Updated April 15, 2020
COBRA (an acronym for the Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act) is a federal law that allows employees to continue the group health insurance coverage for a period of time after their employment ends or they otherwise become ineligible (for example, because their hours are cut below the employer's threshold for benefits).
The employee has to pay the entire cost of coverage at the employer-negotiated group rate, which is typically less expensive than an individual policy.
Private employers with at least 20 employees must comply with COBRA. (Smaller employers may be covered by a similar state law.) Employees who are covered by the employer's group health plan on the day before a "qualifying event"—an event that would cause them to lose their coverage, such as a layoff, cut in hours, or divorce from a spouse—are entitled to COBRA benefits.
A qualifying event is an occurrence that would cause an employee or an employee's dependent to lose health care coverage through the employer. The following are qualifying events for employees:
COBRA recognizes that employees aren't the only ones who get their health insurance through an employer. An employee's spouse and dependents are also eligible for COBRA coverage in these circumstances:
An employee can continue COBRA coverage for 18 months. A spouse or dependent child who becomes eligible for any reason other than through the employee's qualifying event can continue COBRA coverage for 36 months. For example, if the employee dies, the spouse can continue coverage for 36 months.
In some situations, different rules apply. For example, if a spouse is receiving COBRA coverage because the employee was laid off, both the employee and spouse would be entitled to receive benefits for 18 months. However, if the employee dies during this 18-month period, the spouse's eligibility would be extended to 36 months. COBRA coverage can also be extended (to a total of 29 months) if the person receiving benefits has a disability and meets other requirements.
Currently, the employee or other beneficiary must pay the full premium at the employer-negotiated group rate (plus a two percent administrative fee) to continue COBRA benefits. In practice, COBRA premiums are usually expensive. While some have proposed that Congress subsidize COBRA premiums in response to the coronavirus outbreak, no such action has been taken yet. Until that happens, recipients must pay the full cost of coverage.
The administrator of your employer's health care plan (either your employer, if it self-administers, or a third party) is required to send you a series of notices about your right to COBRA benefits. Once a qualifying event takes place, either the employer or the employee must notify the plan administrator (who is responsible depends on the type of event).
After learning of a qualifying event, the administrator must send out an election notice, telling beneficiaries of their right to choose COBRA coverage. Beneficiaries then have 60 days to inform the administrator whether they do or don't want to continue insurance coverage through COBRA.
Often, the COBRA process runs like clockwork, with all proper notices sent out and returned on time. Sometimes, however, there's a glitch. If you believe you are entitled to COBRA benefits and you haven't gotten them, you should consider consulting with an employment lawyer.