Legislative updates

Congress Votes to Extend Paycheck Protection Program

A proposal to extend the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) through the end of May has passed the Senate by a vote of 92-7. The PPP was set to expire on March 31, 2021, just weeks after changes were made to expand availability to certain small businesses. The House had voted earlier this month to pass the bill, and it now heads to the President for signature.

PPP loans were initially created by the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act. The loans are meant to assist small employers in retaining employees on their payrolls in a time of financial stress during the coronavirus pandemic. If certain conditions are met, PPP loans can be forgiven and treated as a grant. Among the conditions for full forgiveness is a requirement that 60 percent of loan proceeds be used for payroll expenses. These expenses can include wages and salaries, as well as employer contributions to defined contribution and defined benefit retirement plans. Expenses for providing group healthcare coverage—including payment of insurance premiums—can also be included.


Washington Pulse: American Rescue Plan Act Provides Coronavirus Relief

President Biden has signed legislation that funds another round of assistance as the nation copes with the health and economic effects of the coronavirus pandemic. Several previous bills in 2020 provided direct cash benefits to Americans, created a small business lending program to help employers retain employees, and provided enhanced access to tax-favored retirement savings.

This latest round of relief, a $1.9 trillion stimulus bill known as the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 (ARPA), contains a third round of direct payments to Americans, funding to help hard-hit industries, and many other provisions—including some that will affect health plans and defined benefit plans.

Health Plan Relief

ARPA’s health-related provisions are meant to help individuals who have suffered a job loss or a reduction of hours to maintain their health insurance coverage. The following text summarizes the most important health plan-related provisions.

COBRA Continuation Coverage Premium Assistance

ARPA provides premium assistance for COBRA continuation coverage. This type of coverage allows eligible individuals who lose their health benefits to continue participating in their group health plan for a limited period of time. The premium assistance is designed to help both employees and employers. For example, premium assistance can help former employees keep their employer health plan coverage at a critical time. COBRA coverage can be prohibitively expensive—individuals may have to pay up to 102 percent of the cost to the plan—which discourages enrollment in many circumstances. If the premium is subsidized, employees are more likely to opt for COBRA coverage. When faced with a serious medical event, individuals and families who have this coverage can avoid potentially catastrophic financial consequences.

Premium reimbursement can help employers by ensuring increased COBRA coverage enrollment. Having a large number of COBRA enrollees can help employers spread costs over a greater number of healthy individuals who will pay premiums without having significant claims (as opposed to having only individuals with substantial medical costs enrolled in COBRA coverage).

Premium Assistance Basics

ARPA effectively provides free COBRA coverage by creating a subsidy that pays 100 percent of the COBRA premiums. Normally, the individual who is enrolled in COBRA coverage would need to pay these premiums. ARPA authorizes payment for premiums arising from COBRA coverage during the period beginning on April 1, 2021, and ending on September 30, 2021. This premium assistance is available only for certain categories of individuals who are enrolled in COBRA coverage during this period. These “assistance eligible individuals” include the following persons:

  • Employees who are eligible for COBRA coverage because of involuntary termination of employment for reasons other than gross misconduct. (A key feature of the relief is that employees who voluntarily terminate are not eligible for the subsidy.)
  • Employees who are eligible for COBRA coverage because of a reduction in hours that causes them to lose eligibility for their employer’s health plan.
  • Dependents of the employees who have lost eligibility for the reasons indicated above.

COBRA-eligible individuals who meet these criteria and who either 1) have not yet enrolled in COBRA coverage, or 2) had already enrolled in COBRA coverage but discontinued their coverage, have an additional 60 days to elect COBRA coverage and to take advantage of the subsidy. The 60-day enrollment period will begin on the date that the individual receives an ARPA-required notice that explains both the subsidy itself and the individual’s extended opportunity to elect COBRA continuation coverage.

The subsidy is “paid” through a tax credit that is provided to the employer sponsoring the health plan or to the insurer providing the coverage when an individual enrolls in COBRA coverage.

ARPA also permits employers—at their discretion—to allow individuals who are eligible for the subsidy to enroll in different coverage also offered by the employer, as long as the other coverage is also offered to other similarly situated active employees and

  • does not exceed the premium cost of the health coverage initially enrolled in,
  • does not provide excepted benefits only, and
  • is not a qualified small employer health reimbursement arrangement (QSEHRA) or a flexible spending arrangement (FSA).

Premium Assistance Notification

Because awareness of the subsidy is critical to increasing COBRA enrollment, employers must communicate the availability of premium assistance and the option to enroll in different coverage (if allowed). Individuals must receive the additional notification within 60 days of becoming eligible. Employers may provide the disclosures by amending existing notices or by including a separate document with the COBRA election notice.

Within 30 days following the bill’s enactment, the Departments of Labor (DOL), Treasury, and Health and Human Services must issue model notice language in order to help employers comply with the COBRA premium assistance notification requirements. Specifically, the model notices must include

  • the forms necessary to establish eligibility for premium assistance;
  • the plan administrator’s or other party’s contact information—including name, address, and telephone number;
  • a description of the extended election period provided;
  • a description of the qualified beneficiary’s penalty for failure to notify the plan if eligibility for premium assistance ceases;
  • a description of the qualified beneficiary’s right to a reduced premium and any conditions on entitlement to the reduced premium; and
  • a description of the qualified beneficiary’s option to enroll in different coverage (if the employer permits).

Expiration of Premium Assistance

Eligible individuals will generally receive subsidized premiums for coverage beginning on April 1, 2021, and ending on September 30, 2021. Individuals will become ineligible for premium assistance during that period if they

  • reach the maximum period for COBRA coverage, or
  • become eligible to be covered under another group health plan.

For individuals who reach the maximum period of COBRA coverage, a notice must be provided 15 to 45 days before the expiration of premium assistance. The notice must prominently identify the expiration date. To help employers comply with the requirement, the DOL must produce model notices to communicate the expiration of premium assistance 45 days following ARPA’s enactment.

If, during the period of COBRA coverage, individuals receiving the subsidy become eligible for coverage under another health plan, they must notify the plan that they are no longer eligible for premium assistance. Failure to notify the plan will result in a $250 penalty. If an individual intentionally fails to notify the plan, the penalty could be up to 110 percent of the premium assistance amount. The penalty does not apply if there is a reasonable cause for the failure to notify.

Tax Provisions for Premium Assistance

The premium assistance amount will not be included in the individual’s gross income for federal tax purposes.

Defined Benefit Plan Relief

ARPA’s retirement-related provisions are designed to provide relief to single-employer and multiemployer defined benefit (DB) plans. Following is a high-level summary of these provisions.

Amortization Relief for Single-Employer DB Plans

ARPA treat a single-employer DB plan as having no funding shortfall bases, and no shortfall installments from the bases, in prior years and spreads out funding shortfall installments to 15 years. These changes have the effect of reducing an employer’s minimum required contributions.

Extension of Pension Funding Stabilization Percentages for Single-Employer DB Plans

The three segment rates used for the applicable interest rates are provided with minimum and maximum percentages, effectively stabilizing the rates to be applied in future years. ARPA provides funding relief in a time of lower interest rates by setting the minimum percentage at a five percent “floor.” A plan can elect not to have this provision apply in plan years before 2022.

Multiemployer DB Plan Relief

ARPA provides relief for certain underfunded multiemployer plans for 2020 and 2021 plan years—including retention of the preceding plan year’s plan status (endangered, critical, etc.), extension of the plan’s funding improvement period or rehabilitation period (whichever is applicable) by five years, and use of a 30-year amortization base when amortizing investment losses.

Special Assistance Program for Multiemployer Plans at the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation (PBGC)

A special fund will be created for struggling multiemployer plans that are most vulnerable. The fund will provide financial assistance in the form of a lump-sum payment sufficient to provide benefits through 2051. Plans receiving this assistance must comply with additional conditions, including reinstating previously suspended benefits. For plan years beginning after December 31, 2030, multiemployer plan premiums to the PBGC will increase to $52 per participant.

Community Newspaper DB Plans

Certain community newspapers with DB plans can elect to take advantage of more favorable interest rates and amortization periods. They can also avoid some at-risk DB plan requirements.

Next Steps

Employers with defined benefit plans should start reviewing the new rules so they can take full advantage of the relief provided by the American Rescue Plan Act. Single-employer DB plans may want to consider whether to opt into or out of the relief. The stabilization percentages will automatically apply for 2020 if employers don’t opt out.

Employers with health plans should

  • work with COBRA service providers (if applicable) to meet the new COBRA notification requirements,
  • understand how premium amounts are reimbursed through the payroll tax credit process, and
  • coordinate with payroll providers and tax professionals to help ensure proper documentation and tax payments.

Ascensus will closely monitor all future ARPA-related guidance. Visit ascensus.com for the latest updates.

 

Click here for a printable version of this issue of the Washington Pulse.


House Passes Amended COVID-19 Relief Bill; President to Sign

Following Senate passage on Saturday, the House of Representatives has passed by a vote of 220-211 the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 to provide additional relief to address the continued impact of COVID-19. Included in the package are several items that would affect retirement and health benefits.

Defined Benefit Pension Plan Relief

  • Extends the single-employer plan funding shortfall amortization period from 7 to 15 years, to be applied to all plans beginning with 2022 plan years and, by election, retroactive to 2019 plan years. The amended bill provides plan sponsors with more flexibility than earlier versions which would have required use of the 15-year amortization schedule starting with 2020 plan years.
  • Extends single-employer pension plan funding stabilization percentages, as follows.
  • The 10 percent interest rate corridor would be reduced to 5 percent, effective in 2020.
  • The phase-out of the 5 percent corridor would be delayed until 2026, at which point the corridor would, as under current law, increase by 5 percentage points each year until it attains 30 percent in 2030, where it would remain.
  • A 5-percent floor would be placed on the 25-year interest rate averages.
  • The amended bill now allows plan sponsors to elect not to apply the updated percentages until 2022.
  • Extends SECURE Act funding relief for certain community newspapers to additional community newspapers
  • Permits a temporary delay in the designation of a multiemployer (union) plan as being in endangered, critical, or critical-and-declining status
  • Permits a plan in endangered or critical status for a plan year beginning in 2020 or 2021 to extend its rehabilitation period by five years
  • Permits multiemployer plans to amortize investment losses over 30, rather than 15, years, as was granted to plans for 2008 and 2009 losses (for plan years ending on or after February 29, 2020)
  • Creates a financial assistance program under which cash payments would be made by the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation to financially troubled multiemployer plans to continue paying retiree benefits; such payments are to be made by Treasury transfer

Absent from the final bill was a provision that would have frozen cost-of-living adjustments (COLAs) for the annual additions limit and compensation cap after 2030.

Health Benefit Provisions

The American Rescue Plan Act also contains provisions to assist employees who have lost employer-provided health insurance benefits and employers that have provided benefit continuation assistance.

  • Provides premium assistance to cover 100 percent of the cost of COBRA continuation coverage for eligible individuals and families from April 1, 2021, through September 30, 2021. This is an increase from prior proposals for premium assistance that would have covered 85 percent of the cost of continuation coverage. Premium assistance is available if health coverage was lost due to involuntary termination of employment or a reduction in hours. It is not available when an employee has a voluntary termination of employment.
  • Extends the COBRA election period for individuals who had not currently enrolled in COBRA who are otherwise assistance-eligible individuals.
  • Requires health plans to provide additional notifications on the availability of the premium assistance and extended election periods; specifies that the Department of Labor must draft and issue model notice language within 30 days following the enactment of the Act.
  • Provides a refundable payroll tax credit to reimburse employers and plans that paid a premium on behalf of an assistance-eligible individual
  • For the 2021 plan year, the dependent care flexible spending arrangement (FSA) contribution limit will increase from $5,000 to $10,500 (half that dollar amount per parent if married filing separately)

President Biden is expected to sign the bill Friday.


House Passes COVID-19 Relief Bill

The House of Representatives has passed by a vote of 219-212 the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 to provide additional relief to address the continued impact of COVID-19. Noteworthy retirement and health provisions include the following.

  • Freezing of cost-of-living adjustments after 2030 for retirement plan annual additions and compensation cap limits
  • Extending defined benefit single-employer plan funding shortfall amortization period from 7 to 15 years beginning with 2020 plan years
  • Extending single-employer pension plan funding stabilization percentages, with the 10 percent interest rate corridor reduced to 5 percent effective in 2020 and phase-out of the 5 percent corridor delayed until 2026
  • Health benefit provision granting premium assistance to cover 85 percent of the cost of COBRA continuation coverage, and extending the COBRA election period
  • Refundable tax credit reimbursing employers and plans that paid a subsidized portion of the premium on behalf of an assistance-eligible individual

The Senate is likely to take up and debate later this week a version of the bill that, once passed, would need to return to the House. The Senate parliamentarian is also expected to weigh in on whether multiemployer pension bailout relief and premium subsidies for laid-off workers through COBRA can be included in the bill. While legislation created through the budget reconciliation process can be passed through the Senate with a simple majority vote—additional restrictions apply—including that provisions be predominantly fiscal in nature.


Legislation Introduced to Aid Struggling Defined Benefit Plans

House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Richard Neal (D-MA) has introduced in the initial days of the 117th Congress the Emergency Pension Plan Relief Act (EPPRA) of 2021. Rep. Neal has previously introduced legislation to aid struggling defined benefit pension plans, including the Rehabilitation for Multiemployer Pensions Act—also known as the Butch Lewis Act—during the 116th Congress. EPPRA has some features in common with that legislation.

EPPRA has limited provisions addressing the solvency of single employer defined benefit pension plans. They include allowing certain single employer plan funding shortfalls to be amortized over 15 years instead of 7 years and extending pension funding stabilization percentages for single employer pension plans.

Among EPPRA’s multiemployer pension plan provisions are the following.

  • Expand existing Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation (PBGC) authority to allow the agency to provide financial assistance to certain qualifying plans that are in critical or declining status, to help them maintain solvency and provide benefits.
  • Following enactment, deny new approvals for plans seeking to suspend benefits under the Multiemployer Pension Reform Act.
  • Delay future designations of multiemployer plans as being in endangered, critical, or critical-and-declining status, in order to provide flexibility and ease administrative burdens during the coronavirus (COVID-19) public health crisis.
  • Provide certain multiemployer plans in endangered or critical status an extension of their rehabilitation periods, giving them additional time to improve contribution rates, limit benefit accruals, and maintain plan funding.
  • Allow plans that experienced investment losses in 2019 and 2020 to amortize such losses over an extended period of time.
  • Double certain PBGC benefit guarantees for multiemployer plan participants and beneficiaries.

Despite Some Confusion, December 30, 2020, Remains the Deadline for Special Tax Benefits of CARES Act Retirement Plan Distributions

Today is the last day for eligible taxpayers to take IRA and employer-sponsored retirement plan distributions that qualify for special tax benefits under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act. This legislation was enacted in March 2020 as a response to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. There has been some industry and media confusion over whether more recent pandemic relief legislation has provided an extended opportunity to qualify for such benefits, but it has not.

The following retirement plan-related CARES Act provisions apply to eligible coronavirus-related distributions (CRDs).

  • Exemption of up to $100,000 of retirement plan withdrawals from the 10% penalty tax for early withdrawals from retirement plans.
  • Three-year ratable taxation of such withdrawals, with a period of three tax years to return such withdrawal to a qualifying retirement account.

Just after Christmas, President Trump signed into law the Consolidated Appropriations Act (CAA), 2021, which provided federal agency funding, limited additional coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic relief, and limited disaster relief. Among its provisions was the granting of the above-described tax benefits to victims of certain regional natural disasters, if such disaster events began  during the period beginning December 28, 2019, and the declaration ended within 60 days after CAA’s date of enactment, December 27, 2020. For those eligible for this new benefit, retirement account withdrawals may be made for up to 180 days after CAA’s enactment.

In March 2020, President Trump had declared that all 50 states would be considered disaster zones as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. This appears to be the source of the recent confusion, and what some have believed to be the eligibility of all Americans to make retirement account withdrawals that qualify as CRDs and eligibility for these above-described tax benefits.

However, the CAA provision that may have contributed to the confusion actually excludes disasters that are declared solely in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Thus, President Trump’s COVID-19 disaster declaration of March 2020 covering the entire U.S. does not extend to all Americans the above-described tax benefits. (These individuals may, however, qualify for other benefits, such as extended deadlines for certain tax filings, and other tax-related transactions.)


Washington Pulse: Spending Bill Contains Coronavirus Relief

On December 21, 2020, Congress passed additional measures to provide relief from the widespread economic effects of the coronavirus pandemic. On December 27, 2020, the president signed the bill into law. While both houses of Congress have been working on various provisions since the CARES Act was enacted last March, no agreements were reached until now. The coronavirus provisions are contained in a larger spending bill that funds the federal government through next September. The bill, entitled the Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2021 (CAA), contains relief for various industries, small businesses, and individuals. Although there is no broad employee benefit relief, the items discussed below may interest those that work with employers and with employer-sponsored plans.

Paycheck Protection Program Relief

The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act provided significant relief to businesses adversely affected by the pandemic. The Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) allowed qualifying entities to borrow money through approved lenders, which are subject to the Small Business Administration’s (SBA’s) rules and oversight. Demand for the PPP funds was so great that last spring Congress approved a further infusion of federal aid to keep the program running. Employers who borrow PPP assets may have the loan forgiven if they follow the program rules, which generally include using the funds for payroll and certain other expenses, including funding a business’s retirement plan.

The CAA infuses nearly $300 billion of additional funding into the PPP to support small businesses. These are some of the significant provisions.

  • A second round of forgivable loans is available.
    • Businesses with 300 or fewer employees that have experienced at least a 25 percent revenue loss in any quarter of 2020—versus the same quarter in 2019—are eligible.
    • In addition to most payroll costs, expenses can now also include supplier costs and the cost of providing coronavirus protection (e.g., adding drive-through service or upgrading air filtration).
    • Business expenses paid with PPP loans are tax deductible.
    • There is a new simplified loan forgiveness process for PPP loans of $150,000 or less.
  • Funding is included for independent live-venue operators, including certain movie theaters and museums that were affected by COVID-19 restrictions.

Medical Expense Deduction Floor Reduced

The annual amount of unreimbursed medical expenses that individuals must incur in order to get a deduction has been permanently reduced from 10 percent of adjusted gross income to 7.5 percent. This provision applies to taxable years beginning on or after January 1, 2021.

Disaster Relief: Distributions and Loans

The CAA provides relief for those who have experienced an economic loss because of a “qualified disaster” and whose principal residence is located in a presidentially declared disaster area. This provision does not apply to any disaster declarations that are made only because of COVID-19. But this relief closely mirrors the coronavirus-related distribution (CRD) rules found in the CARES Act.

  • Individuals can distribute up to $100,000 for disasters that begin on or after December 28, 2019, and that end on or before December 27, 2020 (the date the CAA was signed into law). The disaster distribution must be taken within 180 days of December 27, 2020. If an individual is affected by multiple disasters, this dollar limit applies separately to each disaster.
  • As with CRDs, these disaster distributions
    • are not subject to a 10 percent early distribution penalty tax,
    • are taxed equally over 3 years (unless the taxpayer chooses taxation in the distribution year), and
    • may be repaid within 3 years of the distribution date.
  • Individuals can take distributions from IRAs and employer-sponsored retirement plans. Distributions from 401(k), 403(b), governmental 457(b), and money purchase plans are not treated as “eligible rollover distributions” for certain purposes: specifically, they are not subject to 20 percent withholding or to Internal Revenue Code (IRC) Sec. 402(f) notification.
  • Individuals who meet the following requirements may repay hardship distributions or first-time homebuyer distributions taken to purchase or construct a principal residence.
    • The individual received the distribution 180 days before the disaster (defined by FEMA) to 30 days after the disaster ended.
    • The principal residence is in the disaster area.
    • The individual did not use the distribution because of the disaster.
  • Loans may be taken for up to $100,000 or the participant’s vested account balance, whichever is less. This increased limit is available to eligible participants to who take a loan within 180 days following December 27, 2020.
  • Loan repayments may generally be delayed for a year (or if later, 180 days after December 27, 2020). But subsequent payments must reflect any interest accrued during the delay. This extended deadline applies to loan repayments that are due within the period beginning on the first day of the disaster and ending 180 days following December 27, 2020.

Although new disaster distributions or loans may be hard to process because the CAA was enacted so late in the year, these provisions may provide relief for qualified individuals who have already taken distribution or loans in 2020. As with CRDs, these disaster-related provisions are also optional for employer-sponsored retirement plans.

Money Purchase Plans May Offer Coronavirus-Related Distributions

The CARES Act authorized qualified individuals to take CRDs from IRAs and certain defined contribution retirement plans by December 30, 2020. Specifically, the CARES Act created a permissible distribution trigger for eligible retirement plans, including 401(k) plans, 403(a) and (b) plans, governmental 457 plans, profit-sharing plans, and IRAs. But this relief did not include money purchase pension plan assets, which are subject to in-service distribution restrictions. So the CAA amended the CARES Act to include money purchase pension plans in the types of plans that are treated as meeting the plan distribution requirements of IRC Sec. 401(a). This provision allows employers with money purchase pension plans to permit eligible participants to take CRDs as if such plans were originally included in the CARES Act.

Partial Plan Termination Relief

The coronavirus pandemic has caused countless employers to lay off or furlough portions of their workforce. Many of these employers took this action to preserve their businesses, hoping that they could rehire those workers once the economy started to recover. But under current rules, a partial plan termination generally occurs when there is a workforce reduction of more than 20 percent. This results in 100 percent vesting for the affected workers. To avoid treating all such temporary workforce reductions as partial plan terminations, the CAA changes the rules to give employers additional time to rehire workers. If the active participant count as of March 31, 2021, is at least 80 percent of the active participant count at the time the coronavirus national emergency was declared (March 13, 2020), a plan will not be treated as having a partial plan termination.

Qualified Future Transfer Elections

The CAA provides relief for certain defined benefit plan excesses transferred to health benefit accounts. This relief allows employers to make an election to end an existing transfer period if the election is made by December 31, 2021. Qualified future transfers allow excess pension assets to be transferred to health benefit accounts to pay for health or life insurance costs if certain requirements are met—including a minimum funding requirement.

Healthcare Provisions

Flexible spending and dependent care accounts. The CAA gives employers greater flexibility in permitting employees to carry over unused amounts in both their health flexible spending arrangements (FSAs) and their dependent care FSAs. All leftover amounts from 2020 can be carried forward to 2021. Employees can also carry over 2021 amounts to 2022. This is in addition to the CAA extending the normal grace period from 2½ months to 12 months for plan years ending in 2020 and 2021. Employees who stop participating in either kind of plan during calendar year 2020 or 2021 can continue to receive reimbursements through the end of the plan year in which they stopped. And finally—in addition to other minor changes—for plan years ending in 2021, participants in health and dependent care FSAs may modify their contributions without a change in status. Employers who choose to implement these optional provisions must operationally comply with them until they amend their plans to reflect the change.

Preventing surprise medical billing. A group health plan or a health insurance issuer that offers group or individual health insurance coverage to cover emergency services is required to provide such services without the need for prior authorization or other limitations, even if the healthcare provider is not considered a participating (in-network) provider. Any limitation that a plan or coverage contains cannot be more restrictive than requirements that apply to emergency services received from participating providers and facilities.

Other healthcare provisions. The CAA contains several other healthcare-related changes that may benefit employers or employees.

  • Families First Coronavirus Response Act (paid sick and family leave credit) extended This credit was set to expire on December 31, 2020, but the CAA extends this credit until March 31, 2021. The CAA also makes other minor changes.
  • Paid family and medical leave employer credit extended – This employer credit was also due to expire on December 31, 2020. The CAA extends the credit to December 31, 2025.

Education-Related Provisions

  • The CARES Act permitted employers to provide tax-free student loan repayment benefits of up to $5,250 to employees through 2020. The CAA now extends this benefit through December 31, 2025.
  • The CAA simplifies the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) program to make the application process easier and to make financial aid more predictable.
  • The CAA increases the income that individuals can earn and still receive the Lifetime Learning Credit—while repealing the deduction for qualified tuition and related expenses.

Looking Ahead

At nearly 5,600 pages, Ascensus will continue to analyze the bill for items pertinent to providers of retirement, healthcare, and education products and services. In addition, while the current Congressional session is winding down, many lawmakers have suggested that more coronavirus relief is needed. Ascensus will continue to monitor legislative activity pertaining to such relief. Visit ascensus.com for the latest information.

Click here for a printable version of this issue of the Washington Pulse.


Congress Approves Additional COVID Relief as Part of Government Funding Package

Following lengthy, intense negotiations that delayed the pre-Christmas adjournment of the 116th Congress, the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives have reached agreement and passed legislation on a new round of economic relief for victims of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. The relief provisions are combined with a larger omnibus spending package that includes funding for federal government agencies. Due to the massive size of the bill and the extra time needed to print and prepare it for signature, President Trump has until December 28 to sign the combined legislation into law.

The primary focus of the pandemic relief is an extension of unemployment benefits, direct economic stimulus payments to American taxpayers, support for small businesses, and funding for schools and the COVID-19 vaccination. There are limited provisions that directly affect tax-advantaged savings or health and welfare arrangements, but among them are the following.

PPP Extension

The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, enacted in March 2020, provided financial support to businesses adversely affected by the pandemic. Under the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) provisions, qualifying businesses could borrow funds for payroll and other specified purposes—including retirement and health benefit funding—through approved lenders, with the potential for forgiveness of these loans. These loans are subject to the Small Business Administration’s rules and oversight.

  • This legislation provides an additional $284 billion for the PPP program, including a second round of potentially forgivable loans, under these conditions.
  • Businesses with 300 or fewer employees that have experienced at least a 25 percent revenue loss in any quarter of 2020 are eligible.
  • Expenses now can include supplier costs and the cost of providing coronavirus protection (e.g., personal protective equipment).
  • Business expenses paid with PPP loans are tax deductible, even if forgiven.
  • The loan forgiveness process for PPP loans of $150,000 or less is simplified.

This legislation includes rescinding approximately $146 billion in unspent allocations for the CARES Act PPP and depositing it into the general fund of the Department of the Treasury.

CRDs for Money Purchase Pension Plans

 The legislation extends to money purchase pension plans the option to permit coronavirus-related distributions (CRDs), which provides an in-service distribution trigger, as well as exemption from the early distribution penalty tax, three-year ratable taxation, and the option to repay such distributions over three years.

Partial Plan Termination Relief

Employers will be provided relief from partial plan terminations that could result from a reduction in workforce due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Under current guidance, a reduction in participant number of 20 percent or more during a plan year generally is considered to be a partial plan termination. The result is full vesting for those employees whose job loss has triggered the partial termination. This legislation would assist employers in avoiding this consequence by granting a grace period to March 31, 2021, to reach a participant count at least 80 percent of the number when the National Emergency was declared in March 2020.

Qualified Future Transfers – Pension Plans

Under the qualified future transfers provision, up to 10 years of retiree health and life benefit costs can be transferred from a defined benefit pension plan to a retiree health benefits account and/or a retiree life insurance account within the pension plan, if certain requirements are met.

Study of DOL Electronic Disclosure Final Regulations 

The Department of Labor (DOL) is directed to complete a comprehensive study and issue a report within one year on the impact of its electronic disclosure final regulations on “individuals residing in rural and remote areas, seniors, and other populations that either lack access to web-based communications or who may only have access through public means.”

Temporary Special Rules for Health FSAs and Dependent Care FSAs

  • For health flexible spending arrangements (FSAs) and dependent care FSAs (DCAPs) for plan years ending in 2020, the plan can permit a carryover of all unused benefits to the plan year ending in 2021.
  • For health FSAs and DCAPs for plan years ending in 2021, the plan can permit a carryover of all unused benefits to the plan year ending in 2022.
  • For health FSAs and DCAPS that have a grace period associated with the plan year that ends in 2020 or 2021, that grace period can be extended for 12 months after the end of the plan year (the normal maximum grace period is 2½ months after the end of the plan year).
  • For health FSAs and DCAPs, a plan can permit an employee who stops participating in the plan mid-year in 2020 or 2021 to continue to receive reimbursements of their unused contributions through the end of the plan year in which their participation ceased (if their plan adopts the 12 month grace period they would also get the extended grace period).
  • For DCAP plans, if the dependent ‘aged-out’ during the pandemic, the plan can substitute age 14 for age 13 (as the maximum age for the child could be considered a qualifying person under the plan), as long as the employee was enrolled in the DCAP for a plan year where the end of the regular enrollment period was on or before January 31, 2020, and the employee had one or more dependents who attained age 13 during the plan year, and the employee had an unused balance for a plan year that will be carried forward to the subsequent plan year.
  • For health FSAs and DCAPs that end in 2021, participants will be permitted to prospectively modify their contribution elections (without regard to a change in status).
  • To adopt the specified relief, health FSAs and DCAPs must be amended by the last day of the first calendar year beginning after the end of the plan year in which the amendment is effective. In the interim, the plan must operate consistent with the terms of the amendment.

Modification to Internal Revenue Code Section 213

The medical expense deduction floor is reduced from 10 percent to 7.5 percent for taxable years beginning after December 31, 2020.

Preventing Surprise Medical Bills

  • A group health plan or a health insurance issuer that offers group or individual health insurance coverage to cover emergency services is required to provide such services without the need for prior authorization or other limitations, whether or not the healthcare provider is a participating provider. Any limitation cannot be more restrictive than requirements that apply to emergency services received from participating providers and facilities with respect to such plan or coverage.
  • A high deductible health plan (HDHP) will not be prevented from being treated as an HDHP if it provides medical care in accordance with this provision. This applies to plan years beginning on or after January 1, 2022.
  • Expand consumer protections through an external review process beginning in 2022 in cases of adverse determinations by group plans and health issuers.

Additional (Non-COVID-Related) Disaster Relief

The legislation provides limited non-COVID-related disaster relief for certain federal disasters declared on or after January 1, 2020, and ending 60 days after enactment of this bill. Relief includes the following.

Qualified Disaster Distributions

Distributions of up to $100,000 (less certain disaster distributions taken in prior tax years) may be taken by those whose principal residence is within the disaster area and who sustained an economic loss due to the disaster.

  • Provides for three-year taxation of the distribution, and three years to repay
  • Provides a distribution trigger for 401(k), 403(b), 457(b), and money purchase pension plans
  • Will not be subject to 20 percent mandatory withholding or 402(f) notice requirements

Hardship or First-Time Homebuyer Distributions

Such distributions that were taken to purchase or construct a principal residence may be repaid if the distribution was taken within the period 180 days before the disaster incident and 30 days after the disaster incident period, and are repaid between the first day of the disaster incident period and no later than 180 days after enactment.

Increased Retirement Plan Loan Limit

Plan loans taken within 180 days following the legislation’s enactment because of a disaster declaration will have an increased loan limit of up to the lesser of $100,000 or the vested account balance, if the borrower’s principal residence is in the disaster area and an economic loss was sustained as a result of the disaster.

Delay in Loan Repayment

Loan payments that are due within the period beginning on the first day of the disaster and ending 180 days after the disaster period may be delayed for one year (or, if later, 180 days after the legislation’s enactment), with the loan’s term extended by the period of the delay.

Amendments to implement these provisions will be required by the end of the 2022 plan year (2024 for governmental plans).

Multiemployer Pension Plan In-Service Distributions

One unanticipated provision is a change to certain multiemployer (union) pension plans that allows for a subset of individuals in the construction industry to take an in-service distribution at age 55 if several service and plan provisions are satisfied. Specifically, it would apply to distributions to individuals who were participants in the plan on or before April 30, 2013, if

  • the trust was in existence before January 1, 1970, and
  • prior to December 31, 2011, in-service distributions were permitted at age 55 when the plan received at least one written IRS determination that the trust in the first bullet constituted a qualified trust.

Because the circumstances are so specific, it is not likely to have broad applicability.

Education Related Provisions

  • A CARES Act provision that permitted employers to provide student loan repayment benefits of up to $5,250 to employees on a tax-free basis has been extended to December 31, 2025.
  • Made changes to the FAFSA program intended to simplify the application process and make aid more predictable
  • Increased the income limitations for phase-out of the lifetime learning credit
  • Repealed the deduction for qualified tuition and related expenses

Legislation Would Allow Tax Benefits for Retirement Distributions Used for LTC Insurance

Senator Patrick Toomey (R-PA), has introduced S. 4820, legislation that would permit tax-free retirement savings distributions of up to $2,500 per year—indexed for inflation—that are used to purchase long-term care insurance. The arrangements to which the legislation applies would include qualified retirement plans, 403(a) and 403(b) plans, governmental 457(b) plans, and IRAs.

These distributions appear to be exempt from the 10 percent early distribution penalty tax by virtue of their being tax-free. The bill would also create new distribution triggers for employee deferral amounts that have been contributed to 401(k), 403(b), and governmental 457(b) plans.