New COVID-19 Guidance: Government Requires Health Plans to Cover At-Home COVID-19 Tests

On January 10, 2022, the Departments of Health and Human Services, Labor and Treasury issued guidance addressing a group health plan’s obligation to cover the cost of over-the-counter, at-home COVID-19 tests starting January 15, 2022.  The new coverage requirement means that enrolled individuals can go online or to a pharmacy and buy an over-the-counter FDA-approved COVID-19 diagnostic test and either have it paid for up front by their health plan or be reimbursed by submitting a claim without any cost-sharing requirements (such as deductibles, co-payments or co-insurance).  The guidance provides that beginning January 15, 2022 through the end of the declared public health emergency, plans must cover at least eight (8) over-the-counter at-home tests per enrolled individual per 30-day (or calendar-month) period without an assessment or provider involvement.  This does not affect the obligation to provide coverage for COVID-19 tests with a provider’s involvement or prescription.

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Last Call: Don’t Forget Your Retirement Plan’s Required Year-End Amendments for 2021

As 2021 winds down, retirement plan sponsors should confirm that their plan documents are amended by December 31, 2021, to comply with certain plan changes:

  • Hardship Distributions. 401(k) plans and 403(b) plans must be amended, as applicable, to comply with the final regulations updating the hardship distribution rules.  For hardship distributions made on or after January 1, 2020, plans must be amended by December 31, 2021, to:  (i) eliminate the suspension of elective deferrals following a hardship distribution; and (ii) require employees requesting hardship distributions to represent that they have insufficient cash or other liquid assets reasonably available to satisfy the need.Additionally, plans that made changes to their hardship distribution provisions that were (i) permitted under the regulations, and/or (ii) took effect on or before January 1, 2020 (such as eliminating the requirement to exhaust all available loans before taking a hardship distribution, or permitting amounts contributed as qualified nonelective contributions (QNECs) or qualified matching contributions (QMACs) and earnings to be made available for hardship distributions), must adopt such changes by December 31, 2021.
  • PBGC Rates. Defined benefit plans that refer to the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation (PBGC) immediate rate may need to be amended to reflect that the PBGC stopped publishing monthly rates at the end of 2020.  Such amendment would need to be effective January 1, 2021 (which, for calendar year plans, would require adoption of an amendment by December 31, 2021).
  • Collectively Bargained Cash Balance/Hybrid Defined Benefit Plans. Cash balance/hybrid defined benefit plans maintained pursuant to a collective bargaining agreement ratified on or before November 13, 2015 must be amended by December 31, 2021, to comply with requirements regarding market rate of return and other cash balance/hybrid plan requirements that first applied to such plans generally on or after January 1, 2017.
  • Discretionary Amendments. If a retirement plan implements discretionary changes during the 2021 plan year, retirement plan sponsors must adopt an amendment to that effect by the last day of the 2021 plan year (December 31, 2021, for a calendar year plan).

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Employers – Check Your Severance Arrangements Now!

If employees are required to provide proof of COVID-19 vaccination or a timely negative COVID-19 test, and/or wear a mask as a condition of employment (COVID-19 Policies), and an employee is terminated for violating a COVID-19 Policy, will that employee be entitled to severance benefits?

The answer depends on what the employer intends and the terms of the applicable severance arrangement which, for example, can be in the form of a severance plan, a severance agreement, or an employment agreement.

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PBGC Issues Interim Regulations on Special Financial Assistance for Multiemployer Pension Plans

Multiemployer pension plans are collectively bargained defined-benefit employee benefit plans that are funded by several unrelated employers for the benefit of unionized employees. In recent years, the crisis of significantly underfunded multiemployer plans has continued to grow. In response, Congress enacted the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 (ARPA), which was signed into law on March 11, 2021. ARPA amended ERISA to establish a new program within the Pension Benefit Guarantee Corporation (PBGC) to offer “special financial assistance” (SFA) to multiemployer plans in danger of becoming insolvent; in contrast to other assistance offered by the PBGC, plans are not required to repay the SFA.

ARPA directed the PBGC to issue regulations or other guidance to prescribe the application requirements for SFA payments and for how funds are to be invested and to impose conditions on plans that receive SFA payments. On July 9, 2021, the PBGC issued this guidance in the form of interim regulations.

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IRS Guidance on New COBRA Subsidy Clarifies Many Outstanding Questions

On May 18, 2021, the IRS released Notice 2021-31, a lengthy series of FAQs clarifying many aspects of the new COBRA subsidy made available under the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 (ARPA). The FAQs address many of the issues raised by plan sponsors since the subsidy was enacted earlier this year. Although this blog post does not address every nuance of the guidance—the IRS issued a whopping 86 FAQs—below we point out some clarifications that might be of interest to group health plan sponsors:

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$1.9 Trillion American Rescue Package Includes Major Relief for Single and Multiemployer Pension Plans

The $1.9 trillion COVID stimulus package recently signed into law by President Biden includes significant assistance for pension plans. The financial assistance provisions will have a large bearing on shoring up the ongoing multiemployer pension crisis. The pension assistance has not received as much press as have other provisions of the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 (ARPA) but it is no less impactful. The stimulus package provides direct financial support for certain underfunded multiemployer pension plans and relief from several minimum funding rules for both multiemployer and single-employer plans.

The pension provisions of ARPA are a modified version of the Butch Lewis Act, a pension rescue bill that has passed in the House but never in the Senate in years past. ARPA should allow over 100 severely underfunded multiemployer pension plans to return to relative financial health; however, ARPA does not provide for any long-term funding reform that would prevent another pension crisis. It also will have little or no effect for contributing employers.
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Employers Must Provide COBRA Subsidies to Assistance Eligible Individuals

The American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 (ARPA), which was signed into law by President Biden on March 11, 2021, includes COBRA subsidy provisions that are significant – both for the individuals who will become eligible for COBRA subsidies and for the employers who will be required to subsidize COBRA coverage. The key requirements of the COBRA subsidies, which are effective beginning April 1, 2021, are outlined below.

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