It’s official — the COVID-19 National Emergency is over. The Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act of 1985 (COBRA), the federal statute that allows employees to extend their health insurance coverage after leaving employment, is among the many federal laws impacted by this change.
Specifically, the national emergency relief enacted by Congress in 2020 disregarded certain employee benefits-related deadlines until the earlier of one year from the date the individual was first eligible for relief or until 60 days after the end of the national emergency. July 10, 2023, marks the 60th day following the end of the national emergency. The resulting change in these deadlines means new compliance hurdles for employers and plan administrators.
In March 2020, because of the COVID-19 National Emergency, Congress passed the Families First Coronavirus Response Act and the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act. These two pieces of emergency legislation made changes to several existing statutes that affected employers’ obligations under COBRA. Recognizing this impact, three federal agencies issued a joint notice outlining extensions of certain timeframes regarding employee benefit plans, participants, and beneficiaries, including the following ones related to COBRA:
- The 30-day period (or 60-day period, if applicable) to request special enrollment.
- The 60-day election period for COBRA continuation coverage.
- The date for making COBRA premium payments.
- The date for providing a COBRA election notice.
These deadlines were extended until one year from the date the participant or beneficiary was first eligible for relief or 60 days after the announced end of the COVID-19 National Emergency, whichever is earlier. Thus, on July 10, the last of these extensions will end, and the deadlines for these events will return to their pre-pandemic lengths.
Updated Guidance from the Department of Labor
On March 29, 2023, the Department of Labor (DOL) issued FAQs anticipating the “Outbreak Period” to end on July 10, 2023. The document includes several example scenarios of plan participants electing COBRA, paying COBRA premiums, or exercising special enrollment rights, and discusses how the COVID-related deadline extensions and the July 10 return of pre-pandemic deadlines interact in specific cases.
A unifying theme of the examples is that if a qualifying event occurs after July 10 — i.e., after the end of both the COVID-19 National Emergency and the Outbreak Period — the extensions under the emergency relief notices do not apply. The FAQ advises more than once, however, that “nothing in the Code or ERISA prevents a group health plan from allowing for longer timeframes for employees, participants, or beneficiaries to complete these actions, and group health plans are encouraged to do so.”
Action Items for Employers
Most employees and other plan participants rarely spend time thinking about the nuances of employee benefits. We recommend that employers consider the following actions in order to ensure compliance with federal requirements and effective communication to plan participants of these new changes:
- Work with plan advisors to implement changes reflecting the return to pre-pandemic deadlines.
- Review plan documents and participant communications to ensure that both are updated to reflect any changes, including summary plan descriptions, “summary of material modifications,” and “summary of benefits and coverage” documents.
- Communicate any changes in group health plans and deadlines for COBRA elections and claims to all plan participants, and be prepared to answer their follow-up questions.
For questions about how to ensure that employer-sponsored health plans comply with applicable laws, contact an attorney in the Employee Benefits and Executive Compensation team.