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Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Health Insurance Continuation Coverage Under COBRA

Janet Kinzer
Information Research Specialist

Health insurance helps to protect individuals and families against financial loss. Having health insurance also promotes access to regular health care. Most Americans with private health insurance are covered through an employer, or through the employer of a family member. A recent study by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation found that in 2012, 59.5% of insured Americans had their insurance through an employer.

When an employee is terminated, his or her employer-sponsored health insurance usually ends within 30 to 60 days. If that health insurance is family coverage, then a worker’s family members can also become uninsured. Even if the worker finds another job with health benefits, a family can experience long periods of uninsurance, as they wait to qualify for the new benefit. This same problem is also faced by families that experience a reduction in hours in the workplace, the death of a worker, or a divorce.

In 1985, Congress passed legislation to provide the unemployed temporary access to their former employer’s health insurance. Under Title X of the Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act of 1985 (COBRA; P.L. 99-272), an employer with 20 or more employees who provided health insurance benefits must provide qualified employees and their families the option of continuing their coverage under the employer’s group health insurance plan in the case of certain events. The former employee is responsible for paying the entire premium. Employers who fail to provide the continued health insurance option are subject to penalties.

COBRA coverage usually lasts for 18 months, but it can be extended up to a total of 36 months, depending on the nature of the triggering event. Those who take up their COBRA benefits are required to pay up to 100% of the premium, which averaged $15,745 for a family in 2012, plus an additional 2% for the administrative costs incurred.

COBRA can be an important source of health insurance for the recently unemployed, but it also benefits the disabled, the retired, the divorced, and their families. For example, spouses and dependent children can also qualify for COBRA benefits in the event of divorce or the death of the family member with employer-sponsored health coverage. Since 2009, about 3 million individuals and families have used COBRA benefits each year.

Critics argue that COBRA addresses the health insurance problems of only a small number of Americans, and that the high cost of premiums makes COBRA coverage unaffordable to many who need it. Others maintain that COBRA has resulted in extra costs for employers, as well as the added administrative burden of providing benefits to people no longer working for them.

Implementation of Affordable Care Act provisions, such as the health insurance exchanges, insurance reforms, and premium subsidies for lower-income individuals in 2014, may make COBRA benefits less valuable for certain individuals and families.

This report provides background on COBRA, a brief explanation of the program, its origins, issues, and how the Affordable Care Act might impact COBRA.

Date of Report: July 11, 2013
Number of Pages: 15
Order Number: R40142
Price: $29.95

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