Many employers have used the Model Notices posted March 19, 2009 by the Department of Labor (DOL) to meet the April 17, 2009 deadline to provide initial notification to employees and dependents whose group health coverage terminated as a result of an involuntary termination of employment between September 1, 2008 and February 17, 2009 under the temporary rules added to the group health plan medical coverage continuation requirements of the Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act of 1985, as amended (“COBRA”) by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (“Stimulus Bill”). However, most employers including many distressed and reorganizing companies and their group health plan administrators, fiduciaries and insurers have additional work to do to complete the arrangements to comply with these new Stimulus Bill COBRA rules
Although many employers and group health plans have taken preliminary action to comply, most employers and group health plan insurers, administrators and fiduciaries have not fully completed the steps needed to complete compliance arrangements. Among the companies sponsoring group health plans most likely to be behind in their compliance efforts are those in bankruptcy and distressed companies, where internal human resources and employee benefit staff and outside vendor relationships are likely to be reduced, overextended, or otherwise distracted.
In some instances, parties responsible for sending notifications and making other compliance arrangements have not begun to comply. More typically, however, employers sponsoring group health plans, their administrators, insurers or fiduciaries may mistakenly believe that preliminary compliance efforts fulfilled their compliance responsibilities. As a result, many have failed to complete all of the steps necessary to comply. For instance:
- Many employers, health plan fiduciaries and administrators have not formally amended their group health plans, updated their COBRA initital notifications and summary plan descriptions, implemented required procedures and finished other arrangements necessary to bring their group health plans into compliance with the Stimulus Bill COBRA requirements.
- Many employers, insurers, administrators and fiduciaries who used the Model Notices initially to provide required notices are finding additional refinements to their notices and procedures to reduce questions and confusion by recipients attributable to poor tailoring of the information to their particular plan design.
- Many employers who outsource the collection of COBRA premiums or other aspects of COBRA administration will want to revise Model Notice language to avoid unnecessarily undermining previously negotiated allocations of fiduciary responsibility to those third parties for responsibilities outsourced.
Employers, health plan administrators, and health insurers involved in the sponsorship or administration of COBRA-covered group health plans should consult with counsel about the suitability of using the Model Notices to provide required notifications of the new Stimulus Bill COBRA rules and other steps necessary to comply with the new requirements. Compliance with the Stimulus Bill COBRA rules is mandatory for all COBRA-covered group health plans and certain other arrangements including group health plans sponsored by businesses in bankruptcy where the entity or a commonly controlled or affiliated entity continues to maintain a group health plan.
Stimulus Bill COBRA Rule Basics
The Stimulus Bill provisions that took effect on February 17, 2009 require special COBRA treatment for “assistance eligible individuals.” See “Stimulus Bill COBRA Amendments Require Immediate Group Health Plan Action” for more information. The Stimulus Bill COBRA amendments are intended to help certain involuntarily terminated former employees and their dependents maintain COBRA coverage. Employers must amend their plans to comply with these mandates and, if they wish to seek reimbursement for COBRA Subsidies, must comply with IRS requirements. Meanwhile, group health plan administrators and insurers must take immediate action to provide required notifications and implement other administrative changes necessary to comply with the new rules.
The Stimulus Bill definition of “assistance eligible individual” generally includes any COBRA “qualified beneficiary” who meets all of the following requirements:
- Is eligible for COBRA continuation coverage at any time during the period beginning September 1, 2008 and ending December 31, 2009;
- Elects COBRA coverage (when first offered or during the additional election period): and
- Has a qualifying event for COBRA coverage that is the employee’s involuntary termination during the period beginning September 1, 2008 and ending December 31, 2009.
This definition includes both involuntarily terminated employees and their dependents who lost coverage under a group health plan due to the involuntary termination.
As part of their COBRA amendments, the Stimulus Bill limits the COBRA premium that a COBRA-covered group health plan can charge an “assistance eligible individual” to 35% of the otherwise applicable COBRA premium for a period of up to 9 months (the “Subsidy Period”) beginning March 1, 2009. Employers sponsoring these group health plans must pay the remaining 65% of the COBRA premium (the “COBRA Subsidy”) for the assistance eligible individual during the Subsidy Period. However, the Stimulus Bill allows an employer to seek reimbursement by claiming a payroll tax credit for these COBRA Subsidy payments by complying with applicable IRS procedures.
The Stimulus Bill also requires certain assistance eligible individuals whose employment terminated between September 1, 2008 and February 16, 2009 and did not elect COBRA coverage when previously offered or who allowed COBRA coverage to lapse after electing that coverage be offered a second COBRA enrollment period in which to elect prospectively to enroll in COBRA coverage. It also requires that group health plans that offer employees different plan options allow assistance eligible individuals the option to change their coverage choice. Also Group health plan administrators must provide certain notifications to assistance eligible individuals concerning these changes.
March 19, 2009 & Other Piecemeal Guidance
The March 19, 2009 DOL Guidance containing the Model Notices is part of a series of interim and evolving guidance separately issued by the IRS and DOL between February and April. The March 19, 2009 DOL Guidance includes:
- Various Model Notices
- New FAQs for Employers on the COBRA Premium Reduction
- Expanded FAQs for Employees on the COBRA Premium Reduction
- Updated FAQs for Employees on General COBRA Provisions
In addition to the March 19, 2009 Guidance, the DOL and IRS previous also had issued a series of other guidance relating to the implementation and application of the Stimulus Bill COBRA rules on a piecemeal basis. These include separately issued IRS guidance detailing the documentation and procedures that the IRS has indicated that employers or others who collect discounted COBRA premiums from Stimulus Bill assistance eligible individuals must meet in order to comply with the COBRA Stimulus Bill mandates and to recover additional amounts that the employer pays as a COBRA premium subsidy on behalf of assistance eligible individuals through the payroll tax credit provisions of the Stimulus Bill COBRA rules. You can review:
- The current Deparment of Labor Guidance at www.dol.gov/ebsa/COBRA.html
- The current IRS Guidance at www.irs.gov/newsroom/article/0,,id=204505,00.html/COBRA.html.
While the Model Notices and other guidance provides helpful insights about the new requirements, many group health plan sponsors, administrators and fiduciaries are likely to find it necessary or desirable to specifically tailor the notifications and other procedures they provide to more clearly communicate the workings of the new requirements as they relate to their specific plans so as to minimize administrative burdens of compliance and fiduciary risks.
More Resources, Information & Assistance
Curran Tomko Tarski LLP Partner Cynthia Marcotte Stamer consults with clients and writes and speaks extensively about COBRA and other group health plan matters. Author of the “Health Care Eligibility Toolkit” and nationally known for her experience on COBRA matters, her Solutions Law Press article discussing the highlights of these IRS requirements and other previous guidance at http://www.cynthiastamer.com/documents/alerts/20090303_NEW%20IRS%20&%20DOL%20Guidance%20On%20Stimulus%20Bill%20COBRA%20Relief.pdf is just one of many helpful publications she has written on the Stimulus Bill COBRA Rules and other related matters. The Stimulus Bill COBRA rules were among the updates discussed by Cynthia Marcotte Stamer during a March 11, 2009 Health Plan Update Teleconference she presented for Solutions Law Press.
If you are an employer or other group health plan sponsor, administrator, insurer or fiduciary and need assistance in preparing required notifications or with other matters relating to the Stimulus Bill COBRA Rules or any other health or other employee benefits matter, contact Cynthia Marcotte Stamer at CStamer@SolutionsLawyer.net or via telephone at 972.419.7188. For information about how to purchase a recording of this teleconference or to review other breaking news updates about these Stimulus Bill COBRA Rules, e-mail CStamer@cttlegal.com.
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