Who’s Still Working for You?: ERIC

In a series of articles, PLANSPONSOR is checking in with industry groups to see what work they have done, and will do, for retirement and health plan sponsors as the pandemic continues and beyond.

The ERISA [Employee Retirement Income Security Act] Industry Committee (ERIC) was founded in 1976 to support the ability of its member companies—basically, large employers, with at least 10,000 employees—to provide health, retirement and compensation benefits to workers and families across the country.

In 2015, ERIC expanded its mission to include state and local advocacy to address the aggressive actions of states and localities trying to regulate and impose mandates on employee benefits. These legislative efforts posed particular challenges to nationwide employers attempting to make their health and retirement benefits uniform.

Since 2017, ERIC has been claiming victory in this battle. When Oregon created a state-run retirement plan that required employers to participate and employers offering their own plan objected, the state developed a reporting requirement that ERIC saw as violating federal law. The requirement called for federally regulated retirement plans to apply for an exemption every three years. Annette Guarisco Fildes, ERIC’s president and CEO, says ERIC engineered a settlement agreement with Oregon that exempted its member companies from the reporting requirement.

Pandemic-Related Advocacy

The focus now, though, is on the pandemic, Fildes says. “COVID-19 has changed what is important to member companies,” she says, adding that the pandemic has enabled ERIC to remove obstacles that prevented it from assisting not only members workers but the country’s workforce in general. “We knocked down regulatory barriers to employees getting telehealth, mental health care and chronic care,” says Fildes. The need for those provisions has, of course, been in the spotlight during the pandemic. “We got first-dollar coverage, so people don’t have to fulfill their deductibles,” she adds.

“We thought telehealth was interesting in 2017,” says James Gelfand, ERIC’s executive vice president for public affairs. “States have different rules, and we have a nationwide effort, trying to synchronize the rules so the benefits are consistent wherever an employee works.”

He says ERIC had goals to supply telehealth to three groups—people with high-deductible health plans (HDHPs), people not enrolled in company benefits, and people who live in states without the kinds of specialists many may need.

ERIC scored some wins here, too, he says, getting legislation passed that allows an employer to pay for telehealth before a deductible is met, successfully advocating for part-timers to receive telehealth benefits, and convincing many states to let their residents use telehealth to talk to doctors in other states.

Regarding mental health, Christina Ciconte, manager of public policy, says ERIC has worked to expand access to services in companies’ benefit plans, such as one-on-one counseling, virtual daily group counseling sessions and self-guided resources.

Additional Health and Retirement Plan Help

A focus for ERIC in its work regarding chronic care is surprise billing, Gelfand says. The key was figuring out where the bills were coming from, and the answer was that many doctors were employed not by hospitals or medical practices but by staffing firms, owned by Wall Street, that didn’t take insurance. He says ERIC helped design and pass legislation that permits patients now in this situation to pay only the in-network charges.

Turning to retirement, ERIC has been trying to encourage participation in 401(k)s by supporting legislation that would give people more access to their money before they leave employment, says Aliya Robinson, formerly senior vice president for retirement and compensation policy at ERIC.

She says ERIC supports the Enhancing Emergency and Retirement Savings Act of 2021, introduced in May by Senators James Lankford, R-Oklahoma, and Michael Bennet, D-Colorado, which provides penalty-free access to funds should a family emergency arise.

ERIC’s website got a revamp in 2019 and now features an updated interactive state policy tracking tool. Members can track bills as they make their way through a state government, with access to the bill’s text, legislative history and lawmaker support.

ERIC has also created a legal center to deal with the increased number of challenges by states to federal ERISA law, says Fildes. “This allows the lead in-house lawyers from the companies that work with us to identify areas where ERIC needs to engage in litigation. They were not involved with us before with respect to litigation,” she says.