The Department of Labor (DOL) issued compliance guidance for employee benefit plans impacted by Hurricane Maria and the California wildfires of October 2017 in the DOL news Release 17-1555-NAT.
This guidance, in part, includes extensions of certain COBRA, HIPAA, and ERISA claims procedure requirements for participants, beneficiaries, and benefit plans located in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands identified for individual assistance by the Federal Emergency Management Agency following Hurricane Maria.
Under this relief issued in conjunction with the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), additional time is afforded with respect to certain plan administrative deadlines. For those affected individuals and plans in Puerto Rico, the period of September 17, 2017, through March 16, 2018, is disregarded. For those similarly affected in the U.S. Virgin Islands, the period is September 16, 2017, through March 15, 2018.
This extension relief provides additional time for impacted participants and beneficiaries to make claims for benefits and to appeal denied claims. In addition, these periods are disregarded when determining special enrollment periods under HIPAA (for example, adding a newborn to group health plan coverage).
For COBRA purposes, these periods are disregarded when calculating the date for providing COBRA election notices, affected qualified beneficiaries’ COBRA election periods, the timeliness of an affected COBRA continuant’s COBRA premium payment, and the date by which an affected individual must provide notification of a qualifying event or a Social Security disability determination.
For example, if an impacted qualified beneficiary in Puerto Rico is provided a COBRA election notice on December 1, 2017, the period of September 17, 2017, through March 16, 2018, is disregarded when calculating her COBRA election period. Therefore, her applicable election period (which would have normally ended January 30, 2018) would end 60 days following March 16, 2018, which is May 15, 2018.
In another example, assume an impacted COBRA continuant in the U.S. Virgin Islands had paid his COBRA premium for the September 2017 coverage period. However, he was unable to make his payment for the October 2017 coverage period before Hurricane Maria made landfall. Again, the period of September 16, 2017, through March 15, 2018, is disregarded when calculating the premium payment deadline date. Therefore, he would have 30 days following March 15, 2018 (i.e., April 14, 2018) to remit his COBRA premium payments for the October 2017 through March 2018 coverage periods. The April 2018 payment deadline date would remain May 1, 2018.
The DOL’s Employee Benefits Security Administration (EBSA) has updated its FAQs for participants and beneficiaries previously published in the wake of Hurricanes Harvey and Irma to now include the California wildfires. The EBSA has also issued a separate FAQ addressing Hurricane Maria—which highlights many of the extensions described above—to potentially address participant and beneficiary questions concerning their health coverage.
WageWorks will continue to monitor this topic and—should the ruling agencies publish additional guidance—we will advise accordingly.
The information contained in this article is not intended to be legal, accounting, or other professional advice. We assume no liability whatsoever in connection with its use, nor are these comments directed to specific situations.
CFCI, is the director of compliance services with WageWorks, Inc., in Irving, TX. He has over 15 years of experience in regulatory compliance and employer consultation. Folks attended New York University and holds a Certified in Flexible Compensation Instructor (CFCI) through the Flexible Compensation Institute, LLC, a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Employers Council on Flexible Compensation. Folks can be reached via email at: [email protected]