How to use the PPACA’s safe harbor to determine which employees qualify for coverage
By Tobias Kennedy
The Patient Protection and Accountable Care Act (PPACA) has a number of employer provisions generally called the “employer shared responsibility.” So, with this responsibility, who, exactly, do you have to offer coverage to as full-time employees?
“It’s not always as easy as 100 percent of your staff sitting in a chair from 8 a.m. to noon, then again from 1 to 5 p.m.,” says Tobias Kennedy, vice president of Sales and Service at Montage Insurance Solutions. “The reality is employers will have project-based staff, variable-hour employees and other factors that make figuring out ‘full time’ slightly tricky.”
Smart Business spoke with Kennedy about the PPACA’s look back/stability safe harbor, in this second of a three-part series on the employer shared responsibility provision. The first article discussed how the penalties are triggered under employer shared responsibility.
How does the look back/stability safe harbor work?
This provision allows an employer to look at ongoing staff and make a technical calculation on whether or not a person is supposed to be offered benefits under the PPACA. The legislation applies month-to-month, but because the government realizes that a monthly application would be administratively crippling, an optional safe harbor exists where you can extend the length of time used to measure employee hours, and then that data determines which employees qualify.
For ongoing staff, you get three new time frames to calculate with: a measurement period, an administration period and a stability period.
What is a measurement period?
The measurement period is a time frame you get to select — it has to be continuous months and can last anywhere from three to 12 months. Obviously, the shorter the period, the more likely to have irregular spikes; the longer the period, the more it’s a true measure of an employee’s average.
Essentially, you simply define the period of time, and those are the months that an employer uses to calculate employee hours worked. For example, the employer might select a 12-month measurement period and choose to run it from Nov. 1 to Oct. 31 every year. In this case, the employer would look at the hours worked over this period of time to determine each employee’s average hours worked to see if it is more or less than the PPACA-mandated 30 hours — thus qualifying, or not qualifying, for benefits.
What’s involved during the administration period?
The administration period is where you, the employer, have time to evaluate the results of your measurement period, and take care of logistics. This period cannot be longer than 90 days. For practical purposes, this would be used to see who is benefit eligible, plan your open enrollment meetings, distribute benefit information and then collect/process all of the applications for the upcoming plan year.
Using the previous example’s time frame, an employer might have this period run from the end of the measurement period to the end of the year, e.g., Nov. 1 to Dec. 31.
Once an employer moves on to the stability period, what happens?
In the stability period, as long as an employee remains employed, employers must treat him or her according to whatever average the measurement period deemed them — either full time or part time — regardless of the hours worked. So, if an employee measured as full time during the measurement period, you have to continue to offer him or her benefits through the entire stability period even if hours dip lower, as long as the person is still employed.
The stability period has to be at least six months and also no shorter than the time chosen as the measurement period. So, in the example from before, because the measurement was 12 months, the stability period also needs to be 12 months. If employees were measured from Nov. 1, 2014, through to Oct. 31, 2015, the employer would enroll employees throughout the end of 2015 for their 2016 plan year.
Then, the measurement, administration and stability periods continue to go on, overlapping such that every plan year occurs back to back without a break, and each plan year’s eligibility is associated with the hourly performance of employees during the preceding associated measurement period.
In the final of this three-part series, we’ll discuss how to treat a new hire to eventually fold him or her into your employee hourly average calculations.
Tobias Kennedy is vice president of Sales and Service at Montage Insurance Solutions. Reach him at 1 (888) 839-2147 or [email protected].