In early 2020 in response to the Coronavirus pandemic, the DOL published a notice extending ERISA-related deadlines. Extensions apply to the following deadlines:
· The period to request special enrollment in a plan
· The period to elect COBRA coverage, pay COBRA premiums, notify the plan of a COBRA qualifying event or disability extension, or provide COBRA election notices
· The date to file a claim for benefits or file an appeal following a claim denial
· The date to request an external review of a benefits appeal denial
Under this guidance, days during the “Outbreak Period” are disregarded for purposes of determining a deadline. The Outbreak Period is the period from March 1, 2020, until 60 days after the end of the COVID-19 National Emergency. President Biden recently extended the National Emergency, so there is not yet an end date to the Outbreak Period.
Despite this extension of the National Emergency and the open-ended nature of the Outbreak Period, the statute that allows the DOL to extend these deadlines only permits an extension of up to one year. Because of this, benefit plans and participants were left confused about the next step as the anniversary of the declaration of the National Emergency approached. In response, the DOL published further guidance in late February explaining that this one-year limitation may apply on a rolling basis to each individual event deadline. Affected deadlines are now extended to the earlier of (a) one year from the original deadline or (b) the end of the Outbreak Period. Therefore, many deadlines are dependent on when the National Emergency expires.
For example, if a participant would have normally been required to make a COBRA election by March 1, 2021, the election deadline is delayed until the earlier of (a) 1 year from that date (i.e., March 1, 2022) or (b) the end of the Outbreak Period.