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Recent IRS Guidance Allows Employers Health-Care Flexibility, Retention Credit

The Internal Revenue Service issued guidance that enables employers to allow their employees to make mid-year changes to their group health insurance coverage and their flexible spending accounts for health care and dependent care.

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The new rules give employers the flexibility to make the following changes to their plans:

  • Mid-year changes to group health care,
  • Mid-year change to flexible spending arrangements (FSA),
  • Higher carryover amount,
  • Longer grace period for some plans.

Typically, employees are only able to change their health-care plan choices during annual open enrollment or mid-year if they have specific life-changing events (marriage, children, etc.). The new COVID-19-related guidance from the IRS makes it possible for employers to allow employees to make changes that would remain in effect for the duration of 2020.

This would allow employees who might have been furloughed or had salary cuts to change into a more affordable plan.

“The ability to make a change when you’re not being paid is a powerful component,” said David Speier, managing director of benefits accounts at Willis Towers Watson. “We’re in an environment where there’s a lot of things that might be impacting the kind of plan someone would like. Furlough is one of things where that could be affecting a person’s finances based on what they can afford, so giving them a chance to elect again might not be a bad option.”

Flexible Spending Arrangements
FSAs provide employees with the option to set aside a certain amount of their salary before taxes in one account for health care and another for childcare expenses. If employees incur an expense, they are reimbursed from the account, so they don’t owe tax on that money. The maximum contribution to FSAs this year is $2,750 for health care and $5,000 for dependent care.

Employees typically must decide before the plan year starts how much they are going to set aside and can only alter the amount for life-changing events. The IRS guidance allows for participants to make changes to those amounts this year. This could come in handy for employees who might have set aside money for routine checkups and appointments that were either cancelled or are no longer a priority based on their financial status.

“Some people in these positions might just rather have the money in their pocket instead of in the FSA,” Speier said.

Higher Carryover Amount
Traditionally, employers can give employees a two-and-a-half month grace period after the end of the plan year to spend remaining funds in an FSA or they can let them carry over as much as $500 from one year to the next. The IRS guidance allows for employees to carry over up to $550 into 2021.  

The grace period is also extended by the new guidance, as employers can provide employees until the end of 2020 to incur qualified expenses and get reimbursed from the account. Meaning, if a calendar-year plan ended Dec. 31 and the grace period ended March 15, employees who would normally have to forfeit money left in the account would now have until the end of the year to spend it and get reimbursed.

All of these allowances are up to the employer’s discretion, but Speier said he expects most qualified employers to afford their employees these options. There are, however, various considerations for providing these allowances as it relates to an employer’s benefits options.

“You’re probably not going to see some immediate adoption,” he said. “You’re going to see some planning going on over the course of the next couple weeks.”

Employer Tax Credits
Employers across the U.S. have had to lay off or furlough employees during the COVID-19 pandemic. However, many are still providing health care benefits to their furloughed staff.

The employers that are doing so may treat those health plan expenses as qualified wages for the purposes of the retention credit under the CARES Act, according to a recent guidance by the IRS. These health-plan expenses, which must have taken place between March 12 and Jan. 1, 2021, are subject to a maximum of $10,000 per employee for all calendar quarters for all qualified wages.

The IRS noted that the amount of qualified health expenses taken into account when determining the amount of qualified wages for a given employee should not include amounts that the employee paid for with after-tax contributions. If an employee participates in more than one health plan sponsored by the employer, the allocated expenses of each plan in which the employee participates are aggregated for that employee.

About the Author

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Brett Christie is the managing editor of Workspan Daily.


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