Deadline relief afforded by a new DOL and IRS Joint Notice during the COVID-19 national emergency significantly changes the administration of both self-funded and fully insured group health plans. Some of the extended deadlines are already causing confusion and increasing compliance risks for employers.
Claims & Appeals
The Department of Labor’s Employee Benefits Security Administration issued guidance on April 28, 2020, providing temporary, coronavirus-related relief from many deadlines and requirements under ERISA. Notably, the guidance relaxes the standards for employers to provide notices electronically, and affords significant latitude to COBRA qualified beneficiaries for electing, and paying for, COBRA continuation coverage.
In a recent decision, the Sixth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals resolved an important question in a way that should put administrators of ERISA plans in a far stronger position vis-à-vis claimants who disagree with the administrators’ plan interpretations. Essentially, the court in Clemons v. Norton Healthcare Retirement Plan held that the contract-interpretation doctrine of “contra proferentum” has no application once a court has determined that a plan document grants the administrator the type of broad discretion approved by the U.S. Supreme Court in its 1989 Firestone decision.
When the Department of Labor (“DOL”) delayed by 90 days the date by which ERISA plans were required to comply with a set of disability claims and appeals regulations issued in the waning days of the Obama Administration, we predicted that a further delay – or even a complete withdrawal – of the regulations could be in the works. As it turns out, we were wrong. Instead, the DOL announced in early January that the regulations will become fully applicable on April 1st – and without change.
The Department of Labor has proposed a 90-day delay in the applicability of disability claims and appeals regulations that were finalized in the waning days of the Obama Administration. Rather than applying to claims filed on or after January 1, 2018, the regulations would now apply to claims filed on or after April 1, 2018. Moreover, it seems likely that a further delay – or even a complete withdrawal – of the regulations could be in the works.
The Department of Labor has issued final regulations under Section 503 of ERISA that purport to enhance the disability benefit claims and appeals process for plan participants. These regulations amend the DOL’s disability claims procedure regulations issued in 2002. The new regulations generally affect the procedures for filing disability benefit claims, providing notice of adverse benefit determinations, and appealing adverse benefit determinations.