Seyfarth Synopsis: As you’ll recall, last Spring, the DOL and IRS issued guidelines providing relief from certain deadlines for employee benefit plans, retroactive to March 1, 2020 (i.e., the beginning of the COVID-19 national emergency declared by the President). The relief was issued pursuant to authority granted to the agencies under ERISA Section 518 and Code Section 7508(A) and extended through the end of the “Outbreak Period.” Click here, here and here to review our prior articles on the Outbreak Period. We wanted to provide a quick update on what we’re hearing out of Washington D.C. relating to the timing and process for the expiration of the “Outbreak Period.”

In general, the extended deadline relief applied to the following deadlines applicable to participants and plan administrators:

  • The COBRA election deadline;
  • The COBRA premium payment deadline;
  • The HIPAA special enrollment deadline;
  • The deadline for filing a claim or appeal for benefits or a request for an external review of an adverse benefits determination; and
  • The deadline for plan administrators to provide the COBRA election notice.

Under the guidance, any such deadline occurring on or after March 1, 2020, would be tolled for the entirety of the national emergency, plus 60 days (the “Outbreak Period”). That said, when the guidance was published it was widely believed that the national emergency period would be lifted at some point in 2020. In fact, the authority granted to the DOL and IRS under ERISA Section 518 and Code Section 7508(A) only allows such relief to extend for a one-year period.

Given this framework, our understanding is that the relief afforded under these rules will expire effective February 28, 2021 – and this expiration would be a “hard stop,” meaning there will not be a 60 day “wind down” period as anticipated in the original guidance. (But keep in mind that the deadlines were simply tolled during this period, so any remaining time a participant or plan administrator had to complete the action when the suspension took effect on March 1, 2020, will still be available after February 28, 2021.)

We reached out to various Washington D.C. policy groups to get insight into whether the agencies agree with this interpretation, and whether and to what extent they believe they have the authority to further extend the Outbreak Period, absent Congressional action granting them such authority. Here are a few key takeaways from that discussion:

  • Both agencies are aware of the issue and are considering whether to issue clarifying guidance.
    • The DOL seems more open to seeking avenues to further extend the Outbreak Period. The ideas they are contemplating include treating this as an “evergreen period,” with a new one year period commencing after the conclusion of the prior one year period, or perhaps even applying the one-year window on an individual-by-individual basis (which would be an administrative mess).
    • The IRS is less keen on issuing any sort of extension. They are sensitive to the fact that the IRS more broadly relies on the authority under Code Section 7508(A) to extend a number of other non-benefits-related deadlines. So, they are concerned about the precedent this might set if they extend further in this context.
  • Regardless of the above, both agencies seemed to tacitly confirm that, absent any further action, February 28, 2021 will be the end date for the deadline relief.

Looming in the background of all of this is the proposed COVID relief bill which would include a prospective COBRA subsidy of 85% of the cost of coverage, including the right for persons to elect COBRA prospectively to run for the remainder of their COBRA window, even if the election period has expired. So, seemingly the urgent need for an extension of the Outbreak Period is lessened (assuming the COBRA subsidy makes it into the final bill).

Given the balance of likelihoods, employers should consider communicating this upcoming expiration of the Outbreak Period (e.g., through a Summary of Material Modification or other participant communication), at the very least to COBRA participants but potentially to the broader population given the implications for HIPAA special enrollments and claim filing deadlines. (That is, unless the employer had previously communicated a February 28, 2021 end date.) It will also be important to coordinate with COBRA and claims administration vendors to ensure there is alignment/uniformity in approach.

In any case, we’re monitoring and will keep you posted on developments.