In the welfare plan world, the fourth quarter is typically considered as "open enrollment" season.  With Hurricane Sandy paralyzing a lot of New York and New Jersey, some clients have asked me about the possibility of extending open enrollment periods beyond their original limits. 

Generally, the rules related to health plans only require that an open enrollment period be offered.  Several regulations related to Medicare enrollment specify that the period must be 30-days and several states have adopted regulations specifying the duration of the open enrollment period for insured plans.  A 30-day period has become fairly common practice.  However, there are no specific regulations preventing the extension of open enrollment periods at the discretion of the plan administrator.

By way of example, yesterday it was announced that the Christie administration has extended the open enrollment deadline for both State and local government participants in the State Health Benefits Program and School Employees' Health Benefits Program until November 16, 2012 from the original date of November 9, 2012.  The Diocese of Newark announced that it too has extended open enrollment.  While neither of these is particularly definitive, both demonstrate that the plan administrator has that authority to extend its open enrollment period.  Shortening beyond the stated period in the summary plan description is not permitted.  But extending the period is within the authority of the plan administrator (provided it is communicated to participants).

If you have an insured plan, it is good to double check with the insurance company before committing to extending an open enrollment period.  But if you, as plan administrator, determine that it is in the best interests of the participants to extend the period, and that, as a prudent fiduciary, it makes sense to extend the open enrollment time, you have that ability.  Just make sure to document and communicate how and why you differed from any stated plan limitations.