Understand COBRA for Health Insurance

Who Is Entitled to Continuation Coverage?

There are three basic requirements that must be met in order for you to be entitled to elect COBRA continuation coverage:

  • Your group health plan must be covered by COBRA;
  • qualifying event must occur; and
  • You must be a qualified beneficiary for that event.

Plan Coverage

COBRA covers group health plans sponsored by an employer (private-sector or state/local government) that employed 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.

Qualifying Events

“Qualifying events” are events that cause an individual to lose his or her group health coverage. The type of qualifying event determines who the qualified beneficiaries are for that event and the period of time that a plan must offer continuation coverage. COBRA establishes only the minimum requirements for continuation coverage. A plan may always choose to provide longer periods of continuation coverage.

The following are qualifying events for a covered employee if they cause the covered employee to lose coverage:

  • Termination of the employee’s employment for any reason other than “gross misconduct”; or
  • Reduction in the number of hours of employment.

The following are qualifying events for the spouse and dependent child of a covered employee if they cause the spouse or dependent child to lose coverage:

  • 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 becomes entitled to Medicare;
  • Divorce or legal separation of the spouse from the covered employee; or
  • Death of the covered employee.

In addition to the above, the following is a qualifying event for a dependent child of a covered employee if it causes the child to lose coverage:

  • Loss of “dependent child” status under the plan rules.

Qualified Beneficiaries

A qualified beneficiary is an individual who was covered by a group health plan on the day before a qualifying event occurred that caused him or her to lose coverage. Only certain individuals can become qualified beneficiaries due to a qualifying event, and the type of qualifying event determines who can become a qualified beneficiary when it happens.  A qualified beneficiary must be a covered employee, the employee’s spouse or former spouse, or the employee’s dependent child. In certain cases involving the bankruptcy of the employer sponsoring the plan, a retired employee, the retired employee’s spouse (or former spouse), and the retired employee’s dependent children may be qualified beneficiaries. In addition, any child born to or placed for adoption with a covered employee during a period of continuation coverage is automatically considered a qualified beneficiary. Agents, independent contractors, and directors who participate in the group health plan may also be qualified beneficiaries.

Your COBRA Rights and Responsibilities:
Notice and Election Procedures

Under COBRA, group health plans must provide covered employees and their families with certain notices explaining their COBRA rights. They must also have rules for how COBRA continuation coverage is offered, how qualified beneficiaries may elect continuation coverage, and when it can be terminated.

Notice Procedures

Summary Plan Description
The COBRA rights provided under the plan must be described in the plan’s summary plan description (SPD). The SPD is a written document that gives important information about the plan, including what benefits are available under the plan, the rights of participants and beneficiaries under the plan, and how the plan works. ERISA requires group health plans to give you an SPD within 90 days after you first become a participant in a plan (or within 120 days after the plan is first subject to the reporting and disclosure provisions of ERISA). In addition, if there are material changes to the plan, the plan must give you a summary of material modifications (SMM) not later than 210 days after the end of the plan year in which the changes become effective; if the change is a material reduction in covered services or benefits, the SMM must be furnished not later than 60 days after the reduction is adopted. A participant or beneficiary covered under the plan may request a copy of the SPD and any SMMs (as well as any other plan documents), which must be provided within 30 days of a written request.

COBRA General Notice
Group health plans must give each employee and each spouse who becomes covered under the plan a general notice describing COBRA rights. The general notice must be provided within the first 90 days of coverage. Group health plans can satisfy this requirement by giving you the plan’s SPD within this time period, as long as it contains the general notice information. The general notice should contain the information that you need to know in order to protect your COBRA rights when you first become covered under the plan, including the name of the plan and someone you can contact for more information, a general description of the continuation coverage provided under the plan, and an explanation of any notices you must give the plan to protect your COBRA rights.

COBRA Qualifying Event Notices
Before a group health plan must offer continuation coverage, a qualifying event must occur, and the group health plan must be notified of the qualifying event. Who must give notice of the qualifying event depends on the type of qualifying event.

The employer must notify the plan if the qualifying event is:

  • Termination or reduction in hours of employment of the covered employee;
  • Death of the covered employee;
  • Covered employee’s becoming entitled to Medicare; or
  • Bankruptcy of the employer.

The employer has 30 days after the event occurs to provide notice to the plan.

You (the covered employee or one of the qualified beneficiaries) must notify the plan if the qualifying event is:

  • Divorce;
  • Legal separation; or
  • A child’s loss of dependent status under the plan.

You should understand your plan’s rules for how to provide notice if one of these qualifying events occurs. The plan must have procedures for how to give notice of the qualifying event, and the procedures should be described in both the general notice and the plan’s SPD. The plan can set a time limit for providing this notice, but the time limit cannot be shorter than 60 days, starting from the latest of: (1) the date on which the qualifying event occurs; (2) the date on which you lose (or would lose) coverage under the plan as a result of the qualifying event; or (3) the date on which you are informed, through the furnishing of either the SPD or the COBRA general notice, of the responsibility to notify the plan and the procedures for doing so.

If your plan does not have reasonable procedures for how to give notice of a qualifying event, you can give notice by contacting the person or unit that handles your employer’s employee benefits matters. If your plan is a multiemployer plan, notice can also be given to the joint board of trustees, and, if the plan is administered by an insurance company (or the benefits are provided through insurance), notice can be given to the insurance company.

COBRA Election Notice
When the plan receives a notice of a qualifying event, the plan must give the qualified beneficiaries an election notice, which describes their rights to continuation coverage and how to make an election. The notice must be provided to the qualified beneficiaries within 14 days after the plan administrator receives the notice of a qualifying event. The election notice should contain all of the information you will need to understand continuation coverage and make an informed decision whether or not to elect continuation coverage. It should also give you the name of the plan’s COBRA administrator and tell you how to get more information.

COBRA Notice of Unavailability of Continuation Coverage
Group health plans may sometimes deny a request for continuation coverage or for an extension of continuation coverage. If you or any member of your family requests continuation coverage and the plan determines that you or your family member is not entitled to the requested continuation coverage for any reason, the plan must give the person who requested it a notice of unavailability of continuation coverage. The notice must be provided within 14 days after the request is received, and the notice must explain the reason for denying the request.

COBRA Notice of Early Termination of Continuation Coverage
Continuation coverage must generally be made available for a maximum period (18, 29, or 36 months). The group health plan may terminate continuation coverage earlier, however, for any number of specific reasons.  When a group health plan decides to terminate continuation coverage early for any of these reasons, the plan must give the qualified beneficiary a notice of early termination. The notice must be given as soon as practicable after the decision is made, and it must describe the date coverage will terminate, the reason for termination, and any rights the qualified beneficiary may have under the plan or applicable law to elect alternative group or individual coverage, such as a right to convert to an individual policy.

Special Rules for Multiemployer Plans
Multiemployer plans are allowed to adopt some special rules for COBRA notices. First, a multiemployer plan may adopt its own uniform time limits for the qualifying event notice or the election notice. A multiemployer plan also may choose not to require employers to provide qualifying event notices, and instead to have the plan administrator determine when a qualifying event has occurred. Any special multiemployer plan rules must be set out in the plan’s documents (and SPD).

Election Procedures

If you become entitled to elect COBRA continuation coverage, you must be given an election period of at least 60 days (starting on the later of the date you are furnished the election notice or the date you would lose coverage) to choose whether or not to elect continuation coverage.

Each of the qualified beneficiaries for a qualifying event may independently elect continuation coverage. This means that if both you and your spouse are entitled to elect continuation coverage, you each may decide separately whether to do so. The covered employee or the spouse must be allowed, however, to elect on behalf of any dependent children or on behalf of all of the qualified beneficiaries. A parent or legal guardian may elect on behalf of a minor child.

If you waive continuation coverage during the election period, you must be permitted later to revoke your waiver of coverage and to elect continuation coverage as long as you do so during the election period. Under those circumstances, the plan need only provide continuation coverage beginning on the date you revoke the waiver.

The Trade Adjustment Assistance Act of 2002 amended COBRA to provide certain workers who lose their jobs due to the effects of international trade and who qualify for trade adjustment assistance (TAA) with a second opportunity to elect COBRA continuation coverage. For more information about the operation and scope of the second COBRA election opportunity created by the Trade Act, call the HCTC Customer Contact Center at 1.866.628.HCTC (4282) (TDD/TTY: 1.866.626.HCTC (4282)). You may also visit the HCTC Web site.

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