for late filing is $250 per day, up to a maximum of $150,000 (applies only to retirement plans), and the DOL penalty can run up to $2,233 per day, with no maximum. Therefore, it is very important to track participant counts and ensure compliance with filing deadlines.

If you have questions about your specific situation, please contact our employee benefit consulting team. We’re here to help.

Article
Form 5500: An overview

Read this if your organization has to comply with HIPAA.

We have been monitoring HHS Office for Civil Rights (OCR) settlements as part of the HIPAA Right of Access Initiative (16 settlements and counting) and want to dispel some myths about HIPAA enforcement. Myths can be scary. It would be pretty frightening to run into Bigfoot while taking a stroll through the woods, but sometimes myths have the opposite effect, and we become complacent, thinking Bigfoot will never sneak up behind us. He’s just a myth, right?

As we offer our top five HIPAA myths, we invite you to decide whether to address gaps in compliance now, or wait until you are in the middle of the woods, facing Bigfoot, and wondering what to do next.

Myth #1: OCR doesn’t target organizations like mine.

The prevailing wisdom has been that the Office for Civil Rights only pursues settlements with large organizations. As we review the types of organizations that have been targeted in the recent past, we find that they include social services/behavioral health organizations, more than one primary care practice, a psychiatric medical group practice, and a few hospital/health systems. With settlements ranging from $10,000 to $200,000 plus up to two years of monitoring by the OCR, can you really afford to take a chance?

Myth #2: I have privacy policies, procedures, and training protocols documented, so I’m all set if OCR comes calling.

Are you really all set? When did you last review your policies and procedures? Are you sure what your staff actually does is HIPAA compliant? If you don’t regularly review your policies and procedures and train your staff, can you really say you’re all set?

Myth #3: HIPAA gives me 30 days to respond to a patient request, so it’s ok to wait to respond.

Did you try to ship a package during the 2020 holiday season? If so, do you remember checking your tracking number daily to see if your gift was any closer to its destination? Now imagine it was your health records you were waiting for. Frustration builds, goodwill wanes, and you start looking for a higher authority to get involved. 

And beware: if proposed Privacy Rule changes to HIPAA are finalized, the period of time covered entities will have to fulfill patient requests will be reduced from 30 to 15 days.

Myth #4: If I ignore the problem, it will go away.

Right of Access settlement #10 dispels this myth: A medical group was approached by OCR to resolve a complaint in March 2019. Then again in April 2019. This issue was not resolved until October 2020. Now, in addition to a monetary settlement, the group’s Corrective Action Plan (CAP) will be monitored by the OCR for two years. That’s a lot of time, energy, and money that could have been better spent if they worked to resolve the complaint quickly.

Myth #5: OCR will give me a “get out of jail free” card during the pandemic.

As one of our co-workers said, “Just because they are looking aside does not mean they are looking away.” The most recent settlement we have seen to OCR’s Right of Access Initiative was announced February 10, 2021, showing that the initiative is still a priority despite the pandemic.

Are you ready to assess or improve your compliance with HIPAA Right of Access rules now? Contact me and I will help you keep OCR settlements at bay. 

Article
Debunking the myths of HIPAA: Five steps to better compliance

Read this if you are an employee benefit plan fiduciary.

This article is the second in a series to help employee benefit plan fiduciaries better understand their responsibilities and manage the risks of non-compliance with Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA) requirements. In our last article, we looked into the background of ERISA, which established important standards for the sound operation of employee benefit plans, as well as who is and isn’t a plan fiduciary, and what their responsibilities are. 

One important ERISA provision, found in Section 406(a), covers the types of transactions a plan fiduciary can and can’t engage in. ERISA terms the latter prohibited transactions, and they’re a lot like traffic lights—when it comes to avoiding conflicts of interest in business dealings, they’re your guide for when to stop and when to go. By knowing and abiding by these rules of the road, plan fiduciaries can steer clear of tickets, fines, and other damaging mishaps. 

Parties-in-interest—keep them out of the passenger seat 

Much like driver’s ed., fiduciary responsibility boils down to knowing the rules—plan fiduciaries need to have a strong working knowledge of what constitutes a prohibited transaction in order to ensure their compliance with ERISA. The full criteria are too detailed for this article, but one sure sign is the presence of a party-in-interest.

ERISA’s definition of a party-in-interest

The definition includes any plan fiduciary, the plan sponsor, its affiliates, employees, and paid and unpaid plan service providers, and 50%-or-more owners of stock in the plan sponsor. If you’d like to take a deeper dive into ERISA’s definition of parties-in-interest, see “ERISA's definition of parties-in-interest" at right.

Prohibited transactions—red lights on fiduciary road 

Now that we know who fiduciaries shouldn’t transact with, let’s look at what they shouldn’t transact on. ERISA’s definition of a prohibited transaction includes: 

  • Sale, exchange, and lease of property 
  • Lending money and extending credit 
  • Furnishing goods, services, and facilities 
  • Transferring plan assets 
  • Acquiring certain securities and real property using plan assets to benefit the plan fiduciary 
  • Transacting on behalf of any party whose interests are adverse to the plan’s or its participants’ 

Transacting in any of the above is akin to running a red light—serious penalties are unlikely, but there are other consequences you want to avoid. Offenders are subject to a 15% IRS-imposed excise tax that applies for as long as the prohibited transaction remains uncorrected. That tax applies regardless of the transaction’s intent and even if found to have benefited the plan. 

The IRS provides a 14-day period for plan fiduciaries to correct prohibited transactions and avoid associated penalties. 

Much like owning a car, regular preventative maintenance can help you avoid the need for costly repairs. Plan fiduciaries should periodically refresh their understanding of ERISA requirements and re-evaluate their current and future business activities on an ongoing basis. Need help navigating the fiduciary road? Reach out to the BerryDunn employee benefit consulting team today. 
 

Article
Prohibited transactions: Rules of the road for benefit plan fiduciaries

Read this if you are a New Hampshire resident, or a business owner or manager with telecommuting employees (due to the COVID-19 pandemic).

In late January, the Supreme Court asked the Biden Administration for its views on a not-so-friendly neighborly dispute between the State of New Hampshire and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. New Hampshire is famous amongst its neighboring states for its lack of sales tax and personal income tax. Because of the tax rules and other alluring features, thousands of employees commute daily from New Hampshire to Massachusetts. Overnight, like so many of us, those commuters were working at home and not crossing state boundaries.

As a result of the pandemic and stay-at-home orders, Massachusetts issued temporary and early guidance, directing employers to maintain the status quo. Keep withholding on your employees in the same manner that you were, even though they may not be physically coming into the state. New Hampshire was against this directive from day one, but the nail in the coffin was an extension of the guidance in October. Within days, New Hampshire filed suit in the Supreme Court.

New Hampshire’s position

In its brief, New Hampshire asserts that the Massachusetts regulations are unconstitutional—in violation of the both the Commerce and Due Process Clauses of the U.S. Constitution. Each clause has historically prohibited a state from taxing outside its borders and limits tax on non-residents. For Massachusetts employers to continue withholding on New Hampshire resident’s wage earnings, New Hampshire argues, Massachusetts is imposing a tax within New Hampshire, contrary to the Constitution. 

What makes the New Hampshire situation unique is that it does not impose an income tax on individuals, a “defining feature of its sovereignty”, the state argues. New Hampshire would say that its tax regime creates a competitive advantage in attracting new business and residents. Maine residents, subject to the same Massachusetts rules, would receive a corresponding tax credit on their Maine tax return, making them close to whole between the two states. Because there is no New Hampshire individual income tax, their residents are out of pocket for a tax that they wouldn’t be subject to, but for these regulations. 

Massachusetts’ position

Massachusetts' intention behind the temporary regulations was to maintain pre-pandemic status quo to avoid uncertainty for employees and additional compliance burden on employers. This would ensure employers would not be responsible for determining when an employee was working, for example, at their Lake Winnipesaukee camp for a few weeks, or their relative’s home in Rhode Island. 

Additionally, states like New York and Connecticut have long had “convenience of the employer” laws on the books which imposed New York tax on telecommuting non-residents. Additionally, Massachusetts provided that a parallel treatment will be given to resident employees with income tax liabilities in other states who have adopted similar sourcing rules, i.e., a Massachusetts resident working for a Maine employer.

Other voices

The U.S. Supreme Court has requested a brief from the Biden administration with no deadline given. It’s assumed, however, to be received in time for the court to makes its decision before the end of term in June. Since the original filing, the States of New Jersey, Connecticut, Hawaii, Iowa, and others have filed briefs, imploring the Court to hear the case due to similar circumstances in their states and the wide ranging precedent Massachusetts and others may be effectuating. Additionally, Pennsylvania and others have released their own status quo guidance, following Massachusetts.

What now?

Right now, it’s wait and see what the Supreme Court decides. For Massachusetts employers specifically, you should review current withholdings and ensure compliance with the temporary regulations. The regulations for non-resident wages and withholding are in effect until 90 days after the state of emergency has lifted. Given that that date keeps moving further away, the rules may still be in effect when the Supreme Court delivers their decision in June. For all employers, it’s important that you review the rules in each state of operation and confirm that the proper withholding is made. 

Unwinding from the pandemic is going to be a long road, regardless of what decision the Supreme Court makes. If New Hampshire prevails, it’ll be a long compliance burden for both employers and employees to unwind the withholding and receive refunds. If Massachusetts wins, employers that weren’t following the regulations will have a costly tax exposure to correct.  

If you have questions about your specific situation, please contact us. We’re here to help.

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New Hampshire v. Massachusetts: Sovereignty or status quo?

Read this if your organization, business, or institution is receiving financial assistance as a direct result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

For companies and organizations that received federal funding to assist them during the COVID-19 pandemic, there have been some updates on Uniform Guidance. Here is a brief summary of those updates, audit threshold, federal funds subject to that threshold, and other pertinent information regarding the guidance.

Audit threshold

Non-federal entities that expend federal funds of $750,000 or more are required to have an audit in accordance with Subpart F of Title 2, U.S. Code of Federal Regulations, Part 200, Uniform Administrative Requirements, Cost Principles, and Audit Requirements for Federal Awards (Uniform Guidance).

Funds subject to threshold

  • 93.498 Provider Relief Fund
  • 21.019 Coronavirus Relief Fund
  • 84.425 Higher Education Stabilization Fund
  • 32.006 COVID-19 Telehealth Program
  • 84.184C CARES Act Project SERV
  • 93.461 COVID-19 Testing for the Uninsured
  • 93.527 Grants for New and Expanded Services under Health Center Program
  • 93.665 Emergency Grants to Address Mental and Substance Use Disorders During COVID-19
  • 93.967 COVID-19 Testing for Rural Health Clinics

Funds exempt from threshold

  • 59.073 (Small Business Administration) Payroll Protection Loan Program
  • 59.072 Economic Injury Disaster Loan Emergency Advance

Audit options

  • Single Audit in accordance with Uniform Guidance
  • Program-specific audit (only applicable if the non-federal entity expends Federal awards under one single CFDA)

Reporting timetables

  • Automatic three-month audit submission extension for Single Audits of 2020 year-ends through September 30, 2020 (only if recipient received some form of COVID-19 funding subject to Uniform Guidance)
    • Example, a June 30, 2020 year-end’s initial date is March 31, 2021, however this was extended to June 30, 2021

Compliance supplement addendum takeaways

  • Released December 22, 2020
  • Provides guidance on auditing above CFDAs
  • For organizations with year-ends prior to December 31, 2020, above funding will be reported in the Schedule of Expenditures of Federal Awards (SEFA) for fiscal years ending in 2021

For-profit considerations

  • Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has determined for-profit commercial organizations (which envelopes hospitals, senior living facilities, and other health facilities) are required to include PRF payments in determining the $750,000 threshold for a compliance audit requirement
  • Currently, HHS guidance makes reference to organizations “receiving” not “expending” PRF, which is not in line with current Uniform Guidance definitions – AICPA has reached out for clarification
  • There is a third option under HHS guidance for organizations to have a financial audit performed in accordance with US generally accepted auditing standards and US generally accepted governmental auditing standards. However, there is uncertainty as to the specifics of this option and if this option would receive reporting extensions discussed above – AICPA has reached out for clarification

If you have questions about accounting for, or reporting on, funds that you have received as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, please contact a member of our Single Audit Team. We’re here to help.

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Uniform Guidance—where we are today

Read this if your agency is involved with COVID-19 vaccination distribution.

Although states have already created COVID-19 vaccination plans, your state can still implement critical strategies to improve your distribution plan. In October 2020, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) released the Interim Playbook version 2.0, providing a key framework for states and jurisdictions to build their COVID-19 vaccine distribution plans. The federal government asked that immunization programs in each state plans based on this model. The Playbook contains 15 sections of planning elements for states to consider in the development of their plan. Completing a plan of this extent while simultaneously trying to manage the pandemic has led some states to leave out or not thoroughly address critical components in their plans. 

The Kaiser Family Foundation (KFF) analyzed and collected common themes from each of the 47 state vaccination plans. Their analysis identified areas of weakness in the following areas of each plan: 

  • Priority populations for vaccinations in states 
  • Identifying networks of providers 
  • Developing data collection and reporting
  • Forming communication strategies

Each of the four areas each contained multiple findings, but since the vaccine has already started to roll out, some aspects of the plan cannot be revised. However, it is not too late to improve upon certain elements, especially for data collection and reporting, as well as communication strategies. 

The following recommendations for improvement of state plans are based on the findings from the KFF State COVID-19 vaccine distribution analysis report

States should identify a clear data reporting and collection plan that accounts for the COVID-19-specific data requirements.

According to KFF, an immunization registry or database has been included in 53% of the state COVID-19 plans; in the others it was an unclear component of the plan. The data collection process for COVID-19 vaccinations will be complex and unique due to a number of factors including the nature of a phased rollout, new provider enrollment and onboarding, storage requirements, multiple vaccines and doses, and off-site vaccination locations

Since a little over half of all states have arranged for either new systems or are developing or adding features to current immunization registries, states that are lacking a comprehensive approach could benefit from adopting elements present in the other plans. For example, some states detail how their current immunization system is being utilized for the COVID-19 vaccine, in addition to upgrading certain features in order to meet the anticipated increase in demand. 

Other states have also described their transition to the Immunization Gateway, a centralized technical infrastructure sponsored by the CDC Immunization Information Systems Support Branch, and led by the US Department of Health and Human Services Office of the Chief Technology Officer. The Gateway is securely hosted through the Association of Public Health Laboratories (APHL). States can review the data collection and reporting sections of other states’ plans to gain a greater understanding of how their plan can be improved by describing data reporting and collection processes.   

States should address racial and ethnic disparities in vaccine distribution and acceptance through targeted and evidence-based communication strategies. 

The KFF analysis of state COVID-19 plans indicated about 49% of state plans include specific mention of racial or ethnic minority populations in regards to communication. Communication plans need to include targeted strategies as minority populations and people of color have shown greater hesitation in receiving the vaccine, even if it is free and determined safe by scientists and federal authorities. The virus has had a disproportionate impact on communities of color and minority populations, and a lack of communication to these populations may continue to enhance these disparate health outcomes.

One way to improve a communication plan by addressing racial or ethnic minority populations would be by incorporating the National Standards for Culturally and Linguistically Appropriate Services (CLAS), specifically the standards for Communication and Language Assistance:

  • Offer language assistance to individuals who have limited English proficiency and/or other communication needs, at no cost to them, to facilitate timely access to all health care and services
  • Inform all individuals of the availability of language assistance services clearly and in their preferred language, verbally and in writing
  • Ensure the competence of individuals providing language assistance, recognizing that the use of untrained individuals and/or minors as interpreters should be avoided
  • Provide easy-to-understand print and multimedia materials and signage in the languages commonly used by the populations in the service area

A communication plan that considers the racial and ethnic minority populations most vulnerable to adverse health outcomes and have shown a lack of trust in the scientific community would be advisable in order to combat disproportionate negative outcomes from the COVID-19 virus in the future. 

A COVID-19 vaccine distribution plan is an important aspect of each state’s strategy to control the spread of the virus. In order to lead to effective vaccine distribution, it is vital for the plans to thoroughly address data collection, reporting, and tracking. It is also important to consider implementing a communication plan that incorporates strategies to reach racial and ethnic minority groups who might have been disproportionality impacted by COVID-19 as a way to improve your state’s health equity approach to COVID-19 vaccination efforts. By implementing these considerations, your state’s COVID-19 vaccine distribution plan could become more effective in improving the health outcomes of your population. 

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Two ways states can improve their COVID-19 vaccination distribution plans