Career and Jobs / Health

Understand COBRA for Health Insurance

One of the biggest concerns when an employee is looking for a job or thinking about leaving a job is how they will continue to have health insurance. Fortunately, group health insurance must be extended to you via the COBRA  law passed in 1986. In this tutorial, you will learn how COBRA affects you.

Health insurance programs help workers and their families take care of their essential medical needs. These programs can be one of the most important benefits provided by an employer.

There was a time when employer-provided group health coverage was at risk if an employee was fired, changed jobs, or got divorced. That substantially changed in 1986 with the passage of the health benefit provisions in the Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act (COBRA). Now, many employees and their families who would lose group health coverage because of serious life events are able to continue their coverage under the employer’s group health plan, at least for limited periods of time.

This tutorial explains your rights under COBRA to a temporary extension of employer-provided group health coverage, called COBRA continuation coverage.

This tutorial is designed to:

  • Provide a general explanation of your COBRA rights and responsibilities;
  • Outline the COBRA rules that group health plans must follow;
  • Highlight your rights to benefits while you are receiving COBRA continuation coverage.

What Is COBRA Continuation Coverage?

The Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act (COBRA) requires most group health plans to provide a temporary continuation of group health coverage that otherwise might be terminated.

COBRA requires continuation coverage to be offered to covered employees, their spouses, their former spouses, and their 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, divorce, or legal separation from a covered employee, a covered employee’s becoming entitled to Medicare, and a child’s loss of dependent status (and therefore coverage) under the plan.

Employers may require individuals who elect continuation coverage to pay the full cost of the coverage, plus a 2 percent administrative charge. The required payment for continuation coverage is often more expensive than the amount that active employees are required to pay for group health coverage, since the employer usually pays part of the cost of employees’ coverage and all of that cost can be charged to the individuals receiving continuation coverage. The COBRA payment is ordinarily less expensive, though, than individual health coverage. While COBRA continuation coverage must be offered, it lasts only for a limited period of time. This booklet will discuss all of these provisions in more detail.

COBRA generally applies to all group health plans maintained by private-sector employers (with at least 20 employees) or by state and local governments. The law does not apply, however, to plans sponsored by the Federal government or by churches and certain church-related organizations.

Under COBRA, a group health plan 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 on a pay-as-you-go basis, or otherwise. “Medical care” for this purpose includes:

  • 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 generally are governed by ERISA. ERISA does not require employers to establish plans or to provide any particular type or level of benefits, but it does require plans to comply with ERISA’s rules. ERISA gives participants and beneficiaries rights that are enforceable in court.

Alternatives to COBRA Continuation Coverage

If you become entitled to elect COBRA continuation coverage when you otherwise would lose group health coverage under a group health plan, you should consider all options you may have to get other health coverage before you make your decision. One option may be “special enrollment” into other group health coverage.

Under the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), if you or your dependents are losing eligibility for group health coverage, including eligibility for continuation coverage, you may have a right to special enroll (enroll without waiting until the next open season for enrollment) in other group health coverage. For example, an employee losing eligibility for group health coverage may be able to special enroll in a spouse’s plan. A dependent losing eligibility for group health coverage may be able to enroll in a different parent’s group health plan. To have a special enrollment opportunity, you or your dependent must have had other health coverage when you previously declined coverage in the plan in which you now want to enroll. To special enroll, you or your dependent must request special enrollment within 30 days of the loss of other coverage.

If you or your dependent chooses to elect COBRA continuation coverage instead of special enrollment, you will have another opportunity to request special enrollment once you have exhausted your continuation coverage. In order to exhaust COBRA continuation coverage, you or your dependent must receive the maximum period of continuation coverage available without early termination. You must request special enrollment within 30 days of the loss of continuation coverage.

Another option may be to buy an individual health insurance policy. HIPAA gives individuals who are losing group health coverage and who have at least 18 months of creditable coverage without a break in coverage of 63 days or more the right to buy individual health insurance coverage that does not impose a preexisting condition exclusion period. For this purpose, most health coverage, including COBRA continuation coverage, is creditable coverage. These special rights may not be available to you if you do not elect and receive continuation coverage. For more information on your right to buy individual health insurance coverage, contact your state department of insurance.

In addition, individuals in a family may be eligible for health insurance coverage through various government programs, such as Pre-Existing Condition Insurance Plans (PCIP) and the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP). For more information, visit and or contact your state department of insurance.