In May 2016, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (“HHS”) published a final rule implementing Section 1557 of the ACA. Section 1557 prohibits discrimination in the health programs and activities of “Covered Entities” on the basis of race, color, national origin, sex, age, or disability. Section 1557 also imposes detailed and specific notice and disclosure requirements on Covered Entities, including, among other things, the requirement to provide information about the use of auxiliary aids and services, the adoption of grievance procedures, and access for individuals with limited English proficiency. Covered Entities are also required to include specific nondiscrimination protections in the design of group health plans.

A “Covered Entity” is one that receives “federal financial assistance” for a health program or activity from HHS. If any part of a health program or activity receives federal financial assistance from HHS, then all of that entity’s programs and activities are subject to the nondiscrimination provisions of the final rule.

While the nondiscrimination provisions of the final rule went into effect on July 18, 2016, and “Covered Entities” subject to the final rule were required to comply with the notification and grievance procedures by October 16, 2016, entities are still struggling to determine if they qualify as “Covered Entities” subject to the final rule.

Is it only federal financial assistance from HHS that matters for this determination?

In general, Section 1557 of the ACA applies to all health programs and activities, any part of which receives federal financial assistance from any federal agency. However, the requirements in the final rule specifically apply only to recipients of federal financial assistance from HHS.

What does federal financial assistance include?

“Federal financial assistance” includes Medicare Parts A, C, and D and Medicaid payments, grants, loans, subsidies, contracts of insurance, and other types of assistance. Such assistance also includes premium tax credits and advance payments of premium tax credits and cost-sharing reductions for health insurance coverage purchased through the federal and state Health Insurance Marketplaces.

Importantly, HHS does not consider Medicare Part B payments to be federal financial assistance.

What are some examples of “Covered Entities”?

HHS defines “Covered Entities” that are subject to the final rule to include:

  • every health program or activity that receives HHS funding;
  • every health program or activity administered by HHS, such as the Medicare Part D program; and
  • the Health Insurance Marketplaces and all plans offered by issuers that participate in those marketplaces.

“Covered Entities” may include entities that receive federal financial assistance through their participation in Medicare or Medicaid (e.g., hospitals, nursing facilities, and home health agencies) or through grants or subsidies from HHS agencies (e.g., health clinics, community health centers, and health-related schools), state Medicaid agencies, state public health agencies, health insurance issuers that participate in the Health Insurance Marketplaces, Medicare Advantage plans and Prescription Drug Plan sponsors, and physician practices receiving Medicaid payments or other payments from HHS (e.g., meaningful use incentive payments).

What about entities that do not receive funding directly from HHS?

A wide array of entities that provide health-related services do not receive funding directly from HHS but do receive payment for their services through other HHS-funded organizations. The “Covered Entity” status for these entities is more complex and must be examined closely.

By definition, a “recipient of federal financial assistance” is an entity to which such funding is extended directly or through another recipient. However, it is important to look to the entity that Congress intended to assist or subsidize with certain funds when determining whether a downstream entity is a recipient of federal financial assistance.

Nonetheless, whether a downstream entity is covered under the final rule remains far from clear, as HHS offers only limited guidance. HHS makes some distinctions in the final rule. For example, an issuer participating in a Health Insurance Marketplace receives federal financial assistance, but a health care provider that contracts with such an issuer does not become a recipient of federal financial assistance by virtue of that contract. Similarly, physicians who contract to provide health services to hospitals or clinics that receive federal financial assistance do not become recipients of federal financial assistance by virtue of those contracts. However, HHS has confirmed that providers that receive reimbursement from a Medicare Advantage plan are subject to the final rule, regardless of whether payments from the plan go directly to the provider or to the patient.

An entity acting as a third-party administrator for an employer’s employee health benefit plan may not be a “Covered Entity” if the entity is legally separate from an issuer that receives federal financial assistance for its insurance plans. Nonetheless, if an issuer that receives federal financial assistance also provides third-party administrator services, the final rule would apply to those third-party administrator services.

As a general rule of thumb, downstream entities contracting with a recipient of federal financial assistance may not qualify as a “Covered Entity” by virtue of the contract alone. Entities unsure of their status should consider whether they are the intended recipient of the federal financial assistance when making this determination. Entities also should be aware that a “Covered Entity” may include provisions regarding compliance with Section 1557’s nondiscrimination requirements in its contracts with downstream entities. Finally, HHS has reserved the right to engage in a case-by-case inquiry to evaluate whether an entity is appropriately subject to Section 1557. A highly fact-specific inquiry should be undertaken to determine if an entity that does not directly receive funding from HHS might still be a “Covered Entity” in the eyes of HHS.

Takeaways

Entities operating a health program or activity should determine the source of funding for any such program or activity. Those programs or activities receiving federal financial assistance are subject to the nondiscrimination requirements of Section 1557, which include providing a notice of nondiscrimination to the public, implementing a grievance procedure, designating a civil rights coordinator, and providing language assistance to limited English proficiency speakers and appropriate accommodations to individuals with disabilities.

Employers sponsoring group health plans should read the following article by our colleagues to determine the extent to which the Section 1557 nondiscrimination rules apply to them.

A version of this article originally appeared in the Take 5 newsletter “Five Key Issues Impacting Health Care Employers.”