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How to Sign Up for COBRA

The thought of losing your healthcare coverage because of a major life event can be stressful. Fortunately, you may be eligible for short-term continuation of your health care coverage under the Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act, otherwise known as COBRA. Read on to learn about what COBRA benefits are and how to sign up for them.

What Is COBRA?

COBRA is an amendment of the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA). The act requires some employers to temporarily extend health benefits to beneficiaries who experience a "qualifying event" that would otherwise make you ineligible for health insurance coverage.

Under COBRA, you can expect the same coverage offered to other employees to be covered by the plan. However, COBRA is provided at your expense without any employer contribution, so premiums can be expensive (up to 102% of the plans cost). It's also important to note that COBRA benefits are only offered for a limited amount of time, typically between 18 and 36 months.

Am I Eligible for COBRA?

To be eligible for COBRA, your health care plan must be subject to ERISA. Typically, group health care plans maintained by private sector employers with 20 or more employees are subject to ERISA and thus offer COBRA protections. If you're not sure if your plan offers COBRA, contact your plan's administrator to confirm eligibility. The Department of Labor also has helpful COBRA guides for employees.

You must also be a "qualifying beneficiary" to be eligible for COBRA. This means that, prior to the qualifying event, you were covered by the group health care plan as an employee or the spouse or dependent child of an employee.

Finally, you must have experienced a "qualifying event" that caused you to lose insurance coverage. Qualifying events include:

  • An employee's termination for reasons other than "gross misconduct"
  • The reduction of the employee's hours of employment, e.g. from full-time to part-time
  • A covered employee's eligibility for Medicare
  • Divorce or legal separation from the covered employee
  • Death of the covered employee
  • Loss of "dependent child" status

Qualified beneficiaries are eligible to sign up for COBRA within a specified period following a qualifying event.

How Do I Sign Up for COBRA?

To sign up for COBRA, it may be necessary for you to first give notice to the employer of the qualifying event. For example, if the qualifying event is the termination or death of the employee, the employer clearly already has notice. However, if the qualifying event is a divorce or the age-out of a dependent child, the employer may be unaware and will need to be notified of the event.

Regardless, within 45 days of the qualifying event, the employer must send you a COBRA election form. If you don't receive these forms, contact the employer promptly. Review the election notice carefully. The notice will include the plan options and prices.

The plans should be identical to the coverage offered to other employees and the same coverage as provided prior to the qualifying event. You will have at least 60 days (your "election period") to review the election notice and provide a response. If you are satisfied, fill out and return the election form within the election period to enroll in COBRA coverage.

Additional information about signing up for COBRA is included in the Summary Plan Description provided by the employer at the start of your coverage. If you don't have this document, you can request it from the employer's benefits department or the insurance company.

Research Other Insurance Coverage Options

Benefits through COBRA are a temporary solution. Before signing up for COBRA, you may want to consider researching a long-term insurance solution that is more affordable. You can compare and shop for insurance coverage through the Affordable Care Act healthcare exchanges, which may turn out to be more economical than signing up for COBRA.

Get Legal Help with Your COBRA Questions

Finding the right healthcare coverage and understanding your rights can be overwhelming. If you need help or advice about signing up for COBRA, you may want to speak with a knowledgeable attorney. Contact a healthcare and benefits attorney to learn more, so you can make an informed decision.

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