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Have You Notified Participants of Extended Deadlines?

As noted in our prior post here, the U.S. Departments of Labor and Treasury recently issued a notice requiring all employee health and welfare benefit plans to disregard the period from March 1, 2020 until 60 days after the announced end of the COVID-19 National Emergency (or other announced date) when determining the deadline to request HIPAA special enrollment, elect COBRA coverage, make a COBRA premium payment, notify the plan of a COBRA qualifying event or determination of a disability, file a benefit claim or appeal, or request an external review of a benefit claim denial. Although the notice did not address whether plan participants needed to be notified of these extended deadlines, plan administrators should be aware that they likely have a fiduciary duty to accurately convey this information to participants. For example, a COBRA election notice that states a deadline to elect or make premium payments without mentioning… Continue Reading

Cases Highlight Importance of Governing Law Clauses in ERISA Plan Documents

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit recently held that the choice of law provision contained in a long-term disability insurance policy (the “LTD Policy”) controlled when determining which state law applied to the case. The LTD Policy, which was subject to regulation under ERISA as an employee benefit plan, stated that it was governed by the law of Pennsylvania, where Comcast (the employer) was incorporated and had its principal place of business. The employee argued that Colorado law controlled, because Colorado is where the employee worked for Comcast and filed the lawsuit. This was important because Colorado insurance law prohibited granting discretion to the plan administrator to interpret the LTD Policy, whereas Pennsylvania law did not prohibit this deferential standard. Generally, a plan administrator’s denial of benefits under an ERISA plan is reviewed by a court de novo (i.e., without deference being paid to the plan administrator’s… Continue Reading

Use Care When Implementing CARES Act Retirement Plan Distributions – State Law and Benefit Offset Concerns

As we have previously reported on our blog here and here, the CARES Act provided relief to participants in retirement plans by allowing employers to amend their retirement plans to include certain coronavirus-related distributions and to permit increased loan amounts for certain qualified individuals. Many employers have agreed to adopt these changes, and under federal law, the treatment of these distributions is clear. But there are other issues that employers and employees should consider, including: The coronavirus-related distributions could be subject to taxation under state law, even if the employee later repays the distribution to the plan; and If employees are receiving unemployment and/or disability benefits, the coronavirus-related distributions may reduce or offset these benefits. However, the enhanced loans would not be subject to taxation and may not offset unemployment and disability benefits, which may make the enhanced loan a better option for employees who anticipate paying back the distribution.… Continue Reading

Extension of Certain Timeframes for Employee Benefit Plans

On April 29, 2020, the U.S. Departments of Labor and the Treasury (together, the “Departments”) issued a notice (the “Notice”) requiring that all group health plans, disability and other types of employee welfare benefit plans, and employee pension benefit plans, subject to ERISA and the Internal Revenue Code, must disregard the period from March 1, 2020 until 60 days after the announced end of the COVID-19 National Emergency or such other date as announced by the Departments in a future notice (the “Outbreak Period”) for the following periods and dates: The 30-day period (or 60-day period, if applicable) to request HIPAA special enrollment; The 60-day election period for COBRA continuation coverage; The date for making COBRA premium payments; The date for individuals to notify the plan of a COBRA qualifying event or determination of disability; The date within which individuals may file a benefit claim under the plan’s claims procedures;… Continue Reading

The DOL and the IRS Jointly Provide Relief from Certain Timeframes Applicable to Health and Welfare and Pension Plans

On April 28, 2020, the IRS and DOL issued a Final Rule extending certain timeframes under ERISA and the Internal Revenue Code for group health, disability and other welfare plans, pension plans, and the participants and beneficiaries under those plans. The timeframe extensions include, among other things, the time to elect COBRA and pay premiums, special enrollment timeframes under HIPPA and CHIPs, claims procedure timeframes, and certain external review process timeframes.  Applicable plans must disregard the period from March 1, 2020 until 60 days after the announced end of the COVID-19 National Emergency for all plan participants, beneficiaries, qualified beneficiaries, or claimants wherever located in determining the enumerated time periods and dates and for providing COBRA election notices.  In addition, Disaster Relief Notice 2020-01 was issued addressing the timeframe relief and addressing certain other COVID-19 relief. The Final Rule is available here: https://www.dol.gov/sites/dolgov/files/ebsa/temporary-postings/covid-19-final-rule.pdf. Disaster Relief Notice 2020-01 is available here: https://www.dol.gov/agencies/ebsa/employers-and-advisers/plan-administration-and-compliance/disaster-relief/ebsa-disaster-relief-notice-2020-01.

Are Your Voluntary Benefits Programs Subject to ERISA?

An employer should be cautious to not “endorse” a voluntary benefits program that the employer wants to be exempt from ERISA. The DOL’s safe harbor exempting certain plans from ERISA (often called “voluntary plans”) requires the sole function of the employer to be, without endorsing the program, to permit the insurer to publicize the program to employees and to collect premiums and remit them to the insurer. Federal courts have found impermissible endorsements where employers either encouraged their employees to participate in their voluntary benefits program or selected the insurer and limited eligibility criteria. For example, in October 2018, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit decided a case involving whether the employer’s endorsement of a volunteer disability benefits program caused it to be subject to ERISA. The Court found that (i) a reasonable employee would not view the program as being merely a third-party offering and (ii)… Continue Reading

Disability Claims Procedures

New disability benefit claims procedures regulations were issued by the DOL and became applicable to disability benefit claims filed after April 1, 2018. Employers who maintain retirement plans that provide certain disability benefits (i.e., benefits based upon a determination of disability that is made under the plan) must amend the plan’s claims procedures by no later than December 31, 2018, to reflect the required changes in disability claims administration. These regulations do not apply to retirement plans that provide disability benefits that are based upon a determination of disability made outside of the plan (e.g., disability determinations made by the Social Security Administration or by the administrator of the employer’s long-term disability plan).

April 1 Effective Date for New Disability Benefit Claims Procedures

Employers sponsoring employee plans that provide “disability benefits” are reminded that the new disability benefit claims procedures, as issued by the DOL under ERISA (the “Disability Procedures“), are applicable to disability benefit claims filed after April 1, 2018. According to the DOL, a benefit is a “disability benefit” under ERISA’s claims regulations (including the Disability Procedures) if the plan conditions the availability of the benefit upon evidence of the participant’s disability. The Disability Procedures may thus apply not only to long-term and short-term disability plans that are subject to ERISA, but also to other types of ERISA benefit plans, such as group health plans and qualified and non-qualified retirement plans, if the plan provides benefits that are based upon a determination of disability that is made under the plan. (See our prior blog post for more details regarding impacted plans.) Plan sponsors should ensure that (i) the claims procedures of… Continue Reading

New ERISA Claims Procedures for Disability Benefits Effective April 1, 2018

The DOL announced that the new claims procedures for disability benefits will apply as of April 1, 2018. As previously discussed here, the DOL had delayed the effective date of the new disability claims procedures until April 1, 2018, to provide additional time for comments and revisions to the regulations. In its announcement, the DOL stated that the comments it received did not establish the need to make any revisions to the regulations. Employers should now proceed with revising their plan documents, summary plan descriptions, and policies and procedures for employee benefit plans subject to ERISA that provide any disability benefits. View the DOL’s announcement.

DOL Delays Claims Procedures for Disability Benefits

The DOL has now officially delayed until April 1, 2018 its regulations that amend the claims review and appeal procedures applicable to ERISA-covered employee benefit plans providing disability benefits. Such regulations were originally scheduled to apply to disability benefit claims filed on or after January 1, 2018. We previously commented on the DOL’s proposal to delay these regulations here. The delay gives the DOL time to consider additional comments and data, reassess the impact of the new claims procedures, and revise the regulations as deemed appropriate. Employers should thus expect to receive additional guidance from the DOL before the April 1 effective date. View the final regulations that provide for the delay.

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