On April 7, 2021, the DOL issued guidance regarding the COBRA subsidy provisions under the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 (ARPA). As a reminder, the ARPA allows certain individuals to elect COBRA coverage and have that COBRA coverage 100% subsidized by the federal government from April 1, 2021, to September 30, 2021. An individual must have experienced a reduction of hours or termination of their employment (other than by reason of such employee’s gross misconduct) in order to apply this subsidy. These individuals are referred to as Assistance Eligible Individuals or AEIs. A person who voluntarily terminates their employment is not eligible for this subsidy. The DOL’s guidance includes a series of FAQs, model notices and related information.
The DOL provides 22 FAQs that regarding implementation of the COBRA requirements under ARPA. The topics addressed by the FAQs are as follows:
- *FAQs 1 – 6: general information
*FAQs 7 – 9: premiums
*FAQs 10 – 12: notices
*FAQs 13 – 21: individual questions for employees and their families
*FAQ 22 (mis-numbered Q21): additional information
Several of the questions provide clarification of ARPA. According to FAQ number 2, premium subsidy provisions apply to all group health plans sponsored by private-sector employers or employee organizations (unions) subject to the COBRA rules. They also apply to plans sponsored by state or local governments subject to the continuation provisions under the Public Health Service Act. Premium subsidies are also available for group health insurance required under state mini-COBRA laws.
FAQ number 3 clarifies who is an AEI. In addition to those individuals who experienced a termination of employment (except for those who voluntarily terminated), an individual appears to be an AEI if they experience a reduction of hours, regardless of whether such a reduction is voluntary or involuntary. Examples of a “reduction of hours” include any temporary leaves of absence, an individual’s participation in a lawful labor strike and appears to include medical leave that does not result in the termination of the individual’s employment. If an individual is eligible through a spouse’s plan, then they are not an AEI. An individual is an AEI if they are on Medicaid or a marketplace/exchange plan. However, those who enroll in COBRA continuation with premium assistance will not be eligible for a premium tax credit on the exchange.
FAQ number 10 highlights an important caveat concerning eligibility for premium subsidies: individuals are not AEIs if their maximum COBRA continuation coverage period (if COBRA had been elected or not discontinued) would have ended before April 1, 2021. According to the FAQ, this generally means the COBRA subsidies will not apply to those individuals with applicable qualifying events before October 1, 2019.
The FAQs also clarify issues surrounding enrollment. Note that employers have until May 31, 2021, to provide notice to AEIs of their right to elect COBRA and receive subsidies under the ARPA. According to FAQ number 10, regular rules regarding COBRA notice distribution apply, including distribution by email. FAQ number 13 states that AEIs have 60 days from receipt of the notice to elect COBRA or they forfeit their right to elect COBRA subsidies. FAQ number 5 states that AEIs can choose to have prospective coverage from the date of election or, if they have a qualifying event on or before April 1, retroactive coverage to April 1. FAQ number 16 states that qualified beneficiaries who didn’t independently elect may do so now. Further, individuals who believe that they qualify for premium assistance need to complete and submit a form entitled Request for Treatment as an Assistance Eligible Individual, as well as an election form. And FAQ number 4 states that individuals may have a special enrollment period on the exchange after the subsidy ends.
The last major topic covered by the FAQs concerns enforcement of these requirements. According to both FAQ number 10 and FAQ number 12, employers who violate COBRA rules (including the requirement to offer a COBRA election and subsidies under the ARPA) could be subject to penalties equal to $100 per qualified beneficiary or $200 per family for every day that the employer violates COBRA rules. If individuals believe that they have not received an offer of COBRA due to them, then they are advised to contact the DOL.
The DOL also published four model notices: a “General Notice,” an “Alternative Notice,” a “Notice in Connection with Extended Election Periods” and a “Notice of Expiration of Period of Premium Assistance.”
The General Notice should be provided to all individuals who experience a qualifying event from April 1, 2021, through September 30, 2021. It includes information related to the premium assistance, and other rights and obligations under the ARPA, as well as all of the information required in an election notice. It also includes information on the health insurance marketplace, Medicaid and Medicare. The General Notice satisfies existing requirements for the content of a standard COBRA election notice as well as those required by the ARPA.
The Alternative Notice must be sent by issuers that offer group health insurance coverage subject to continuation coverage requirements imposed by state law that differ from those imposed by federal law (e.g., employers with fewer than 20 employees may be covered by certain state healthcare continuation laws). The Alternative Notice must be provided to all qualified beneficiaries, not just covered employees, who have experienced a qualifying event at any time from April 1, 2021, through September 30, 2021, regardless of the type of qualifying event. The Alternative Notice serves as a template that can be modified for each state’s requirements.
The Notice in Connection with Extended Election Periods must be distributed to AEIs (or any individual who would be an AEI if a COBRA continuation coverage election were in effect) who became entitled to elect COBRA continuation coverage before April 1, 2021. This notice covers the rights of AEIs to elect COBRA coverage as discussed above and provides them with the forms necessary to do so.
The Notice of Expiration of Period of Premium Assistance must be provided 15 – 45 days before the date of expiration of premium assistance and informs AEIs of the expiration and the date that the subsidies will expire. This notice must also provide information concerning eligibility for coverage without any premium assistance through either COBRA continuation coverage or coverage under a group health plan. This notice is not required if an AEI becomes eligible under a group health plan (excluding excepted benefits, a QSEHRA or a health FSA) or for Medicare. This notice may note that the individual and any covered dependents may be eligible for a special enrollment period to enroll in individual market health insurance coverage.
In addition to the specific requirements of each notice, the General Notice, the Alternative Notice and the Notice in Connection with Extended Election Periods must include the following information:
*A prominent description of the availability of premium assistance, including any conditions on the entitlement.
*A form to request treatment as an “Assistance Eligible Individual” (as discussed above).
*The name, address and telephone number of the plan administrator (and any other person with relevant information about the premium assistance).
*A description of the obligation of individuals paying reduced premiums who become eligible for other coverage to notify the plan and the penalty for failing to meet this obligation.
*A description of the opportunity to switch coverage options, if applicable.
The DOL also provided a PDF summarizing the COBRA premium assistance provisions of the ARPA, which includes the forms necessary to request treatment as an AEI.
In addition to the FAQs and model notices, the DOL also linked to a number of publications that provide information on COBRA, retirement and health benefits for dislocated workers and those experiencing job loss, and HHS guidance on the ARPA.
Employers should familiarize themselves with this guidance as they prepare to comply with the ARPA COBRA provisions. The Benefits Compliance team expects that the federal government will provide more guidance in the coming weeks. We will continue to analyze subsequent guidance and provide resources to explain the continued developments.
Source: NFP BenefitsPartners