On February 18, President Biden announced that the COVID-19 National Emergency would continue beyond March 1, 2022, for up to another year. As a result of the continuing National Emergency, the “tolling” of several important deadlines applicable to health and welfare plans, as well as qualified retirement plans, will also remain in effect. This means plan sponsors and administrators should continue to apply these deadlines to affected individuals on a participant-by-participant basis for the foreseeable future.
Background on the COVID-19 National Emergency
Shortly after the COVID-19 pandemic began, joint guidance from the Department of Labor (DOL) and the Department of the Treasury suspended, or “tolled,” certain deadlines applicable to benefit plans and participants for the period beginning on March 1, 2020, and ending 60 days after the announced end of the National Emergency. This extension period is referred to as the “Outbreak Period.”
The following deadlines were extended by the length of the Outbreak Period:
- HIPAA/CHIPRA Special Enrollment – the 30-day deadline (or 60-day deadline, as applicable) to request special enrollment following a loss of other group health plan coverage; acquisition of a new dependent through marriage, birth, adoption or placement for adoption; or eligibility for premium assistance through Medicaid or CHIP.
- COBRA Notifications – the 60-day deadline for individuals to notify the plan of a COBRA-qualifying event or a second qualifying event (such as a divorce or a child losing eligibility as a dependent under the plan), or a Social Security Administration determination of disability.
- COBRA Elections – the 60-day deadline for electing COBRA continuation coverage and the 14-day deadline (or 44-day deadline for employers who are plan administrators) to provide a COBRA election notice to qualified beneficiaries.
- COBRA Premium Payments – the 45-day (initial) and 30-day (subsequent monthly) COBRA premium payment deadlines.
- Benefit Claims and Appeals – the plan deadlines for filing a claim for benefits and appealing an adverse benefit determination.
- External Review – the deadline for requesting an external review of a final determination on appeal (when required by the Affordable Care Act or other applicable law).
Because the COVID-19 pandemic had not yet ended at the time the joint guidance was set to expire, the DOL issued additional guidance in February 2021, providing that the deadlines would continue to be tolled, or remain disregarded, through the earlier of:
- One year from the date the individual was first entitled to the extension relief (i.e., a date on or after March 1, 2020).
- 60 days after the end of the National Emergency (i.e., the end of the Outbreak Period).
Impact of Ongoing National Emergency
While this latest extension of the National Emergency does not change the previous guidance, it does, of course, further extend the timeline of the tolling period, which means that participants will continue to have more time to act on these deadlines than they normally would under the applicable plan terms. Also, because the National Emergency’s end remains open at this time, exactly how long participants have under these deadlines remains a moving target until the National Emergency ends.
If you have any questions about how the ongoing tolling of the above-described deadlines impacts the administration of your plans, please contact any of our employee benefits attorneys to discuss this in more detail.