ERISA – Employee Retirement Income Security Act
The Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA), a federal law, sets standards for the establishment and operation of employee benefits plans. If you offer employees a health insurance plan or retirement plan, chances are you’re covered by the Act. Some ERISA requirements apply to both retirement and welfare benefits plans. Welfare plans are generally those that provide health, life, or disability benefits.
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ERISA requires employers that offer employee benefit plans to manage those plans with the best interests of their employees in mind. The three basic fiduciary duties are: loyalty, exclusive benefit, and duty of care.
Qualified retirement plans
Qualified retirement plans are those that meet the statutory and regulatory requirements to receive tax-favored treatment by the IRS. All qualified retirement plans are covered by ERISA. Generally, there are two categories of qualified plans, based on how the benefit is determined: defined-benefit plans, such as a traditional pension plan, and defined-contribution plans, such as a 401(k)s, 403(b)s, and 457s, profit sharing, simplified employee pension plans (SEPs), savings incentive match plans for employees (SIMPLEs), and employee stock ownership plans (ESOPs).
General plan requirements
ERISA imposes several requirements for health and welfare and retirement plans to keep participants informed about their provisions and any plan changes. These requirements include plan documents, summary plan descriptions, reporting and filing requirements, and claims procedures.
Virtually all group severance pay plans — whether offered as an incentive to voluntary separation or in connection with an involuntary layoff program — are covered by ERISA. Except for one-time-only cash payments, for example, plant closing payments, severance plans will generally be “employee benefit plans” under ERISA regulations.
Amendments to ERISA
Among the numerous amendments to ERISA are the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) and the Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act (COBRA). COBRA offers eligible workers and their families the option to continue their health coverage for a limited time after certain events, such as the loss of a job. HIPAA which, among other things, offers protection for coverage under group health plans to regulate exclusions for preexisting conditions, prohibits discrimination against employees and dependents based on their health status, and, under special circumstances, allows employees to enroll in a new plan for individuals.
Among the other later amendments to ERISA are the Newborns’ and Mothers’ Health Protection Act, the Mental Health Parity Act, and the Women’s Health and Cancer Rights Act.