The Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act (COBRA) gives employees and their families who lose their health benefits the right to choose to continue group health benefits provided by their group health plan for limited periods of time under certain circumstances such as voluntary or involuntary job loss, reduction in the hours worked, transition between jobs, death, divorce, and other life events. Qualified individuals may be required to pay the entire premium for coverage up to 102 percent of the cost to the plan.
COBRA generally requires that group health plans sponsored by employers with 20 or more employees in the prior year offer employees and their families the opportunity for a temporary extension of health coverage (called continuation coverage) in certain instances where coverage under the plan would otherwise end. COBRA outlines how employees and family members may elect continuation coverage. It also requires employers and plans to provide notice.
There are three elements to qualifying for COBRA benefits. COBRA establishes specific criteria for plans, qualified beneficiaries, and qualifying events:
To be eligible for COBRA coverage, the employee must have been enrolled in the employer's health plan when the employee worked and the health plan must continue to be in effect for active employees. COBRA continuation coverage is available upon the occurrence of a qualifying event that would, except for the COBRA continuation coverage, cause an employee to lose his or her health care coverage.
The law generally covers health plans maintained by private-sector employers with 20 or more employees, employee organizations, or state or local governments.
Employers must notify plan administrators of a qualifying event within 30 days after an employee's death, termination, reduced hours of employment or entitlement to Medicare.
A qualified beneficiary must notify the plan administrator of a qualifying event within 60 days after divorce or legal separation or a child's ceasing to be covered as a dependent under plan rules.
Plan participants and beneficiaries generally must be sent an election notice not later than 14 days after the plan administrator receives notice that a qualifying event has occurred. The individual then has 60 days to decide whether to elect COBRA continuation coverage. The person has 45 days after electing coverage to pay the initial premium.
Qualified beneficiaries must be given an election period during which each qualified beneficiary may choose whether to elect COBRA coverage. Each qualified beneficiary may independently elect COBRA coverage. A covered employee or the covered employee's spouse may elect COBRA coverage on behalf of all other qualified beneficiaries. A parent or legal guardian may elect on behalf of a minor child. Qualified beneficiaries must be given at least 60 days for the election. This period is measured from the later of the coverage loss date or the date the COBRA election notice is provided by the employer or plan administrator. The election notice must be provided in person or by first class mail within 14 days after the plan administrator receives notice that a qualifying event has occurred.
Health plan rules must explain how to obtain benefits and must include written procedures for processing claims. Claims procedures must be described in the Summary Plan Description.
Employees should submit a claim for benefits in accordance with the plan's rules for filing claims. If the claim is denied, the employee must be given notice of the denial in writing generally within 90 days after the claim is filed. The notice should state the reasons for the denial, any additional information needed to support the claim, and procedures for appealing the denial.
The employee will have at least 60 days to appeal a denial and must receive a decision on the appeal generally within 60 days after that.
Employees should contact the plan administrator for more information on filing a claim for benefits. Complete plan rules are available from employers or benefits offices. There can be charges up to 25 cents a page for copies of plan rules.
Yes, disability can extend the 18 month period of continuation coverage for a qualifying event that is a termination of employment or reduction of hours. To qualify for additional months of COBRA continuation coverage, the qualified beneficiary must:
If these requirements are met, the entire family qualifies for an additional 11 months of COBRA continuation coverage. Plans can charge 150% of the premium cost for the extended period of coverage.
Under COBRA, participants, covered spouses and dependent children may continue their plan coverage for a limited time when they would otherwise lose coverage due to a particular event, such as divorce (or legal separation). A covered employee's spouse who would lose coverage due to a divorce may elect continuation coverage under the plan for a maximum of 36 months. A qualified beneficiary must notify the plan administrator of a qualifying event within 60 days after divorce or legal separation. After being notified of a divorce, the plan administrator must give notice, generally within 14 days, to the qualified beneficiary of the right to elect COBRA continuation coverage.
If a qualified beneficiary waives COBRA coverage during the election period, he or she may revoke the waiver of coverage before the end of the election period. A beneficiary may then elect COBRA coverage. Then, the plan need only provide continuation coverage beginning on the date the waiver is revoked.
Qualified beneficiaries must be offered coverage identical to that available to similarly situated beneficiaries who are not receiving COBRA coverage under the plan (generally, the same coverage that the qualified beneficiary had immediately before qualifying for continuation coverage). A change in the benefits under the plan for the active employees will also apply to qualified beneficiaries. Qualified beneficiaries must be allowed to make the same choices given to non-COBRA beneficiaries under the plan, such as during periods of open enrollment by the plan.
COBRA coverage begins on the date that health care coverage would otherwise have been lost by reason of a qualifying event.
COBRA establishes required periods of coverage for continuation health benefits. A plan, however, may provide longer periods of coverage beyond those required by COBRA. COBRA beneficiaries generally are eligible for group coverage during a maximum of 18 months for qualifying events due to employment termination or reduction of hours of work. Certain qualifying events, or a second qualifying event during the initial period of coverage, may permit a beneficiary to receive a maximum of 36 months of coverage.
Coverage begins on the date that coverage would otherwise have been lost by reason of a qualifying event and will end at the end of the maximum period. It may end earlier if:
After the COBRA election, a beneficiary becomes entitled to Medicare benefits. However, if Medicare is obtained prior to COBRA election, COBRA coverage may not be discontinued, even if the other coverage continues after the COBRA election.
Although COBRA specifies certain periods of time that continued health coverage must be offered to qualified beneficiaries, COBRA does not prohibit plans from offering continuation health coverage that goes beyond the COBRA periods.
Some plans allow participants and beneficiaries to convert group health coverage to an individual policy. If this option is generally available from the plan, a qualified beneficiary who pays for COBRA coverage must be given the option of converting to an individual policy at the end of the COBRA continuation coverage period. The option must be given to enroll in a conversion health plan within 180 days before COBRA coverage ends. The premium for a conversion policy may be more expensive than the premium of a group plan, and the conversion policy may provide a lower level of coverage. The conversion option, however, is not available if the beneficiary ends COBRA coverage before reaching the end of the maximum period of COBRA coverage.
Beneficiaries may be required to pay for COBRA coverage. The premium cannot exceed 102 percent of the cost to the plan for similarly situated individuals who have not incurred a qualifying event, including both the portion paid by employees and any portion paid by the employer before the qualifying event, plus 2 percent for administrative costs.
For qualified beneficiaries receiving the 11 month disability extension of coverage, the premium for those additional months may be increased to 150 percent of the plan's total cost of coverage.
COBRA premiums may be increased if the costs to the plan increase but generally must be fixed in advance of each 12-month premium cycle. The plan must allow the individual to pay premiums on a monthly basis if he or she aska to do so, and the plan may allow the individual to make payments at other intervals (weekly or quarterly).
The initial premium payment must be made within 45 days after the date of the COBRA election by the qualified beneficiary. Payment generally must cover the period of coverage from the date of COBRA election retroactive to the date of the loss of coverage due to the qualifying event. Premiums for successive periods of coverage are due on the date stated in the plan with a minimum 30-day grace period for payments. Payment is considered to be made on the date it is sent to the plan.
If premiums are not paid by the first day of the period of coverage, the plan has the option to cancel coverage until payment is received and then reinstate coverage retroactively to the beginning of the period of coverage.
If the amount of the payment made to the plan is made in error but is not significantly less than the amount due, the plan is required to notify you of the deficiency and grant a reasonable period (for this purpose, 30 days is considered reasonable) to pay the difference. The plan is not obligated to send monthly premium notices.
COBRA beneficiaries remain subject to the rules of the plan and therefore must satisfy all costs related to co-payments and deductibles, and are subject to catastrophic and other benefit limits.
For active employees, the employer may have paid all or part of the employee's group health premiums. Under COBRA, as a former employee no longer receiving benefits, the employee will usually pay the entire premium amount, that is, the portion of the premium that the employee paid as an active employee and the amount of the contribution made by the employer. In addition, there may be a 2 percent administrative fee.
While COBRA rates may seem high, the employee will be paying group premium rates, which are usually lower than individual rates.
Since it is likely that there will be a lapse of a month or more between the date of layoff and the time when the employee makes the COBRA election decision, the employee may have to pay health premiums retroactively-from the time of separation from the company. The first premium, for instance, will cover the entire time since the employee's last day of employment with the former employer.
Employees should also be aware that it is their responsibility to pay for COBRA coverage even if they do not receive a monthly statement.
Although they are not required to do so, some employers may subsidize COBRA coverage.
The Family and Medical Leave Act requires an employer to maintain coverage under any group health plan for an employee on FMLA leave under the same conditions coverage would have been provided if the employee had continued working. Coverage provided under the FMLA is not COBRA coverage, and FMLA leave is not a qualifying event under COBRA. A COBRA qualifying event may occur, however, when an employer's obligation to maintain health benefits under FMLA ceases, such as when an employee notifies an employer of his or her intent not to return to work.
COBRA continuation coverage laws are administered by several agencies. The Departments of Labor and Treasury have jurisdiction over private-sector health group health plans. The Department of Health and Human Services administers the continuation coverage law as it affects public-sector health plans.
The Internal Revenue Service, Department of the Treasury, has issued regulations on COBRA provisions relating to eligibility, coverage and premiums in 26 CFR Part 54, Continuation Coverage Requirements Applicable to Group Health Plans. Both the Departments of Labor and Treasury share jurisdiction for enforcement of these provisions.