Group health plans, their plan administrators and fiduciaries, employer or other sponsors, administrative services providers and insurers should act quickly to distribute required notices using the regulatory guidance just released today (April 7, 2021) and take other actions needed to comply with the Consolidated Omnibus Reconciliation Act of 1985 (“COBRA”) coverage and premium subsidy notification, enrollment and coverage continuation requirements created by Section 9501 (the “COBRA Premium Assistance Rules”) of the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 (“ARP ”) enacted last month.
The guidance package released today by the Employee Benefit Security Administration includes model notices and other preliminary guidance on the COBRA Premium Assistance Rules, which among other things require group health plans to notify “assistance eligible individuals” no later than May 31, 2021 of right under ARP Section 9501 to enroll in free COBRA Coverage during the ARP Premium Subsidy Period that began April 1, 2021.
As the deadline for providing notification to qualified beneficiaries is May 31, 2021 and the 60 day period for enrolling in COBRA coverage under the ARP COBRA Subsidy Rules does not begin until proper notification is provided, group health plan should move quickly to prepare and distribute the notifications and make other necessary plan arrangements.
This article provides an general overview of the ARP COBRA Premium Subsidy Rules and the Model Notices published by the Department of Labor Employee Benefit Security Administration (“EBSA”) on April 7, 2021 to assist group health plans and their administrators to comply with their notification obligations under these Rules. For a more comprehensive discussion of these requirements, see here.
New COVID COBRA Premium Subsidy Rules Overview
Section 9501 of the ARP seeks to help “assistance eligible individuals” continue their health benefits by providing assistance to maintain enrollment in covered group health plans by allowing them to enroll and maintain COBRA coverage under those plans without paying their COBRA continuation coverage premiums.
Covered group health plans generally include all group health plans sponsored by private-sector employers or employee organizations (unions) subject to the COBRA rules under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (ERISA); group health plans sponsored by State or local governments subject to the continuation provisions under the Public Health Service Act and group health insurance required to comply with state mini-COBRA laws.
In addition to mandating the provision of COBRA Coverage at no cost, no later than May 31, 2021, the ARP requires covered group health plans to notify certain former covered employees or dependents that qualify to enroll in COBRA coverage as “assistance eligible individuals” of their right within 60 days of notification to enroll in COBRA Coverage under the group health plan at no cost from April 1, 2021 through September 30, 2021 or, if earlier, the date their COBRA eligibility otherwise end (the “Premium Subsidy Period”).
From April 1 to September 31, 2021, group health plans cannot require an assistance eligible individual to pay any premiums for COBRA Coverage during his Premium Subsidy Period. ARP requires group health plans to provide COBRA Coverage without charge to assistance eligible individuals who qualify for and elect to enroll in COBRA Coverage with premium subsidy unless individual’s eligibility for COBRA or COBRA premium assistance ends before that date. Specific notifications to qualified beneficiaries also are required.
To implement these rules, ARP also requires that no later than May 31, 2021, covered group health plan administrators notify eligible qualified beneficiaries eligible to obtain COBRA coverage with premium assistance by applying for enrollment within the 60 day period following notification.
Assistance eligible individuals who timely enroll in COBRA Coverage with premium assistance generally must receive COBRA Coverage free of charge from the group health plan for any coverage period during the period that begins on or after April 1, 2021 until the earliest of the following dates (the “Premium Subsidy Period”):
- The date the qualified beneficiary is eligible for coverage under any other group health plan (other than coverage consisting of only excepted benefits, coverage under a health flexible spending arrangement under Code Section 106(c)(2), coverage under a qualified small employer health reimbursement arrangement under Code Section 9831(d)(2) or eligible for benefits under the Medicare program under title XVIII of the Social Security Act;
- The date of the expiration of the otherwise applicable maximum period of COBRA continuation coverage under Code Section 4980B (other than due to a failure to elect or discontinuation of coverage for nonpayment of COBRA premium that occurred before April 1, 2021).
Assistance eligible individuals generally are qualified beneficiaries who lost coverage under the group health plan due to an involuntary reduction in hours or termination of employment enrolled in COBRA Coverage between April 1, 2021 and September 31, 2021 including those qualifying event was an involuntary employment loss occurring during the 18-month period (29-months for individuals qualifying for extended COBRA eligibility due to disability) prior to April 1, 2021 not enrolled in COBRA as of April 1, 2021. This generally includes COBRA qualified beneficiaries whose loss of group health coverage results from an involuntary employment reduction or loss for a reason other than gross misconduct after ARP’s enactment on March 11, 2021 as well as qualified beneficiaries whose involuntary employment loss happened before the effective date who but for their previous failure to elect COBRA or to maintain COBRA Coverage would still be entitled to COBRA Coverage because less than 18 months (29 months for qualified beneficiaries disabled on the date of coverage loss who qualify for extension of the disability coverage period) has elapsed since their employment loss and an event has not occurred following the coverage termination that would terminate their COBRA eligibility before the end of such otherwise applicable maximum COBRA eligibility period. Group health plans must offer a second opportunity to enroll in COBRA Coverage with COBRA premium assistance to qualified beneficiaries eligible for premium assistance not enrolled in COBRA Coverage as of April 1, 2021.
Sponsoring employers or other plan sponsors may qualify to claim an employment tax credit for COBRA premiums paid on behalf of assistance eligible individuals. Guidance on these tax rules is pending.
Required Group Health Plan Notifications To Assistance Eligible Individuals
ARP requires group health plans to provide certain written notifications to qualified beneficiaries entitled to qualify to enroll in COBRA coverage with premium assistance. This generally includes a requirement to provide an initial notification of the availability of premium assistance for COBRA coverage to assistance eligible individuals by the later of May 31, 2021 and subsequently to provide notice of the impending termination of eligibility for the COBRA Premium Subsidy during the 30 day period that begins 45 days before eligibility for COBRA Premium Subsidy ends. ARP dictates the minimum required content of such notices. Failure to provide the required notification is a failure to meet the notice requirements under the applicable COBRA continuation provision that subjects the group health plan administer and its sponsor to liability.
While ARP allows plan administrators the option of designing their own notices and forms to fulfill this requirement, it also directed the Department of Labor in consultation with the Secretary of the Treasury and the Secretary of Health and Human Services to develop model notices for plans to use for this purpose. In response to this directive, the Department of Labor EBSA on April 7, 2021 published the following model notices and forms for group health plans to use to fulfill their ARP COBRA Premium Subsidy Rule notification requirements:
- General Notice and Election Notice
- Notice in Connection with Extended Election Period
- Alternative Notice;
- Summary of the COBRA Premium Assistance Provisions;and
- Notice of Expiration of Premium Assistance.
The ARP COBRA Premium Subsidy Rules are only one of a plethora of COVID health care emergency driven regulatory and enforcement changes impacting employers and their employee benefit plans. If you need assistance or would like additional information about these or other legal, management or public policy developments, please contact the author Cynthia Marcotte Stamer via e-mail or via telephone at (214) 452 -8297.
Solutions Law Press, Inc. also invites you receive future updates by registering here and participating and contributing to the discussions in our Solutions Law Press, Inc. LinkedIn SLP Health Care Risk Management & Operations Group, HR & Benefits Update Compliance Group, and/or Coalition for Responsible Health Care Policy. If you or someone else you know would like to receive future updates about developments on these and other concerns, please be sure that we have your current contact information including your preferred e-mail by creating your profile here. For specific information about the these or other legal, management or public policy developments, please contact the author Cynthia Marcotte Stamer via e-mail or via telephone at (214) 452 -8297.
About the Author
Recognized by her peers as a Martindale-Hubble “AV-Preeminent” (Top 1%) and “Top Rated Lawyer” with special recognition LexisNexis® Martindale-Hubbell® as “LEGAL LEADER™ Texas Top Rated Lawyer” in Health Care Law and Labor and Employment Law; as among the “Best Lawyers In Dallas” for her work in the fields of “Labor & Employment,” “Tax: ERISA & Employee Benefits,” “Health Care” and “Business and Commercial Law” by D Magazine, Cynthia Marcotte Stamer is a practicing attorney board certified in labor and employment law by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization and management consultant, author, public policy advocate and lecturer widely known for 30+ years working as an on demand, special project, consulting, general counsel or other basis with domestic and international business, charitable, community and government organizations of all types, sizes and industries and their leaders on labor and employment and other workforce compliance, performance management, internal controls and governance, compensation and benefits, regulatory compliance, investigations and audits, change management and restructuring, disaster preparedness and response and other operational, risk management and tactical concerns.
Most widely recognized for her work with workforce, health care, life sciences, insurance and data and technology organizations, she also has worked extensively with health plan and insurance, employee benefits, financial, transportation, manufacturing, energy, real estate, accounting and other services, public and private academic and other education, hospitality, charitable, civic and other business, government and community organizations. and their leaders.
Ms. Stamer has extensive experience advising, representing, defending and training domestic and international public and private business, charitable, community and governmental organizations and their leaders, employee benefit plans, their fiduciaries and service providers, insurers, and others has published and spoken extensively on these concerns. As part of these involvements, she has worked, published and spoken extensively on these and other federal and state wage and hour and other compensation, discrimination, performance management, and other related human resources, employee benefits and other workforce and services; insurance; workers’ compensation and occupational disease; business reengineering, disaster and distress; and many other risk management, compliance, public policy and performance concerns.
A former lead advisor to the Government of Bolivia on its pension project, Ms. Stamer also has worked internationally and domestically as an advisor to business, community and government leaders on these and other legislative, regulatory and other legislative and regulatory design, drafting, interpretation and enforcement, as well as regularly advises and represents organizations on the design, administration and defense of workforce, employee benefit and compensation, safety, discipline, reengineering, regulatory and operational compliance and other management practices and actions.
Ms. Stamer also serves in leadership of a broad range of professional and civic organizations and provides insights and thought leadership through her extensive publications, public speaking and volunteer service with a diverse range of organizations including as Chair of the American Bar Association (“ABA”) Intellectual Property Section Law Practice Management Committee, Vice Chair of the International Section Life Sciences and Health Committee, Past ABA RPTE Employee Benefits & Other Compensation Group Chair and Council Representative and current Welfare Benefit Committee Co-Chair, Past Chair of the ABA Managed Care & Insurance Interest Group, past Region IV Chair and national Society of Human Resources Management Consultant Forum Board Member, past Texas Association of Business BACPAC Chair, Regional Chair and Dallas Chapter Chair, former Vice President and Executive Director of the North Texas Health Care Compliance Professionals Association, past Board President of Richardson Development Center (now Warren Center) for Children Early Childhood Intervention Agency, past North Texas United Way Long Range Planning Committee Member, past Board Member and Compliance Chair of the National Kidney Foundation of North Texas, a Fellow in the American College of Employee Benefit Counsel, the American Bar Foundation and the Texas Bar Foundation and many others.
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