Health insurance can be a complicated subject. This article is about the specific situation where you recently ended a job and haven’t yet started either a new job with benefits or alternative health coverage. Should you take the COBRA coverage, or not?
COBRA Quick Summary
COBRA stands for the Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act of 1986, which requires the option to extend health insurance coverage for up to 18 months (more in some cases) after a “qualifying event” under a “qualifying employer”. In general, a qualifying employer is one with 20+ full-time employees. A common qualifying event is when you lose your job due to either voluntary or involuntary reasons (things like gross misconduct are excluded). So it applies both if you’re laid off and if you quit on your own. You are required by law to receive a notice about your COBRA options within 14 days after the plan administrator receives notice of a qualifying event.
However, the employee must pay the paying the full cost of the premium (both employer and employee portions), plus up to a 2% administrative charge. This means that it can be expensive. I believe that the last time I quit, my single-person coverage cost over $800 a month. The bill for a family with kids could easily be over $2,000 month.
Continuous Coverage and Retroactive Clause
Due to this high cost, you may consider skipping it and taking your chances. However, if something happens and you have a gap in coverage longer than 63 days, then your next health insurance no longer has to cover any pre-existing conditions. This can be a really big deal, and may scare you into signing up for expensive COBRA benefits right away. But there’s a final wrinkle.
You have 60 days after you lose your benefits to elect to pay for COBRA coverage. However, even if you enroll on Day 60, your coverage is retroactive to Day 1. Of course, you’ll have to pay the retroactive premiums for that period. Thus, you could technically waive your COBRA coverage initially, and then wait to see if you incur any medical bills. If you manage to get on a new health plan on Day 30 or Day 55 with no medical bills, then you’ll still be guaranteed full coverage going forward and you won’t have paid anything during your gap. If you can’t find new coverage within 63 days or rack up medical bills higher than the premiums, then you can rescind your waiver and retroactively activate your COBRA benefits. Effectively, you get a do-over.
Under current law, it is very important to maintain “continuous coverage” in order to guarantee that your future insurance can’t exclude pre-existing conditions. Otherwise, if for example you hurt your back during a gap, you may never be covered by insurance for back problems again. However, if you expect your gap in coverage to be under 60 days, then you can use the retroactive clause under COBRA to try and avoid paying for COBRA during that time. If you are going to use this do-over, be very careful with your dates. You can wait 60 days to elect for coverage, and then you actually have another 45 days to make the payment to cover the period from the date of election to the date of lost coverage. If you send in a premium payment, make sure it is for the correct amount and use certified mail and return receipt to document everything. Legally, payment is considered to be made on the date it is sent to the plan. Don’t cut things too close.
I have read articles that recommend using these extra 45 days on top of the initial 60 days to allow you to wait 105 days before having to commit. Their reasoning is that most insurance companies will not pursue you (sue you, ding your credit, etc.) for the insurance premium if you simply never send it in and tell them you no longer want coverage. I don’t agree with this logic and it seems rather risky, but I think it is okay to use the 45 day period if you are tight on funds and need more time to pay the premium.