Coalition: Protect employer-sponsored health coverage amid coronavirus

Employers, other industry insiders call on policymakers to help safeguard coverage for millions.
By: | March 24, 2020 • 4 min read
(Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Employers, insurers and other benefit industry insiders are calling on Congress to help them maintain employer-sponsored healthcare as the coronavirus pandemic threatens to dismantle coverage for millions of employees.

A coalition called the Alliance to Fight for Health Care—which includes the American Benefits Council, AHIP, Blue Cross Blue Shield Association, Cigna and Mercer—has launched in an effort to help maintain coverage for employees who have lost their jobs, and to assist employers that are struggling to afford insurance for their workforces in the new pandemic economy.

The alliance was previously called the Alliance to Fight the 40 and successfully led the advocacy effort to repeal the Affordable Care Act’s Cadillac tax, a 40% tax on employer-provided health benefits.

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“Now, more than ever, Americans need the security that their job-based health coverage will help take care of their families,” said James Klein, president of the American Benefits Council. “Our diverse coalition fought to protect employer-based coverage from a harmful 40% tax, and now, we will continue our fight as a COVID-19 rapid response team with very specific legislative and regulatory policy proposals to protect the coverage of nearly 180 million Americans.”

Among its proposals, the alliance wants a payroll tax credit for employers and multiemployer health funds in industries affected by COVID-19 that provide continuations of health coverage. It’s also backing the creation of funds or business loans to sustain health coverage provided by companies and health funds struggling to make premium payments.

“The COVID-19 pandemic is making it difficult or impossible for some employers and employees to pay their share of premiums for health coverage, as many businesses have been forced to shutter operations or vastly scale down their business,” the group wrote in letters to Congressional leaders, President Trump and Vice President Pence. “Employers are seeking policy solutions that prevent the loss of health coverage, protect against overwhelming Medicaid and safety net programs, and offer stability to our frontline hospitals and healthcare providers.”

The group also is advocating for federal subsidies to provide support to help pay for 90% of COBRA premiums for employees who lose their employer-sponsored health insurance due to the economic impact of COVID-19.

The group is encouraging employers and organizations to join its efforts, Klein says.

Other industry insiders have reiterated the importance of employer-sponsored health coverage in the wake of the pandemic.

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“Employers need to be assessing their short-term disability, paid time-off policies, layoff provisions and medical coverage,” says Bill Gimbel, founder and CEO of LaSalle Benefits, a national insurance and employee benefits brokerage firm. “We do not know what COVID-19 is entirely, but people want to know that if they contract it, they’re covered.”

Related: 8 benefits employers should zero in on during the coronavirus pandemic

However, as coronavirus shuts down businesses across the nation, employees who are laid off or furloughed are left vulnerable to health coverage. It is feared that other employers that are struggling financially may be forced to cut health coverage as well.

“Obviously, income continuation due not only to illness, but also for employees who are healthy but unable to work is critically important,” says Rich Fuerstenberg, senior partner in Mercer’s life, accident and disability national practice. “Some employers won’t be able to continue income for the latter group for an extended period of time, if at all, especially for hourly employees in low-margin industries. For those employees, continuation of health benefits—likely without employee contributions since there may be no pay from which to take contributions—will be valuable at a time when those with a COVID-19 diagnosis may need to access care.”

Kathryn Mayer is HRE’s benefits editor and chair of the Health & Benefits Leadership Conference. She has covered benefits for the better part of a decade, and her stories have won multiple awards, including a Jesse H. Neal Award and honors from the American Society of Business Publication Editors and the National Federation of Press Women. She holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of Denver. She can be reached at kmayer@lrp.com.