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The End of the COVID Public Health Emergency and Its Effect on Employee Benefit Plans

May 11, 2023

The COVID-19 public health emergency ends on May 11, 2023. The emergency resulted in two big changes to welfare plans: the relaxation of certain notification and timing requirements, and the requirement for plans to cover COVID testing and vaccination at no cost to plan participants. While the public health emergency ends May 11, 2023, plans have a grace period until July 11 to take certain actions and come into compliance with the normal rules.

Plan Sponsor Requirements

Before the grace period ends, plan sponsors will generally need to follow the rules that existed before COVID. Among the most important of these rules are the requirements for plan sponsors to:

  • Timely provide all notices, including those for HIPAA and COBRA.
  • Review COVID-related coverage under their employee assistance programs (EAPs) to determine if such coverage would be considered “significant medical care,” which can result in additional reporting and compliance obligations. 
  • Review telehealth options to ensure they are properly integrated and provided by an entity that can comply with the post-COVID requirements. Telehealth rules were substantially relaxed during COVID. With telehealth now expected and utilized by more participants, getting telehealth right is more crucial than before.

Plan Sponsor Decisions

With the end of the public health emergency, plan sponsors must also make several important decisions with respect to their employee benefit plans:
• Whether testing will continue free of charge or will be subject to cost sharing.
• Whether non-preventative care vaccines for COVID will continue to be free of charge.
• Whether costs for certain COVID-related services will continue to be posted.

As they are mostly based on what costs the plan sponsor or plan will cover going forward, these plan sponsor decisions are largely business-related. In the absence of a choice by the plan sponsor, the insurance provider will likely make a default choice. The important legal consideration is that the plan documents and employee communications should be consistent and accurately reflect the plan sponsor’s decisions.

Participant Requirements

In addition to the changes for plan sponsors, the end of the public health emergency will result in the reinstatement of a number of rules applicable to participants. Participants will need to:

• Follow the HIPAA Special Enrollment timing rules.
• Elect COBRA within the 60-day window for elections.
• Make all COBRA payments timely.
• Timely notify the plan of disabilities and qualifying events under COBRA.
• Follow the timing limitations of their plans and insurance policies regarding filing claims, appeals and external reviews.

Next Steps

First, plan sponsors should decide what COVID-related coverage will remain fully paid by the plan, if any. Some insurance companies are already starting to communicate with participants, and maintaining a consistent message will avoid unnecessary problems.

Second, plan sponsors should review their EAP and telehealth coverages for compliance with the rules that will soon be in effect. To the extent necessary, plan sponsors should update the documentation for their plans.

Finally, plan sponsors should consider a voluntary reminder communication to participants. Many rules have been relaxed over the last two years or so, and participants may be confused regarding the rules. A reminder may save stress for participants and those administering the plan, and will also serve to document the plan sponsor’s intention to properly follow the terms of the plan.

If you have questions, concerns, or want to discuss your circumstances, please contact a member of Varnum’s employee benefits team.

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