DOL and IRS Issue New Coronavirus-Related Guidance and Relief for Employee Benefit Plans

ERISA and Employee Benefits Client Alert

DOL and IRS Issue New Coronavirus-Related Guidance and Relief for Employee Benefit Plans

The Department of Labor and IRS issued new guidance and relief for employee benefit plans on April 29, 2020, related to issues arising due to the COVID-19 outbreak. This guidance came in the form of a joint notice by the two agencies related to extending certain timeframes and deadlines for employee benefits plans and their participants and beneficiaries, and DOL Notice 2020-21 providing additional guidance and relief for employee benefit plans. The DOL also issued Frequently Asked Question guidance for participants and beneficiaries.

DOL and IRS Joint Notice – Extension of Certain Timeframes for Employee Benefit Plans, Participants, and Beneficiaries Affected by the COVID-19 Outbreak
The guidance and relief from the DOL and IRS provides extensions for certain timeframes under ERISA and the Tax Code for group health plans, disability and other welfare plans, pension plans, and participants and beneficiaries of these plans during the COVID-19 National Emergency. Specifically, for the period beginning March 1, 2020, and ending 60 days follow the end of the National Emergency (the “Outbreak Period”) those plans subject to ERISA and the Tax Code must disregard the following periods and dates: 

  • The 30-day period (or 60-day period, if applicable) to request special enrollment under HIPAA,
  • The 60-day election period for COBRA continuation coverage and the periods for COBRA premium payments,
  • The date for individuals to notify the plan of a qualifying event or determination of disability for COBRA purposes,
  • The date within which individuals may file a benefit claim under the plan’s claims procedure,
  • The date within which claimants may file an appeal of an adverse benefit determination under the plan’s claims procedure,
  • The date within which claimants may file a request for an external review after receipt of an adverse benefit determination or final adverse benefit determination, and,
  • The date within which a claimant may file information to perfect a request for external review upon a finding that the request was not complete.

Further, group health plans and their sponsor and administrators may disregard the Outbreak Period for providing COBRA election notices.

The Notice provides numerous examples to help affected plans and individuals understand these extensions.

DOL Disaster Relief Notice 2020-01
The DOL’s Employee Benefits Security Administration (EBSA) issued deadline relief and other guidance under ERISA designed to help employee benefit plans, plan participants and beneficiaries, employers and other plan sponsors, plan fiduciaries, and other service providers impacted by the coronavirus outbreak. Among other things, the Notice extends the time for plan officials to furnish benefit statements, annual funding notices, and other notices and disclosures required by ERISA so long as they make a good faith effort to furnish the documents as soon as administratively practicable. The notice explains that good faith includes the use of electronic alternative means of communicating with plan participants and beneficiaries who the plan fiduciary reasonably believes have effective access to electronic means of communication, including email, text messages, and continuous access websites. The notice also includes compliance assistance guidance on plan loans, participant contributions and loan payments, blackout notices, Form 5500 and Form M-1 filing relief, and other general compliance guidance on ERISA fiduciary responsibilities. This Notice is available here.

COVID-19 Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) for Participants and Beneficiaries
The DOL also issued FAQ guidance on health benefit and retirement benefit issues to help employee benefit plan participants and beneficiaries, plan sponsors, and employers impacted by the coronavirus outbreak understand their rights and responsibilities under ERISA. That guidance is available here.

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