What is COBRA Insurance?

Learn About the Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act (COBRA)

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If you lose your health benefits because you quit, get laid off, or retire, COBRA may give you the option to continue your coverage for a limited period of time.

However, not every worker is covered by COBRA, and participating will likely cost you more than what you pay for your contribution to your insurance right now. Plus, there are other options for obtaining health insurance coverage that you should consider before making your decision. Here’s what you need to know.

What Is COBRA Insurance?

COBRA is short for the Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act. This law gives certain employees, spouses, former spouses, children, and retirees who lose their health benefits the option to continue coverage provided by their group health plan. This coverage is available for a limited time, typically 18 months, although in some instances, it can extend longer.

Eligibility is subject to certain circumstances such as voluntary or involuntary job loss, reduction in the hours worked, transition between jobs, death, divorce, and other life events.

How COBRA Works

Group health plans which cover 20 or more employees are required to provide COBRA benefits. In at least 40 states, there are mini-COBRA laws that apply to smaller companies, usually those with between 2 and 19 workers.

The employee is responsible for the monthly premium payment, at up to 102% of the cost of the plan.

At many companies, health insurance is subsidized by the employer. That means that employees do not pay the full amount of the plan's cost, but only a portion, or in some cases, employees do not pay for the insurance premiums at all. So, COBRA payments can be quite costly as compared to the coverage workers received through their employer while still employed.

The benefit is being able to maintain an identical level of insurance while searching for new employment or determining next steps—you will not need to switch doctors and the costs of your prescriptions will also remain the same.

If you are eligible for COBRA benefits, your employer is required to notify the health insurance company of the event, since it qualifies you for coverage. You will have 60 days to decide if you would like to opt into COBRA coverage. You will not automatically be enrolled.

Signing Up After the Election Period

Even if you waive COBRA 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. Then, the plan need only provide continuation coverage beginning on the date you revoke the waiver.

When Is Payment Due?

After you opt in to the coverage, your first payment is not due immediately but must be made within 45 days of the COBRA election. All subsequently monthly payments have a grace period and are not due until 30 days of the due date.

Get Information on COBRA Coverage

COBRA and the Affordable Care Act

The passage of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) has in some ways diminished the importance of COBRA. That is because the ACA provides a relatively easy way for individuals to purchase health insurance. It's possible that buying insurance through your state's health care marketplace will be less expensive than sticking with your employer-based health insurance.

Prior to the ACA, COBRA was also an important benefit because it guaranteed continuous care—this factor was important for people with pre-existing conditions, who struggled to find insurance coverage. Under the ACA, no one can be rejected or charged more for health insurance because of their health. In addition, premiums for seniors can be no more than three times as much as they are for young adults.

Here are some of the factors to keep in mind when determining if you want to opt into COBRA or purchase a plan under the ACA:

Cost

As mentioned above, it's possible that coverage in your area may be cheaper under the ACA. Especially if you have recently lost your job, you may qualify for tax credits or cost-sharing reductions that reduce your out-of-pocket expenses.

Income-Based Subsidies

The ACA provides income-based subsidies. If you purchase coverage through an exchange instead of COBRA, the subsidy is based on your income during the year that the policy is in effect. In other words, subsidies are based on your income in the year that you apply, including the dip in income after your employment ends.

However, in some cases, employers may cover the monthly COBRA premiums as part of a severance package; if that's the case, COBRA becomes the more cost-effective option.

Convenience

If you are in the middle of medical treatment, keeping the same doctors and levels of coverage may be quite important. Some people may choose to keep COBRA regardless of cost because of familiarity and peace of mind. Also, finding a plan that suits your needs on your state's marketplace takes time; it may seem easier to just stick with the health insurance you already are familiar with, particularly.

Other Health Insurance Coverage Options 

If you’re from a two-income family, you might find that it is more cost-effective to be added to your spouse’s health insurance policy.

If you are 65 or older and stop working, you will be required to initiate Medicare coverage even if you elect COBRA coverage. Then it may be cheaper to select a Medicare advantage program other than your employer’s former company to wrap around your Medicare coverage.

The Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation has a Subsidy Calculator that will display different insurance subsidies and premiums with minimal household information.

The information contained in this article is not legal advice and is not a substitute for such advice. State and federal laws change frequently, and the information in this article may not reflect your own state’s laws or the most recent changes to the law.