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90-Day Limit on Eligibility Waiting Period

Unlike the shared responsibility penalties (which will apply only to larger employers), the 90-day limit on eligibility waiting periods will apply to virtually all employer health plans – regardless of the employer’s size and even if a plan remains “grandfathered” under health care reform.  All employers should thus familiarize themselves with the guidance in Notice 2012-59.

Citing regulations issued in 2004, the agencies define a “waiting period” as “the period that must pass before coverage for an employee or dependent who is otherwise eligible to enroll under the terms of a group health plan can become effective.”  (Emphasis added.)  Consistent with the italicized language, the agencies note that nothing in health care reform requires a plan to provide coverage to any particular category of employees.  (Of course, as noted earlier, a large employer may incur a shared responsibility penalty if the exclusion of a full-time employee results in that employee receiving subsidized coverage through an Exchange.)

Much of Notice 2012-59 is devoted to explaining when the agencies will view an eligibility condition as being designed to avoid compliance with the 90-day waiting period limitation – and therefore a violation of this requirement.  For instance, a plan may validly require that an employee be in an eligible job classification – such as hourly, salaried, or working at a specified location – in order to participate.  And any period in an ineligible classification need not be counted against the 90-day limit. On the other hand, any eligibility condition that is based solely on the lapse of time may last no longer than 90 days.

So far, this is all clear enough.  But the guidance then goes on to address certain harder cases.  For instance, what if a plan conditions an employee’s eligibility on working “full-time” (under either the 30-hour-per-week standard or otherwise) and an employee is hired on a variable hour or seasonal basis?  Here, Notice 2012-59 refers to the “initial measurement period” concept outlined in Notice 2012-58.  As explained above, this concept could allow for a period of up to twelve months (plus a brief administrative period) for a plan to determine whether an employee has satisfied this eligibility condition – even though such a period greatly exceeds 90 days.

What about a different type of eligibility condition, such as one offering coverage to part-time employees only after they have completed a total of 1200 hours of service?  An example in Notice 2012-59 specifically approves of this approach, even though the employee in that example was therefore required to work nearly a year before entering the plan.  Interestingly, however, the Notice appears to set a 1200-hour limit on such an eligibility condition, noting that the agencies would consider a requirement to complete more than 1200 hours to be designed to avoid compliance with the 90-day waiting period limitation.

Finally, Notice 2012-59 connects the 90-day limit on eligibility waiting periods to the shared responsibility penalties discussed in Notice 2012-58.  It does so by noting that a large employer may require even a full-time employee to satisfy a waiting period of up to 90 days without thereby running the risk of incurring a shared responsibility penalty.  Moreover, during that waiting period, the employee may qualify for subsidized coverage through an Exchange.  In this way, the Notice closes an analytical gap in the statutory language.

What to Do Now

Although neither of the requirements discussed in this article will take effect until January 1, 2014, sponsors of employer health plans will want to begin planning for their implementation well before that date.  In fact, any employer planning to use the look-back/stability period safe harbor for identifying full-time employees during 2014 must begin counting hours of service during 2013.

Moreover, the agencies have stated that this interim guidance will remain in effect through at least the end of 2014 – with any more restrictive guidance taking effect no earlier than 2015.  Accordingly, employers can be certain that these are the rules that will apply during the first year the requirements are effective.