Most employers know that if a group health plan provides mental health or substance use disorder (MH/SUD) benefits in any of six specified classifications, the plan must provide MH/SUD benefits in all specified classifications in which the plan provides medical or surgical (M/S) benefits. Additionally, the 2008 Mental Health Parity and Addition Equity Act (MHPAEA) requires plans to ensure that the financial requirements and treatment limitations (quantitative or nonquantitative) imposed on MH/SUD benefits are no more restrictive than those imposed on M/S benefits. While the United States Department of Labor’s Employee Benefits Security Administration (EBSA, which enforces employer-sponsored plans’ compliance with the MHPAEA) has proclaimed that it already has issued multiple compliance navigation guides for plans, the truth is that the guidance issued to date has lacked sufficient detail and failed to account for the actual circumstances necessary to be helpful to employers. Meanwhile, EBSA is investigating employer plans for compliance, publicly naming those that it deems fall short, and encouraging plan participants to demand written disclosures of details that are largely unavailable.

The Road and Navigation Systems Still Are Under Construction

EBSA has issued multiple requests for comments and guidance over the past couple of decades in connection with the MHPAEA. EBSA’s guidance includes 2013 final regulations, a self-compliance tool, 2019 FAQs (in which it listed examples of nonquantitative treatment limitations or NQTLs), and 2021 FAQs (in which it announced that it would begin investigating plans for compliance with the NQTL comparative analysis documentation requirements that became effective that year). One thing all of the prior guidance has in common is a failure to acknowledge that the employer, who’s usually ultimately accountable for compliance, has virtually no way to assess whether its group health plan complies with the mental health parity requirements. Except in rare circumstances, employers don’t select network providers, don’t negotiate reimbursement rates, don’t determine what preauthorization requirements will apply for what covered services, don’t know what’s medically necessary, and don’t know what claims have been approved or denied or why. So, for employers, the road to compliance is like driving through a construction zone without navigation and with multiple speed traps and caution signs posted in a foreign language. Employers need a roadmap and a way to navigate the many obstacles and construction zones on the route to compliance.

The recently-issued proposed regulations we blogged about last month are somewhat helpful because they provide more specific information about what data plans must collect and consider in order to design and apply NQTLs. This includes evaluating historical data comparing in- and out-of-network utilization rates and provider reimbursement rates – information the employer has to extract from the plan’s third-party administrator. While EBSA acknowledged the challenges employers face in collecting and evaluating the data needed to determine compliance, it still expects plans to show the analysis undertaken and the steps taken to mitigate material differences in access to MH/SUD benefits compared to M/S benefits. The EBSA (and other federal agencies) annual reports to Congress, which describe the agencies’ findings in enforcement investigations and highlight the agencies’ primary concerns regarding mental health parity, are also potentially helpful. For example, chief among the concerns highlighted is network adequacy. The agencies cite what’s been reported as a “growing disparity” in in-network reimbursement rates between MH/SUD providers and M/S providers, which drives down MH/SUD providers’ network participation and, therefore, increases the cost of MH/SUD services for patients.

How Employers Can Navigate A Road That’s Still Under Construction

It’s obvious that federal agencies are still gathering the information they think is relevant and necessary to provide meaningful guidance and enforcement. So, for now, employers should develop and document a compliance program using what is available to show a good faith effort to comply with the MHPAEA, including the NQTL comparative analysis requirement.

Any such compliance program should include these steps:

  • Determine which vendors to contact to gather the necessary documentation and information. In addition to the insurer or third-party administrator (TPA) for the group health plan, this may also include, for example, a behavioral health administrator and/or pharmacy benefit manager.
  • Develop a list of specific questions for the insurer/TPA and other vendors that will enable the employer to gather the information needed to determine whether the plan complies with the MHPAEA, including the NQTL requirements. It is helpful to reference the DOL self-compliance tool to develop an effective list of questions and to use its framework to document the compliance review effort. One should also incorporate the data elements in the recently issued proposed regulations. If the plan service provider has conducted and documented a compliance review itself, particularly the required NQTL comparative analysis, this will save the employer an enormous amount of time and other resources.
  • Document all communications with the insurer/TPA and other vendors, particularly those from whom one requests assistance gathering the data necessary to ensure MHPAEA compliance.
  • Analyze the data provided by the insurer/TPA and other vendors, both on a granular level and in the aggregate, using available EBSA guidance to help spot disparities. If needed, develop follow-up questions to the insurer/TPA and other vendors regarding any coverage disparities between MH/SUD and M/H benefits, the application of utilization review to MH/SUD benefits, and/or the reasoning behind MH/SUD claims denials.
  • If needed, identify areas of concern and pursue corrective action.  Retain all communication with the insurer/TPA or other vendor involved. 
  • If needed, update administrative services agreements to ensure ongoing cooperation from TPAs and other plan service providers in evaluating compliance, correcting compliance issues, and making required disclosures.

Bear in mind that MHPAEA compliance is an ongoing trip and should be revisited annually and whenever EBSA issues meaningful additional guidance. Employers can attend a free webinar on the proposed regulations that the federal agencies sponsor on September 7, 2023. Also, employers or employer groups interested in helping shape the final regulations have until October 2, 2023, to submit written comments on the proposed regulations. 

The attorneys in the Employee Benefits Practice Group are available to assist clients with developing and documenting their MHPAEA compliance programs and preparing comments on the proposed regulations. Please contact a Jackson Lewis employee benefits team member or the Jackson Lewis attorney with whom you regularly work if you have questions or need assistance.

Email this postTweet this postLike this postShare this post on LinkedIn
Photo of Monique Warren Monique Warren

Monique Warren is a principal in the White Plains, New York, office of Jackson Lewis P.C. She counsels employers on employee benefits compliance and administrative matters, represents employers to government agencies, and prepares plan documents and related employee communications.

Monique’s expertise includes health…

Monique Warren is a principal in the White Plains, New York, office of Jackson Lewis P.C. She counsels employers on employee benefits compliance and administrative matters, represents employers to government agencies, and prepares plan documents and related employee communications.

Monique’s expertise includes health and welfare plans as well as retirement plans. She has extensive experience helping plan sponsors navigate COBRA, HIPAA, and other ERISA and Internal Revenue Code provisions and correct compliance issues. A significant part of her practice currently focuses on defending employers in federal investigations of their group health plans as well as assisting government contractors with fulfilling fringe benefit obligations. She also has extensive experience helping retirement plan sponsors comply with ERISA fiduciary requirements and the Code’s qualification requirements and correcting plan errors under the Department of Labor’s and Internal Revenue Service’s voluntary correction programs.