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Employer and Group Health Plans Prepare for Coronavirus (COVID-19)

Employer and Group Health Plans Prepare for Coronavirus (COVID-19)
Posted on Wednesday, March 4, 2020 by Bruce Gillis

The headlines today are filled with stories that stoke the fears of individuals and employers alike—generating questions such as, how safe am I?


Should I be wearing a surgical mask? How can I keep my company operating if the virus continues to spread? These concerns are fueling a lot of misinformation, a shortage of hand-sanitizer and making it difficult for people to distinguish fact from speculation.

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) have published Interim Guidance for Businesses and Employers to Plan and Respond to Coronavirus Disease 2019. Many employers (us included), have been taking steps to communicate with their employees about the risks, impact on business travel schedules, sick/work from home policies and more. I wanted to take a moment to discuss a few of the employer considerations associated with COVID-19.

The CDC has a website providing employers and businesses with guidance on planning for and responding to COVID-19 and the guidance within the website has been updated very often over the last few weeks. The CDC COVID website is a factual source of information and shares the CDC guidance specifically for businesses. Among the recommended strategies proposed by the Centers for Disease Control are:

  • Actively encourage sick employees to stay home. Employers can support this by ensuring sick leave policies are flexible and also allowing for employees to stay home to care for sick family members.
  • Separate sick employees. “CDC recommends that employees who appear to have acute respiratory illness symptoms (i.e. cough, shortness of breath) upon arrival to work or become sick during the day should be separated from other employees and be sent home immediately.”
  • Providing best information on illness etiquette. Emphasizing the need to stay home when sick, provide proper respiratory etiquette information and hand hygiene to all employees. Providing tissues and hand sanitizer and encouraging proper cough and sneezing etiquette.
  • Perform routine environment cleaning. Desk workstations, countertops, doorknobs, etc. Provide disposable wipes for commonly used surfaces.
  • Advise employees to take certain steps before traveling. Including checking the CDC traveler’s health notices for the latest recommendations.
  • Maintain confidentiality. The CDC advises that, “If an employee is confirmed to have COVID-19, employers should inform fellow employees of their possible exposure to COVID-19 in the workplace but maintain confidentiality as required by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).”
    • Per the EEOC website – “The basic rule is that with limited exceptions, employers must keep confidential any medical information they learn about an applicant or employee. Information can be confidential even if it contains no medical diagnosis or treatment course and even if it is not generated by a healthcare professional.”
    • Additionally, The Dept. of Health and Human Services has issued a notice (here) to HIPAA covered entities and their business associates, ensuring they are aware of the ways that patient information may be shared under the HIPAA Privacy Rule in an outbreak of infectious disease or other emergency situation, and to serve as a reminder that the protections of the Privacy Rule are not set aside during an emergency.

In addition to the CDC, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has also published additional guidance with industry-specific control and prevention recommendations. These tips can be found on the OSHA website (here).

Travel limitations 

The CDC has not limited domestic travel, but many employers are evaluating imposing limitations on non-essential travel. The intent is to limit the exposure of the individuals (in airports, as well as at the destination), address the growing unease of their employee populations who may be asked to travel, as well as limiting the opportunity to bring any illnesses back into the office. The availability of this option will obviously vary by industry, role and the ability of the business to provide technological alternatives, such as video conferencing.

Potential impact on group health plans

Employers offering group health plans should also be aware there could be other potential business impacts of COVID-19. If the virus continues to spread, the costs of the additional medical care it would require will, in part, be borne by the health plans, including employer group health plans. In addition to protecting their employees and their business continuity, a sound plan to prevent the spread of COVID-19 can also have a positive impact on a business’s health claims spend. 

Some states are looking to remove financial barriers from Coronavirus testing with the state of New York issuing an emergency directive to remove cost-sharing for COVID-19 tests. This will increase the costs to the insurers but provides greater availability and adoption of COVID-19 testing.

While I won’t pretend to be an expert on COVID-19, I do encourage employers to take this opportunity to review internal policies related to travel, sickness and leave, review the CDC’s guidance regarding cleaning and disinfecting and ensure that your company is appropriately complying with the various privacy and confidentiality requirements impacting their work locations. 

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Bruce Gillis Head of Compliance Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet. View All Posts