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The Affordable Care Act—Countdown to Compliance for Employers, Week 29: Wellness Programs, Smoking Cessation and e-Cigarettes

Written by Alden J. Bianchi

The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA) generally prohibits discrimination in eligibility, benefits, or premiums based on a health factor, except in the case of certain wellness programs. Final regulations issued in 2006 established rules implementing these nondiscrimination and wellness provisions. The Affordable Care Act largely incorporates the provisions of the 2006 final regulations (with a few clarifications), and it changes the maximum reward that can be provided under a “health-contingent” wellness program from 20 percent to 30 percent. But in the case of smoking cessation programs, the maximum reward is increased to 50 percent. Comprehensive final regulations issued in June 2013 fleshed out the particulars of the new wellness program regime.

Health-contingent wellness programs require an individual to satisfy a standard related to a health factor to obtain a reward. The final rules divide health-contingent wellness programs into the following two categories: activity-only programs, and outcome-based programs. As applied to smoking cessation, an “activity-only program” might require an individual to attend a class to obtain the reward. In contrast, an outcome-based program would require an individual to quit smoking, or least take steps to do so under complex rules governing alternative standards.

Nowhere do the final regulations address the role of electronic cigarettes (or “e-cigarettes”). Simply put, the issue is whether an e-cigarette user is a smoker or a nonsmoker? (According to Wikipedia, an electronic cigarette (e-cig or e-cigarette), “is a battery-powered vaporizer which simulates tobacco smoking by producing a vapor that resembles smoke. It generally uses a heating element known as an atomizer that vaporizes a liquid solution.”) But questions relating to e-cigarettes are starting to surface in the context of wellness program administration. Specifically:

  1. Is an individual who uses e-cigarettes a “smoker” for purposes of qualifying, or not qualifying, for a wellness program reward, and
  2. May a wellness program offer e-cigarettes as an alternative standard, i.e., one that if satisfied would qualify an individual as a non-smoker?

• Is an individual who uses e-cigarettes a “smoker” for purposes of qualifying, or not qualifying, for a wellness program reward?

While the final rules don’t mention or otherwise refer to e-cigarettes, they do provide ample clues to support the proposition that smoking cessation involves tobacco use. Here is the opening paragraph of the preamble:

SUMMARY: This document contains final regulations, consistent with the Affordable Care Act, regarding nondiscriminatory wellness programs in group health coverage. Specifically, these final regulations increase the maximum permissible reward under a health-contingent wellness program offered in connection with a group health plan (and any related health insurance coverage) from 20 percent to 30 percent of the cost of coverage. The final regulations further increase the maximum permissible reward to 50 percent for wellness programs designed to prevent or reduce tobacco use. (Emphasis added.)

There is also a discussion in the preamble about alternative standards (79 Fed Reg. p. 33,164 (middle column)), which reads in relevant part:

The Departments continue to maintain that, with respect to tobacco cessation, ‘‘overcoming an addiction sometimes requires a cycle of failure and renewed effort,’’ as stated in the preamble to the proposed regulations. For plans with an initial outcome-based standard that an individual not use tobacco, a reasonable alternative standard in Year 1 may be to try an educational seminar. (Footnotes omitted.)

In addition, the final regulations’ Economic Impact and Paperwork Burden section is replete with references to tobacco use, as are the examples (see Treas. Reg. § 54.9802-1(f)(4)(vi), examples 6 and 7).

On the other hand, the definition of what constitutes a participatory wellness program refers simply to “smoking cessation” (Treas. Reg. § 54.9802-1(f)(1)(ii)(D)), and the definition of an outcome-based wellness program (Treas. Reg. § 54.9802-1(f)(1)(v)) simply refers to “not smoking.” In neither case is there any reference to tobacco.

The Affordable Care Act’s rules governing wellness programs are included in the Act’s insurance market reforms, which take the form of amendments to the Public Health Service Act that are also incorporated by reference in the Internal Revenue Code and the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA). By virtue of being included in ERISA, participants have a private right of action to enforce these rules. So an employer that wanted to treat the use of e-cigarettes as smoking in order to deny access to a wellness reward would likely confront arguments similar to those set out above in the event of a challenge.

• May a wellness program offer e-cigarettes as an alternative standard, i.e., one that if satisfied would qualify an individual as a non-smoker?

This is perhaps a more difficult question. May an employer designate e-cigarette use as an alternative standard? Anecdotal evidence suggests that employers are not doing so, at least not yet. But could they do so? And would it make a difference whether the e-cigarette in question used a nicotine-based solution as opposed to some other chemical? (According to Wikipedia, “solutions usually contain a mixture of propylene glycol, vegetable glycerin, nicotine, and flavorings, while others release a flavored vapor without nicotine.”) The answer in each case is, it’s too soon to tell.

The benefits and risks of electronic cigarette use are uncertain, with evidence going both ways. Better evidence would certainly give the regulators the basis for further rulemaking in the area. In the meantime, the final regulations’ multiple references to tobacco, and by implication, nicotine, seem to furnish as good a starting point as any. This approach would require a wellness plan sponsor to distinguish between nicotine-based and non-nicotine-based solutions, which may prove administratively burdensome.

The larger question, which may take some time to settle, is whether e-cigarettes advance or retard the cause of wellness. Absent reliable clinical evidence, regulators and wellness plan sponsors have little to guide their efforts or inform their decisions as to how to integrate e-cigarettes into responsible wellness plan designs. Complicating matters, the market for e-cigarettes is potentially large, which means that reliable (read: unbiased) clinical evidence may be hard to come by. For now, all plan sponsors can do is to answer the questions set out above in good faith and in accordance with their best understanding of the final regulations.

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