What is COBRA?
COBRA guarantees employees and their families the right to keep their group health insurance coverage when they would otherwise lose it after leaving their job. COBRA covers employees who resign or are terminated for any reason other than gross misconduct.
COBRA stands for Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act. Congress passed COBRA health benefit provisions in 1986.
The law may allow you to temporarily keep your group health coverage after your employment ends or you lose coverage as a dependent of the covered employee.
♦ COBRA applies to plans maintained by private-sector employers and sponsored by most state and local governments. The law does not apply to plans sponsored by the Federal Government or by churches and certain church-related organizations.
Are all employers required to offer COBRA?
No. Employers with 20 or more employees are usually required to offer COBRA coverage and to notify their employees of the availability of such coverage.
Who can get COBRA?
Three piece of the puzzle must fall into place for COBRA to be available.
♦ The first is the plan or company involved. Is the employer required to offer COBRA?
Your employer must have or had 20 or more employees during at least 50 percent of 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 full-time employee based upon hours work.
♦ The second is the person or beneficiary.
A qualified beneficiary generally is an individual covered by a group health plan on the day before coverage was lost. This is usually either an employee, the employee's spouse, or an employee's dependent child. In certain cases, retirees may also be eligible for COBRA.
♦ The third is the qualifying event. The reason why COBRA coverage might be needed.
For the employee it might be:
• Voluntary or involuntary termination of employment for reasons other than gross misconduct.
• Reduction in the number of hours of employment.
For the spouse of an employee it might be:
• Voluntary or involuntary termination of the covered employee's employment for any reason other than gross misconduct
• Reduction in the hours worked by the covered employee
• Covered employee becoming entitled to Medicare
• Divorce or legal separation of the covered employee
• Death of the covered employee
Will the benefits change under COBRA?
No. You must be offered coverage identical to that before coverage was lost. However, if the plan changed for active employees, then the plan would also change for COBRA coverage.
Who pays for COBRA?
You will usually be required to pay for COBRA coverage. The premium cannot exceed 102% of the cost to the plan. The 2% is for administrative costs.
COBRA premiums must be fixed for a 12-month premium cycle. They may be increased only if the costs to the plan increases.
How long will COBRA last?
COBRA requires that coverage be extended in most cases up to 18 months and in a few rare situations up to 36 months. The employer has the option to provide longer periods of coverage beyond the maximum period required by law.
How much will COBRA cost?
The cost can be quite high.
Most employers who offer a group policy also pay a portion of the costs for the employee. This is considered a benefit. Larger employers usually offer richer more expensive health insurance plans and also contribute a larger portion.
♦ In 2018, the average contribution for employers was 82% for employee and 71% for the employee’s dependents.
Small employers contributed on average 82% for employee and 62% for the employee's dependents.
Under COBRA your employer will no longer be covering any of the costs. You will be responsible for 100% plus a 2% administrative fee.
How to estimate cost of COBRA?
Your employer will notify you in writing. If you want to try to estimate before you receive something in writing you can look at your last W2 form.
♦ Employers are asked to report the total cost of health insurance on the W2 form. Box 12a will show the total cost of health insurance.
It includes what you paid plus what your employer paid. Most people are shocked by the number.
What to do if COBRA is too expensive?
Prior to the Affordable Care Act, anyone with a serious health condition had no choices. Insurance companies routinely denied covered for pre-existing conditions.
Today, you have a few choices.
You could try going without insurance or enroll in short-term insurance, both of which are very risky.
♦ Your first option should be to see if you qualify for Obamacare. An Obamacare plan probably will not have as nice a benefits as your employer’s group plan but the cost will be a lot less.
♦ You do not need to wait until open enrollment. It is likely that you will qualify for a special enrollment period. It is fast and easy to find out if you qualify by going to your state’s exchange or HealthCare.Gov and answering a few questions related to how you lost coverage.
You might receive premium tax credits to help reduce the cost of a Marketplace plan. If you don’t qualify for tax credits then you should also look at plans sold off-exchange.
It will take some work but don’t give up. Your chances of finding something are much higher these days.
Further reading ...FAQs on COBRA Continuation Health Coverage. A nice pdf file put together by the Department of Labor.
Can I drop COBRA coverage and enroll in a Marketplace plan ?
• During the first 60 days of COBRA coverage you have the right to change your mind and drop COBRA. Beyond 60 days your options are limited.
• During open enrollment period you can drop COBRA and enroll in a Marketplace plan. But remember a Marketplace plan will not start until January 1st.
• Outside of open enrollment, you must have a special situation to qualify for a special enrollment period.
It could be COBRA benefits are exhausted or a life changing event like marriage or the birth of a child.
♦ Choosing to not pay COBRA premiums is not a special situation.