The COVID-19 extensions that the DOL and IRS had issued last year as part of their “Joint Notice” were set to expire at midnight on February 28th. For weeks, many have been asking the DOL and IRS for guidance on how to handle the statutorily-mandated expiration, and as a result of the lack of guidance, most plans, TPAs, insurers, and COBRA administrators had to make a judgment call as to how to proceed.
But – with 2 days to spare – DOL finally issued Disaster Relief Notice 2021-01 on February 26th.
Notice 2021-01 sets forth the DOL and IRS’ position that the COVID-19 extensions will continue past February 28th, and that all such extensions must be measured on a person-by-person basis – which was not clear from the prior guidance. Plans, TPAs, insurers, and COBRA administrators may have to reconsider their administrative practices in light of this new direction.
The original Joint Notice (85 Fed. Reg. 26351 (May 4, 2020) required that health and retirement plans toll a number of deadlines for individuals during the COVID-19 National Emergency, plus a 60-day period (the “Outbreak Period”) starting March 1, 2020.
But, as described in Footnote 4 of the Joint Notice, ERISA and the Code limit DOL and Treasury’s ability to toll deadlines to one year (“Tolling Period”).
The deadlines impacted in the Joint Notice are:
When there has been disaster relief guidance in the past, these periods have not bumped up against the statutorily-imposed one-year limit, so this COVID-19 extension is new territory – hence all the requests for the agencies to issue guidance regarding the expiration date.
In this late-breaking Notice 2021-01, DOL says it coordinated with HHS and IRS, and the agencies are interpreting the Tolling Period to be read on a person-by-person basis.
Specifically, DOL says that the Tolling Period ends the earlier of:
This means that each individual has his or her own Tolling Period!
For example, a COBRA Qualified Beneficiary (QB) has 60 days to elect COBRA, counted from the later of their loss of coverage or the date their COBRA election notice is provided. Under the Joint Notice, a QB’s 60-day deadline was tolled as of March 1, 2020, until the end of the Outbreak Period (that is, until the end of the National Emergency + 60 days).
At the end of the Outbreak Period, the deadlines would start running again, and the QB would have their normal 60-day COBRA election period (or the balance of their election period if it started before March 1, 2020).
BUT – with the 1-year expiration, DOL’s new Notice 2021-01 says that the one-year period does not end on February 28, 2021 for all individuals, but rather each individual has his/her own one-year Tolling Period.
For all of these examples, the tolling would end earlier if the National Emergency ends. In that case, the election period would end 60 days after the end of the National Emergency.
Notice 2021-01 also says that DOL recognizes that enrollees may continue to encounter COVID issues, even after the one-year Tolling Period expiration. DOL says that the “guiding principle” is for plans to act reasonably, prudently, and in the interest of the workers and their families. DOL says that plan fiduciaries should make “reasonable accommodations to prevent the loss of or undue delay in payment of benefits . . . and should take steps to minimize the possibility of individuals losing benefits because of a failure to comply with pre-established time frames.”
Notice 2021-01 does not provide any direction regarding what would constitute a “reasonable accommodation.” It sounds like plans may need a process to consider whether to continue to waive deadlines on a case-by-case basis, but without any guidance as to what parameters to apply. And DOL suggests that failure to do so could be a fiduciary issue.
Regarding communicating these changes to enrollees, DOL says:
DOL seems to be saying that plans may need to notify each individual when his or her one-year extension is about to be up and should include information about the Health Insurance Marketplace. In addition, plans may need to update prior communications that did not anticipate this new DOL interpretation.
DOL says it acknowledges that there may be instances when plans or service providers themselves may not be able to fully and timely comply with pre-established timeframes and disclosure requirements. DOL says that where fiduciaries have acted in “good faith and with reasonable diligence under the circumstances,” DOL’s approach to enforcement will be “marked by an emphasis on compliance assistance,” including grace periods or other relief.