Professional Legal Advice for Employee Benefit Pros Trumps Over Confidence

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We all know people who talk a good game at work. They speak with such confidence that few question the correctness of their statements. They are consistently wrong about important and not so important issues, but their opinions are still solicited. Their confidence overshadows the many wrong answers they provide and they are often rewarded for their appearance of being knowledgeable.

Sadly, these individuals work in all levels of the organization and in every profession. No one likes them, including me, but I especially dislike those working in the employee benefit field. Why? Because this combination of over-confidence and ignorance is legally risky... It puts entire benefit programs in legal and financial jeopardy. It results in others making wrong decisions and leads to a vicious cycle of being consistently wrong. In other words, it damages the reputation of the profession.

I can provide several examples of this behavior in practice both from low- and high-level employee benefit professionals. One example that stands out in my mind involved a Vice President of Human Resources and her former employer’s Benefits Manager:

This new VP of HR added a new vision plan to the employee benefits package during the annual open enrollment season. She was informed that current COBRA participants were entitled to enroll in this new plan and that they were sent enrollment forms. The VP disagreed but could not cite a reason why. She was provided with language from the COBRA regulations referencing this issue yet she continued to disagree. She stated that she added new plans in the past and never offered them to current COBRA participants. She contacted her previous employer’s Benefits Manager and posed the question. This manager cheerfully and confidently said, “No, I don’t think so.”

The VP said her old staff was right and her new staff was wrong on this issue. Fortunately, her new benefits staff was persistent. During a conference call with the firm’s employee benefits attorney on an unrelated matter, one of the new staff members posed the COBRA question to the attorney. The attorney, who was a partner at the law firm, quickly and excitedly stated that the COBRA beneficiaries were eligible to enroll in the new vision plan. She cited the same COBRA provisions previously provided to the VP.

The VP later expressed annoyance with her former employer’s Benefits Manager for being wrong on the COBRA issue but none towards herself.

The whole point of this post is that real benefits knowledge and legal advice trumps over-confidence every time. If you cannot cite a regulation or case law to back up your answers, especially when their correctness is questioned, seek legal advice. Every employer who sponsors employee benefits should budget for legal advice.

A legal expert can help with...:

  • plan design and review
  • contract review
  • compliance and document distribution
  • plan filings
  • plan interpretation
  • representation

The head of the HR or Benefits department is not a legal expert.

Completely unrelated but noteworthy…

Is everyone as excited about the new
Apple Watch as me? I think it is a real game changer in terms of individual health and I see it playing a big role in employment-based wellness programs and point-of-sale wellness product purchases. I can’t wait to learn more about it. What about you…?
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