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Cobra Health Insurance Info

Congress passed the landmark Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act (COBRA)1 health benefit provisions in 1986. The law amended the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA), the Internal Revenue Code and the Public Health Service Act to require most group health plans to provide a temporary continuation of group health coverage that otherwise might be terminated.

Group Health Plans Subject to COBRA

COBRA generally applies to all private-sector group health plans maintained by employers that have at least 20 employees on more than 50 percent of its typical business days in the previous calendar year. Both full- and part-time employees are counted to determine whether a plan is subject to COBRA. Each part-time employee counts as a fraction of a full-time employee, with the fraction equal to the number of hours that the part-time employee worked divided by the hours an employee must work to be considered full time.

COBRA also applies to plans sponsored by state and local governments.2 The law does not apply, however, to plans sponsored by the Federal government or by churches and certain church-related organizations.

What is a group health plan? It is any arrangement that an employer establishes or maintains to provide employees or their families with medical care, whether it is provided through insurance, by a health maintenance organization, out of the employer’s assets, or through any other means. “Medical care” includes for this purpose:

  • Inpatient and outpatient hospital care;
  • Physician care;
  • Surgery and other major medical benefits;
  • Prescription drugs;
  • Dental and vision care.

Life insurance is not considered “medical care,” nor are disability benefits; and COBRA does not cover plans that provide only life insurance or disability benefits.

Group health plans covered by COBRA that are sponsored by private-sector employers are generally welfare plans under ERISA and therefore subject to ERISA’s other requirements. Under ERISA, group health plans must be administered by a plan administrator, who is usually named in the plan documents. Many group health plans are administered by the employer that sponsors the plan, but group health plans are also frequently administered, in whole or in part, by another individual or organization separate from the employer, such as a professional benefits administration firm. Carrying out the requirements of COBRA is the direct responsibility of the plan administrator.

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COBRA Continuation Coverage

COBRA requires group health plans to offer continuation coverage to covered employees, former employees, spouses, former spouses, and dependent children when group health coverage would otherwise be lost due to certain specific events. Those events include the death of a covered employee, termination or reduction in the hours of a covered employee’s employment for reasons other than gross misconduct, a covered employee’s becoming entitled to Medicare, divorce or legal separation of a covered employee and spouse, and a child’s loss of dependent status (and therefore coverage) under the plan. COBRA sets rules for how and when continuation coverage must be offered and provided, how employees and their families may elect continuation coverage, and what circumstances justify terminating continuation coverage.

Alternatives to COBRA Continuation Coverage

Those entitled to elect COBRA continuation coverage may have alternative options to COBRA coverage. One option may be “special enrollment” in other group health coverage. Under the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), upon certain events, group health plans, and health insurance issuers are required to provide a special enrollment period during which individuals who previously declined coverage for themselves and their dependents, and who are otherwise eligible, may be allowed to enroll without having to wait until the next open season for enrollment. One event that triggers special enrollment is an employee or dependent of an employee losing eligibility for other health coverage. For example, an employee who loses group health coverage may be able to special enroll in a spouse’s health plan. The employee or dependent must request special enrollment within 30 days of the loss of coverage.

If an employee or dependent chooses to elect COBRA instead of special enrollment upon a loss of group health coverage, the employee or dependent will have another opportunity to request special enrollment once COBRA has been exhausted. In order to exhaust COBRA coverage, the individual must receive the maximum period of COBRA coverage available without early termination. To special enroll after exhausting COBRA, an individual must request enrollment within 30 days of the loss of COBRA coverage.

In addition, individuals in a family may be eligible for health insurance coverage through various state programs. For more information contact your state department of insurance.

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