Employers and plan sponsors have a lot of documents related to their health plans to distribute to employees.  We've put together a Q&A on three of the more well-known documents and what each involves below.

Question:

Can you clarify the differences between the SPD, plan documents, and certificates of insurance? Does the certificate of insurance need to be distributed to every participant, or can it only be "made available upon request"?

Answer:

A summary plan description (SPD) is the primary vehicle for informing participants and beneficiaries about their plan and how it operates. It must:

  • Be written for the average participant and be sufficiently comprehensive to apprise covered persons of their benefits, rights, and obligations under the plan; and
  • Accurately reflect the plan's contents as of the date not earlier than 120 days prior to the date the SPD is disclosed.

SPDs are to be distributed automatically to participants within 90 days of becoming covered by the plan and to pension plan beneficiaries within 90 days after first receiving benefits. However, a plan has 120 days after becoming subject to the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA) to distribute the SPD. An updated SPD must be furnished every five years if changes are made to SPD information or the plan is amended -- otherwise the SPD must be furnished every 10 years.

Plan documents are all documents related to the plan, including the SPD. The plan administrator must furnish copies of certain documents upon written request and must have copies available for examination. These documents include the latest updated SPD, latest Form 5500, trust agreement, and other instruments under which the plan is established or operated. Copies must be furnished no later than 30 days after a written request. The plan administrator must make copies available at its principal office and certain other locations.

Evidence of coverage (EOC) is further information regarding the plan that details coverage for the plan period. Each insurance carrier will have an EOC booklet, also called a schedule of benefits. These documents are often called certificates of insurance. This EOC/schedule of benefits does not meet the SPD requirements under ERISA. The EOC explains the health benefits participants and their dependents have under the plan. It details the services that will and will not be covered and the actions employees must to take to receive the health benefits -- such as paying a co-pay, meeting a deductible, or using particular health care providers. The EOC can also refer to a certificate or contract provided to a health plan member that contains information about coverage and other rights.

ERISA requires the plan sponsor (employer) to provide an SPD to all plan participants. The SPD may incorporate the carrier's EOC by reference, which generally provides sufficient description of the plan's benefits. However, the SPD also must include specific content, such as ERISA plan number, Employer Identification Number (EIN), plan financing method, and other information that would not be found in a carrier EOC. Many employers choose to do an SPD wrap, which incorporates all benefits in one document instead of having a separate one for each line of coverage.

According to the Department of Labor's Final Rules Relating to Use of Electronic Communication and Recordkeeping Technologies by Employee Pension and Welfare Benefit Plans; Final Rule, you can distribute insurance certificates and various ERISA required plan documents electronically via a company website. The department allows electronic notification and distribution of documents by email, attachment to an email, or by posting documents on a company website. However, just placing the documents on a company website does not, by itself, satisfy ERISA's disclosure requirements.

Under ERISA, the rules allow for electronic delivery of all documents that must be furnished or made available to participant and beneficiaries. This includes SPDs, summary annual reports, individual benefit statements, and investment-related information for participant-directed accounts. These rules are limited to disclosures that plans are required to make to participants and beneficiaries under ERISA.

Prior to implementing, a plan administrator must notify all participants and beneficiaries of the availability of the particular disclosure document by sending written or electronic notice that directs them to the document on the website.