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The Consolidated Omnibus Reconciliated Act (COBRA)

March 06, 2008

Synopsis:

Congress passed the landmark Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act (COBRA) health benefit provisions in 1986. The law amends the Employee Retirement Income Security Act, the Internal Revenue Code and the Public Health Service Act to provide continuation of group health coverage that otherwise might be terminated. COBRA provides certain former employees, retirees, spouses, former spouses, and dependent children the right to temporary continuation of health coverage at group rates. This coverage, however, is only available when coverage is lost due to certain specific events. Group health coverage for COBRA participants is usually more expensive than health coverage for active employees, since usually the employer pays a part of the premium for active employees while COBRA participants generally pay the entire premium themselves. It is ordinarily less expensive, though, than individual health coverage.

Who is entitled?:

Who is entitled to benefits under COBRA? There are three elements to qualifying for COBRA benefits. COBRA establishes specific criteria for plans, qualified beneficiaries, and qualifying events:

Plan Coverage – Group health plans for employers with 20 or more employees on more than 50 percent of its typical business days in the previous calendar year are subject to COBRA. 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 an 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.

Qualified Beneficiaries – A qualified beneficiary generally is an individual covered by a group health plan on the day before a qualifying event who is either an employee, the employee’s spouse, or an employee’s dependent child. In certain cases, a retired employee, the retired employee’s 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 the period of COBRA coverage is considered a qualified beneficiary. Agents, independent contractors, and directors who participate in the group health plan may also be qualified beneficiaries.

Qualifying Events – Qualifying events are certain events that would cause an individual to lose health coverage. The type of qualifying event will determine who the qualified beneficiaries are and the amount of time that a plan must offer the health coverage to them under COBRA. A plan, at its discretion, may provide longer periods of continuation coverage.

Administration:

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 Labor Department’s interpretive and regulatory responsibility is limited to the disclosure and notification requirements of COBRA. If you need further information on your disclosure or notification rights under a private-sector plan, or about ERISA generally, telephone EBSA’s Toll-Free number at: 1.866.444.3272, or write to:

U.S. Department of Labor Employee Benefits Security Administration Division of Technical Assistance and Inquiries 200 Constitution Avenue NW, Suite N-5619 Washington, DC 20210

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.

The Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services offers information about COBRA provisions for public-sector employees. You can write them at this address:

Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services 7500 Security Boulevard Mail Stop C1-22-06 Baltimore, MD 21244-1850 Tel 1.877.267.2323 x61565

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