COBRA Premium Subsidy Requirements Expanded & Extended Under Newly Signed Unemployment Extension Legislation

By Cynthia Marcotte Stamer

Employers, insurers and administrators again must move quickly to deal with newly enacted changes to the premium subsidy requirements temporarily applicable to the medical coverage continuation requirements of the Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act of 1985, as amended (“COBRA”).

The extension and other changes to the COBRA premium subsidy requirements became immediately effective yesterday (March 2, 2010) when President Obama signed the Temporary Extension Act of 2010 (H.R. 4691). H.R. 4691 both extends unemployment benefits through April 5, 2010 and extends and expands the availability of the COBRA subsidy program originally established under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA).

Over the past several days, H.R. 4691 has drawn great media attention when its enactment was delayed by a filibuster by Kentucky Senator Jim Bunning.  As media coverage of the Bunning filibuster focused almost exclusively on its unemployment benefit extension provisions, many U.S. employers and others are unaware of its provisions extending and expanding the COBRA premium subsidy mandates and authorizing higher pay for Medicare doctors and funding for federal highway programs. President Obama signed H.R. 4691 into law just hours after Senator Bunning ended his filibuster.

COBRA Premium Subsidy Extended & New Penalties Added

Group health plans and their sponsoring employers face added responsibilities under the COBRA subsidy amendments adopted under H.R. 4691.

The COBRA subsidy rules originally were added to COBRA’s medical coverage continuation requirements by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (“AARA”) last February.  Originally, an employee or dependent was required, among other things, to have experienced a loss of coverage as a result of an involuntary termination occurring between September 1, 2008 and December 31, 2009 to qualify for coverage under the COBRA premium subsidy rules as “assistance eligible individual for up to 9 months.  In subsequently enacted legislation, however, Congress extended the involuntary termination period through February 28, 2010 and lengthened the maximum premium COBRA subsidy period to 15 months.  For more details, see here. H.R. 4691 now further extends and expands these COBRA premium subsidy rules.

H.R. 4691’s COBRA provisions both extend the period that an involuntary termination can qualify an employee or dependent for the COBRA premium subsidy, the employment losses that can qualify as an eligible involuntary termination, and the potential liability that can result from noncompliance.  Specifically, H.R. 4691 among other things:

  • Extends through March 31, 2010 the period within which an involuntary employment loss resulting in a loss of health coverage can qualify an employee or his dependent for the 15-month 65 percent COBRA premium subsidy. Before H.R. 4691, the involuntary termination period was scheduled to end February 28, 2010.  Now, the involuntary termination period runs from September 1, 2009 through March 31, 2010;
  • Amends the COBRA subsidy program to clarify that an employee that first experiences a loss of group health plan coverage due to a reduction in hours before subsequently being terminated qualifies as an employee  involuntarily terminated for purposes of determining his eligibility for the COBRA premium subsidy;
  • Details rules and procedures that group health plans and employers or others charged with administration of the COBRA premium subsidy rules must follow to notify affected individuals about and administer the new or expanded COBRA premium subsidy rights added by H.R. 4691;

In addition to these extensions to the COBRA premium subsidy requirements, H.R. 4691 also expands the exposures that plan sponsors and health insurers violating these requirements can face.  H.R. 4691 provides that in addition to civil actions that already authorized for violations of COBRA:

  • “[T]he appropriate Secretary” or an affected individual can bring a civil suit for declaratory or other appropriate relief; and
  • The appropriate Secretary” can assess a penalty against a plan sponsor or health insurance issuer of up to $110 per day for each failure to comply with a determination of the Secretary within 10 days after receipt of the determination.

To minimize their COBRA rights under the amended COBRA premium subsidy rules, group health plans, their employer or union sponsors, administrators, insurers and service providers will need to act quickly to prepare and provider required updated notifications to assistance eligible individuals of these extended eligibility periods and their resulting rights, and otherwise update their plan documents, procedures, and COBRA notifications in light of these new rules. 

Other Health Plan Updates Also Required

The COBRA premium subsidy changes in H.R. 4691 are only part of the ever-growing list of federal mandates that group health plan sponsors, fiduciaries, insurers, administrators and service providers need to be concerned about.  Health plans, their sponsors, administrators, fiduciaries, insurers, business associates and other service providers face a host of other new federal health plan and privacy mandates that have taken effect over the past year, will become subject to additional mandates in upcoming months and face expanded penalty and other liability exposures.  Consequently, beyond the COBRA premium subsidy updates required by yesterday’s amendments, health plans, their employer or other sponsors, insurers, fiduciaries, administrators and service providers also should not overlook the need to review and update their health plans in response to a host of other changes in federal health plan mandates.

In addition to otherwise applicable civil damage awards and civil penalty exposures that can result from violations of these requirements, new Internal Revenue Service regulations that took effect January 1, 2010 also require that employers, health plans or others self-report violations of certain of these requirements and self assess and pay resulting excise taxes arising under the Internal Revenue Code.  See, e.g., COBRA, HIPAA, GINA, Mental Health Parity or Other Group Health Plan Rule Violations Trigger New Excise Tax Self-Assessment & Reporting Obligations

The highly volatile health plan regulatory environment makes it likely that many health plans are not appropriately updated to comply with these and other federal requirements. In recent months, health plans, their employer or other sponsors, administrators and others also have become obligated to comply with a host of other expanded federal health plan rules and requirements. See e.g., New Mental Health Parity Regulations Require Health Plan Review & Updates; New Labor Department Rule Allows Employers 7 Days To Deliver Employee Contributions To Employee Benefit Plans; Newly Extended COBRA Subsidy Rules Require Employers, Administrators Send Required Notices & Update Health Plan Documents & Procedures Quickly;  Employer & Other Health Plans & Other HIPAA-Covered Entities & Their Business Associates Must Comply With New HHS Health Information Data Breach Rules By September 23.

These and other developments make it imperative that health plans, their sponsors, administrators, insurers, fiduciaries and service providers get serious about complying with these and other federal health plan mandates, to tighten their credentialing, selection, oversight and contracts with administrators and vendors, and take other prudent steps to manage health plan related risks.

Unemployment Insurance Extensions

In addition to amending and extending ARRA’s COBRA premium subsidy rules, H.R. 4691’s unemployment insurance benefit provisions:

  • Extend the period during which individuals may file applications for Federal Emergency Unemployment Compensation (EUC) from the current end date of February 28, 2010 to April 5, 2010 and extend  the period during which individuals may claim and be paid EUC from July 31, 2010 to September 4, 2010;
  • Extend from the current end date of February 28, 2010 to April 5, 2010 the period during which individuals may qualify for the Federal Additional Compensation (FAC), the extra $25 weekly benefit amount on state and federal unemployment compensation, while also providing for weekly payment during the phase out period for weeks ending October 5, 2010 instead of August 31, 2010; and.
  • Extend the period during which 100% federal reimbursement for weeks of regular federal extended benefit payments to April 5, 2010, with the state option to continue the extended period from July 31, 2010 to September 4, 2010.

For Added Information or Assistance

If your organization need advice or assistance about COBRA, unemploymenent benefits or other labor and employment, employee benefits, compensation or related matters, consider contacting Curran Tomko Tarski LLP Partner Cynthia Marcotte Stamer. 

Board Certified in Labor and Employment Law by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization,  Ms. Stamer has extensive experience advising and representing management about these and other labor and employment, employee benefits, compensation and other related management matters.  The current Chair of the American Bar Association (ABA) RPTE Employee Benefits & Other Compensation Group, a council member of the ABA Joint Committee on Employee Benefits  and the former Chair of the ABA Health Law Section Managed Care & Insurance Interest Group, Ms. Stamer works extensively with employer and other health plan sponsors and fiduciaries, insurers, third party administrators and others to design, document, administer and defend group and other health plan designs in light of COBRA and other federal and state regulations.  A nationally recognized author and lecturer, Ms. Stamer is the author of the “Health Plan Eligibility Toolkit” and many other highly regarded publications and workshops on COBRA and other health plan mandates.  She speaks and writes extensively on these and other related matters.

To seek the assistance of Ms. Stamer with these or other matters or to make arrangements for her to present a workshop or other training, contact Ms. Stamer directly.   For additional information about the experience and services of Ms. Stamer and other members of the Curran Tomko Tarksi LLP team, see here. To explore other publications by Ms. Stamer, see here or contact Ms. Stamer directly. 

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©2010 Cynthia Marcotte Stamer. All rights reserved.

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