Guide dogs and service dogs have helped individuals with disabilities navigate life for decades. Now you also see assistance animals, therapy animals and emotional support animals. What’s the difference and what’s the law?
Many people legitimately need service, support or therapy animals, while others use the “therapy animal” name and even fake vests and registries to sneak their pets into public places. So what rights do users of service animals have?
Employment discrimination: Title I of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) prohibits disability discrimination in employment. If employees or prospective hires need a service animal, you cannot prohibit them from having the animal at the work-site. You can ask the nature of the services the animal performs, but you cannot ask about the nature of the person’s disability.
Discrimination in public accommodations: Title II and Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) prohibits privately owned businesses that serve the public, such as restaurants, hotels, retail stores, taxicabs, theaters, concert halls, and sports facilities, from discriminating against individuals with disabilities. The ADA requires these businesses to allow service animals onto business premises in whatever areas customers are generally allowed. As with employers, owners or managers of public accommodations can ask about the nature of the services performed by the animal, but not the nature of the person’s disability.
The ADA defines a service animal as any guide dog, signal dog, or other animal individually trained to provide assistance to an individual with a disability. Service animals perform some of the functions and tasks that the individual with a disability cannot perform for him or herself. Guide dogs are one type of service animal, used by some individuals who are blind. Service animals also assist persons with other kinds of disabilities in their day-to-day activities. Examples include:
- Alerting persons with hearing impairments to sounds.
- Pulling wheelchairs or carrying and picking up things for persons with mobility impairments.
- Assisting persons with mobility impairments with balance.
The ADA does not limit its definition of disabilities to physical disabilities—psychiatric, intellectual, or other mental disabilities also qualify. The ADA National Network says, “Tasks performed by psychiatric service animals may include reminding the handler to take medicine, providing safety checks or room searches, or turning on lights for persons with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), interrupting self-mutilation by persons with associative identity disorders, and keeping disoriented individuals from danger.”
To qualify as a service animal, two conditions must apply: the person must have a disabling condition and the animal must be trained to perform a specific task or tasks. If they meet the definition, the ADA considers animals service animals regardless of whether they have been licensed or certified by a state or local government.
Service Animals vs. Assistance Animals and Therapy Animals vs. Pets
Some people use therapy dogs or emotional support dogs. These animals may provide therapeutic or emotional support to a person with a mental health disability, such as PTSD. They are not trained to perform specific tasks; instead, their mere presence has a calming effect on their owner.
The FHA, Fair Housing Amendments Act of 1988, allows therapy or emotional support dogs to be kept in housing with pet restrictions. If the owner has a verifiable disability, the animal is a “reasonable accommodation.” HUD specifically states that “while dogs are the most common type of assistance animal, other animals can also be assistance animals.” Title II and Title III of the ADA do not view emotional support animals, therapy animals and comfort animals as service animals. This means that, outside of housing and air travel, owners of therapy or emotional support animals have no legal right to bring their animals into places where animals are prohibited, even with a doctor’s letter.
The ADA and other anti-discrimination laws are complex. Running afoul of them can lead to discrimination claims, fines and negative publicity. A good liability insurance policy can help protect your business from the cost of defending discrimination claims and paying damages, if any—please contact us for a policy review.
Affordable Care Act compliance, along with benefits cost management and employee wellness programs, are emerging as the top issues affecting small business health plans.
As 2017 approaches, small businesses should reevaluate their employee health insurance needs and what they need to do to comply with new health insurance laws.
Although businesses with fewer than 50 full-time equivalent employees do not have to provide health insurance for their employees, they must comply with the ACA’s reporting requirements. All businesses with employees must:
- Withhold and report an additional 0.9 percent on employee wages or compensation that exceed $200,000.
- Report the value of health insurance coverage you provided to each employee on his or her Form W-2.
- File an annual return reporting certain information for each employee covered under a self-insured health plan.
In an effort to help small businesses comply with the Affordable Care Act, a new study by HUB International explored ACA compliance, along with benefits cost management and employee wellness, by surveying over 400 senior-level human resources and finance executives at companies with 50 to 1,000 employees.
“HR leaders are operating in an era of unprecedented disruption brought on by ACA, rising health care costs and the increasing demands of a multi-generational workforce,” wrote the authors of the HUB International report titled, “Employee Benefits Barometer: SMB Perspectives and Priorities in an Era of Disruption.”
Era of Disruption
The survey found nearly two in three business owners employing between 50 and 99 people are concerned about remaining in compliance with the ACA regulations. Other findings included:
- 69 percent of employers plan to change their benefit plan structure and/or operations to avoid ACA reporting fines and penalties.
- 61 percent expect IRS fines for ACA reporting to be negligible to their bottom line in 2016.
- 60 percent believe ACA reporting is primarily an HR issue.
- 64 percent have optimized design and operations strategies to eliminate the fines/penalties, but will struggle to stay in business.
- 54 percent say ACA reporting is primarily a finance issue.
As this survey shows, employers perceive themselves to be on top of ACA reporting issues, but nearly two-thirds say that their businesses will struggle to stay afloat despite efforts to optimize plan designs and operations—an indication that employers are exhausted by ACA compliance, the authors of the HUB International report wrote.
“Due to the potential audit implications of ACA reporting, organizations need to be able to defend and manage the decisions they made and reported on,” the authors noted.
In the survey, employers did not rate ACA reporting as their top concern, but because the survey took place prior to completing year-one reporting deadlines, “it may be an indication that employers don’t know where they are most vulnerable,” the authors wrote.
“Most responders ranked cost management and health and performance issues as bigger priorities over ACA reporting,” the authors wrote. “This may be an indication that employers have under-estimated the complexity of ACA reporting.
“Just over half of HR leaders (57 percent) cited accuracy in calculating and reporting the affordability of benefits as their top concern for ACA compliance. While 55 percent of mid-sized and 56 percent of the largest middle market companies ranked this as their top concern, it was especially an issue among the smallest players (66 percent). Close behind, at 53 percent, were concerns over how employee subsidy eligibility and employer liability are tracked and reported.”
Wellness and Productivity Are Top Priorities
Meanwhile, the survey also found that employee wellness and productivity are top priorities, and two-thirds of respondents are seeing a return on investments in their programs, specifically in improved employee productivity and morale. When asked to identify their top benefits priorities, HR respondents ranked improving employee wellness and productivity (83 percent) and managing benefit costs (76 percent) as top priorities.
The report found that employers who are implementing wellness programs are reporting improvements in employee productivity and morale.
“Middle market employers are starting to put more effort in longer term benefits initiatives that support the connection between healthy employees and business performance,” the authors wrote. “These programs are the cornerstone of a long-term benefit strategy that supports a healthier and more engaged workforce.
“There’s a reason health and performance initiatives have gained traction among middle market benefits decision-makers. These strategies are delivering a return on investment, according to 66 percent of respondents. How has it been evidenced? More than a third of respondents cite improved productivity (35 percent) and morale (34 percent). This is especially true among the larger firms, at 40 percent and 38 percent respectively.”
Employers are reaping the benefits of their cost-cutting initiatives, but there appears to be many missed opportunities to deploy proven cost management strategies, the authors wrote.
“Are their efforts paying off? Sixty-five percent agree that they are doing all they can to contain rising benefit costs,” the authors wrote. “Seventy percent note that their strategies are successfully reining in costs. In fact, a significant percentage of the HR respondents indicated they have revamped their plan designs to reduce costs. Leading that change, 51 percent have implemented voluntary benefits for the first time as part of their cost savings strategy.”
For more information on complying with the Affordable Care Act, controlling your costs or adding voluntary benefits to your organization’s offerings, please contact us.
It’s time to start thinking about your health insurance needs again!
The Affordable Care Act requires all U.S. citizens (with certain narrow exceptions) to have health insurance or pay a fine. If you don’t have coverage through an employer-sponsored plan or a government program such as Medicare or Medicaid, you can buy coverage for 2017 during the annual open enrollment period from now through Jan. 31, 2017.
You have choices and it might be tempting to just choose the least expensive plan. There are, however, other considerations you should take into account.
Individuals can purchase health insurance from the Marketplace Exchange created by the Affordable Care Act, a private exchange or a private health insurer.
Where to Buy Coverage?
The types of plans available to you and the price you pay may depend on where you purchase your coverage. If you might qualify for a subsidy, you’ll want to shop on the Marketplace Exchange. You can only receive a subsidy by shopping the Exchange, however, you may be able to find insurance that’s less expensive even without the subsidy.
To shop on the Exchange, go to Healthcare.gov and enter your ZIP code. You’ll be sent to your state’s exchange if it has one. If not, you’ll use the federal website. You can also contact our office—as licensed insurance professionals, we can help understand the various types of plans and costs involved, and help you secure coverage. Insurers pay us for our services, which cost you nothing extra.
When you buy coverage through the Exchange, you will pay a monthly premium to your insurance company. You also pay out-of-pocket costs, including meeting the deductible required by the plan you chose.
Plans on the exchange are divided into four “metal categories” — Bronze, Silver, Gold and Platinum. Plan categories have nothing to do with quality of care; they simply indicate the coverage levels. You’ll pay the lowest premiums for a Bronze plan, but when you have a claim, the Bronze plan will require you to pay more out-of-pocket for covered health services.
Compare Insurance Plans
You’ll get the most information about a plan from the summary of benefits. One of your first steps should be to look at your family’s past medical history to determine the level of care you’ll need in the future. Do some family members suffer regularly from severe allergies? Does someone in your family have diabetes or do you know of an upcoming surgery? Any indication that you’re going to need regular access to a doctor is a good sign that you should consider plans that cost more now but will cover more of your medical costs later.
Every plan also has its own level of out-of-pocket costs, which are the costs you will pay after the insurance company pays its portion. Each plan also will have its own deductible — the amount you have to spend on out-of-pocket medical expenses before your insurance pays.
There are four types of insurance plans. Whether you buy coverage on or off the Exchange, you’ll encounter these same basic types of plans. The one you choose will help determine your out-of-pocket costs and the doctors you can see.
- Health Maintenance Organization (HMO): Lower out-of-pocket costs and access to a primary doctor; focuses on integrated care — particularly prevention and wellness; you must seek care from a provider who is in the network, except for emergencies.
- Preferred Provider Organization (PPO): You don’t have to stay in network and use the doctors and hospitals that are in the PPO network, but care will be less expensive if you do; you don’t need referrals for care.
- Point of Service Plan (POS): In-network care is less expensive, but you have to get a referral from a primary doctor to see a specialist.
- Exclusive Provider Organization (EPO): Lower-out-of pocket costs; you have to stay in network except for emergencies; you don’t need referrals for care.
You can also buy coverage through a private exchange or private insurer, which will provide insurance coverage for a premium. If you don’t qualify for a subsidy (and even if you do), you might find coverage more affordable through a private insurer.
The Importance of Networks
If you have established relations with certain doctors or healthcare providers, you’ll want to check the plan’s list of approved healthcare providers. Is your doctor included? Plans that feature a network usually offer lower costs because the insurance company has signed an agreement with certain providers to provide lower rates. Your insurance provider will provide a list of doctors who have been approved for the plan.
Something else to consider: Do you like going to see your doctor for a referral before scheduling a procedure or visiting a specialist? This is something an HMO or POS will require. Some people don’t mind and like the idea that their doctor’s staff will coordinate the visit and send their medical records to the specialist.
We can help you evaluate your options—please contact us for more information.
Do you qualify for a subsidy? Health insurance subsidies—which are actually premium tax credits—help eligible individuals and families with low or moderate income afford health insurance purchased through a Health Insurance Marketplace. To get this credit, you must have an income no more than the federal poverty level and file a tax return.
The poverty level varies with your location and family size. Healthcare.gov offers an easy-to-use tool that lets you see whether you are eligible.
Lightning kills more people in the U.S. each year than any other natural disaster other than floods. A Carnegie-Mellon study found that lightning affected 33 percent of US businesses at some point. So what can you do to protect your people and property from lightning?
The National Weather Service says read more …