The Employee Benefits Security Administration (EBSA) of the Federal Department of Labor plans to publish on November 18, 2015, new claims procedures for adjudicating disability benefits designed to enhance existing procedures for those benefits under Section 503 of the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA). EBSA’s goal is to apply to disability benefits many of the new procedural protections and safeguards that have been applied to group health plans under the Affordable Care Act (ACA). Interested parties may submit comments to these proposed regulations no later than 60 days after publication.

What are disability benefits?

In general, if an ERISA-covered plan conditions the availability of a benefit to the claimant upon a showing of disability, that benefit is a disability benefit. This is true whether the plan is a pension plan or a welfare plan. See FAQs About The Benefit Claims Procedure Regulation, A-9.

Why the change?

Fearing an increase in disability claims due to an aging population likely to be more susceptible to disabilities, EBSA anticipates an increase in disability litigation. The agency also expressed concern that disability benefit costs may be motivating insurers and plans to aggressively dispute disability claims. The proposed regulations states:

This aggressive posture coupled with the inherently factual nature of disability claims highlight for the Department the need to review and strengthen the procedural rules governing the adjudication of disability benefit claims.

What would the DOL like to change?

In short, the proposed regulations would incorporate into the rules for processing disability benefits many of the procedural protections for healthcare claim in the Affordable Care Act (ACA), such as:

  • Procedures would need to be designed to ensure independence and impartiality of the persons making the decision. For example, plans would not be permitted to provide bonuses to a claims adjudicator based on the number of denials.
  • Denial notices would be required to provide a full discussion of the basis for denial and the standards behind the decision. For instance, denial notices would have to do a better job explaining why the plan’s decision is contrary to the claimant’s doctor’s view.
  • Claimants would need to be given access to their entire claim file and permitted to present evidence and testimony during the review process.
  • Notice would need to be given to claimants, along with an opportunity to respond to, any new evidence reasonably in advance of an appeal decision. EBSA is considering whether the timing rules will need to be adjusted to allow for dialogue between the plan and the claimant about the new evidence.
  • Final denials at the appeals stage would not be permitted to be based on new or additional rationales unless claimants first are given notice and a fair opportunity to respond.
  • Claimants would be deemed to have exhausted administrative remedies if the plan fails to comply with the claims processing rules, with limited exceptions. These exceptions include circumstances where the violation was: (i) de minimis; (ii) non-prejudicial; (iii) attributable to good cause or matters beyond the plan’s control; (iv) in the context of an ongoing good-faith exchange of information; and (v) not reflective of a pattern or practice of non-compliance.
  • Certain rescissions would be treated as adverse benefit determinations, subject to appeals procedures.
  • Notices would need to be written in a culturally and linguistically appropriate manner. In short, if a claimant’s address is in a county where 10 percent or more of the population residing in that county, as determined based on American Community Survey (ACS) data published by the United States Census Bureau, are literate only in the same non-English language, notices of adverse benefit determinations to the claimant would have to include a prominent one-sentence statement in the relevant non-English language about the availability of language services. Such services would include (i) oral language services in the non-English language, such as through a telephone hotline, (ii) written notices in the non-English language upon request, and (iii) answering questions and providing assistance with filing claims and appeals in any applicable non-English language.

Plan sponsors, plan administrators and carriers will have to watch the development of these rules carefully. Once finalized, changes likely will be needed to ERISA-covered pension and welfare plan documents that provide disability benefits.

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Photo of Joseph J. Lazzarotti Joseph J. Lazzarotti

Joseph J. Lazzarotti is a principal in the Berkeley Heights, New Jersey, office of Jackson Lewis P.C. He founded and currently co-leads the firm’s Privacy, Data and Cybersecurity practice group, edits the firm’s Privacy Blog, and is a Certified Information Privacy Professional (CIPP)…

Joseph J. Lazzarotti is a principal in the Berkeley Heights, New Jersey, office of Jackson Lewis P.C. He founded and currently co-leads the firm’s Privacy, Data and Cybersecurity practice group, edits the firm’s Privacy Blog, and is a Certified Information Privacy Professional (CIPP) with the International Association of Privacy Professionals. Trained as an employee benefits lawyer, focused on compliance, Joe also is a member of the firm’s Employee Benefits practice group.

In short, his practice focuses on the matrix of laws governing the privacy, security, and management of data, as well as the impact and regulation of social media. He also counsels companies on compliance, fiduciary, taxation, and administrative matters with respect to employee benefit plans.

Privacy and cybersecurity experience – Joe counsels multinational, national and regional companies in all industries on the broad array of laws, regulations, best practices, and preventive safeguards. The following are examples of areas of focus in his practice:

  • Advising health care providers, business associates, and group health plan sponsors concerning HIPAA/HITECH compliance, including risk assessments, policies and procedures, incident response plan development, vendor assessment and management programs, and training.
  • Coached hundreds of companies through the investigation, remediation, notification, and overall response to data breaches of all kinds – PHI, PII, payment card, etc.
  • Helping organizations address questions about the application, implementation, and overall compliance with European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) and, in particular, its implications in the U.S., together with preparing for the California Consumer Privacy Act.
  • Working with organizations to develop and implement video, audio, and data-driven monitoring and surveillance programs. For instance, in the transportation and related industries, Joe has worked with numerous clients on fleet management programs involving the use of telematics, dash-cams, event data recorders (EDR), and related technologies. He also has advised many clients in the use of biometrics including with regard to consent, data security, and retention issues under BIPA and other laws.
  • Assisting clients with growing state data security mandates to safeguard personal information, including steering clients through detailed risk assessments and converting those assessments into practical “best practice” risk management solutions, including written information security programs (WISPs). Related work includes compliance advice concerning FTC Act, Regulation S-P, GLBA, and New York Reg. 500.
  • Advising clients about best practices for electronic communications, including in social media, as well as when communicating under a “bring your own device” (BYOD) or “company owned personally enabled device” (COPE) environment.
  • Conducting various levels of privacy and data security training for executives and employees
  • Supports organizations through mergers, acquisitions, and reorganizations with regard to the handling of employee and customer data, and the safeguarding of that data during the transaction.
  • Representing organizations in matters involving inquiries into privacy and data security compliance before federal and state agencies including the HHS Office of Civil Rights, Federal Trade Commission, and various state Attorneys General.

Benefits counseling experience – Joe’s work in the benefits counseling area covers many areas of employee benefits law. Below are some examples of that work:

  • As part of the Firm’s Health Care Reform Team, he advises employers and plan sponsors regarding the establishment, administration and operation of fully insured and self-funded health and welfare plans to comply with ERISA, IRC, ACA/PPACA, HIPAA, COBRA, ADA, GINA, and other related laws.
  • Guiding clients through the selection of plan service providers, along with negotiating service agreements with vendors to address plan compliance and operations, while leveraging data security experience to ensure plan data is safeguarded.
  • Counsels plan sponsors on day-to-day compliance and administrative issues affecting plans.
  • Assists in the design and drafting of benefit plan documents, including severance and fringe benefit plans.
  • Advises plan sponsors concerning employee benefit plan operation, administration and correcting errors in operation.

Joe speaks and writes regularly on current employee benefits and data privacy and cybersecurity topics and his work has been published in leading business and legal journals and media outlets, such as The Washington Post, Inside Counsel, Bloomberg, The National Law Journal, Financial Times, Business Insurance, HR Magazine and NPR, as well as the ABA Journal, The American Lawyer, Law360, Bender’s Labor and Employment Bulletin, the Australian Privacy Law Bulletin and the Privacy, and Data Security Law Journal.

Joe served as a judicial law clerk for the Honorable Laura Denvir Stith on the Missouri Court of Appeals.