As discussed in an earlier blog post on the DOL/Treasury relief extending benefit plan deadlines due to the pandemic, plans have to disregard an “outbreak period” when determining deadlines for COBRA elections and premiums payments, special enrollment in health plans, and the filing of claims and appeals. The DOL/Treasury guidance defined the “outbreak period” as the period from March 1, 2020 until 60 days after the COVID-19 National Emergency ends (or such other date as the agencies announce). Recently, the COVID-19 National Emergency was extended at least until April 2021.

The government’s authority for issuing the April 2020 relief is a provision of ERISA (and a similar Internal Revenue Code provision applicable to the IRS), which states that the DOL may “prescribe, by notice or otherwise, a period of up to one year which may be disregarded in determining the date by which any action is required or permitted to be completed.” This rule is clear that disregarding relevant time periods is limited to one year. However, what is not clear is whether the tolling relief expires at the end of this month (i.e., one year from the March 1, 2020 start of the outbreak period), with all tolled periods re-starting for affected individuals, or whether the one year limit is merely a cap to be applied on an individual-by-individual basis.

As an example, assume that an employee lost health coverage in June 2020 and their 60-day COBRA election period normally would have started on July 1, 2020. The question is whether the election period is to begin again on March 1, 2021 (when the one-year relief period expires), or whether the employee is entitled to additional time to elect COBRA because the one-year tolling period would run for one year from the start of the employee’s election period on July 1, 2020. Similarly, if an employee experiences a COBRA qualifying event on or after March 1, 2021, does the tolling relief apply at all?

Although the government is aware of this interpretive question, it appears they are not yet prepared to issue guidance. In the absence of guidance, plan sponsors and administrators will need to determine how to apply the tolling provision. If consideration is being given to continue tolling the deadlines beyond February 28, 2021, insured health plans (and self-insured plans with stop loss coverage) should discuss that approach with their insurance carriers and relevant vendors.

The April 2020 tolling relief also covers the deadline for health plans to provide COBRA election notices to qualified beneficiaries. Given the lack of guidance at this time, the more conservative approach is to operate in compliance with the usual COBRA notification deadlines as of March 1, 2021. To the extent pandemic-related business disruptions continue to make compliance difficult for some plans, the DOL presumably will adhere to its previously stated enforcement approach during the pandemic, which includes relief in appropriate circumstances.

Photo of Paul M. Hamburger Paul M. Hamburger

Paul Hamburger is co-chair of the Employee Benefits & Executive Compensation Group and head of the Washington, DC office. Paul is also a leader of the Practice Center’s health and welfare subgroup and a member of Proskauer’s Health Care Reform Task Force.

Paul…

Paul Hamburger is co-chair of the Employee Benefits & Executive Compensation Group and head of the Washington, DC office. Paul is also a leader of the Practice Center’s health and welfare subgroup and a member of Proskauer’s Health Care Reform Task Force.

Paul provides technical knowledge and advice to employers on all aspects of their employee benefit programs, and advises employee benefit plan trustees and service providers on ERISA and employee benefit plan-related matters. He has extensive experience in negotiating service provider and outsourcing agreements. Paul frequently represents clients before government regulatory agencies, including the Internal Revenue Service, Department of Labor and Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation.

Paul focuses on all matters affecting employee benefit plans, including:

  • 401(k) plans, ESOPs, and defined benefit plans, including cash balance pension plans
  • Executive compensation plans and agreements
  • Welfare benefit plans, including cafeteria plan, COBRA, and health care reform (PPACA) issues

Recognized by a number of publications for his exceptional work, Paul is described by The Legal 500 United States as “one of the best in his field; he inspires a high level of confidence and is a pleasure to work with.” Chambers USA notes that Paul’s clients refer to him as “a creative, business-oriented and brilliant lawyer who educates and enlightens.”

As a noted thought leader in his field, Paul frequently speaks on employee benefit matters. In addition, he served for several years as an adjunct professor at Georgetown University Law Center teaching the LL.M. tax course on ERISA Health and Welfare Benefit Plans.

An author of numerous articles on employee benefits matters, Paul has produced a number of nationally-circulated loose leaf publications, published by Thompson Information Services: Mandated Health Benefits – The COBRA Guide, The Guide to Assigning & Loaning Benefit Plan Money, and The Pension Plan Fix-It Handbook. Most recently, he was the managing author of the 6th edition of The New Health Care Reform Law – What Employers Need to Know (A Q&A Guide), published by Thompson HR.

Photo of Roberta Chevlowe Roberta Chevlowe

Roberta K. Chevlowe provides advice to employers and boards of trustees of multiemployer benefit plans on a broad range of issues relating to their retirement, health and other employee benefit plans. With nearly three decades of experience practicing in this area, Roberta employs…

Roberta K. Chevlowe provides advice to employers and boards of trustees of multiemployer benefit plans on a broad range of issues relating to their retirement, health and other employee benefit plans. With nearly three decades of experience practicing in this area, Roberta employs a practical, business minded approach to helping her clients comply with the various requirements imposed by ERISA, the Internal Revenue Code, COBRA, the Affordable Care Act and other federal and state laws affecting employee benefit programs. Roberta’s practice also includes advising clients in connection with benefit claim appeals, lawsuits and government audits; drafting plan documents, policies and employee communications materials; and negotiating with plan service providers.

Roberta is best known for her work in the area of COBRA compliance and for advising employers in connection with the benefits they provide to employees’ domestic partners and same-sex spouses. She is a co-author of The COBRA Handbook and lectures and publishes articles on a variety of employee benefits topics. In addition, Ms. Chevlowe is a member of Proskauer’s Health Care Reform Task Force, and she led the Firm’s Domestic Partner Benefits Task Force.