Layoff Survival Guide: What’s This COBRA Thing?

from Brazen Careerist by

Hopefully you found my last post in my newly minted Layoff Survival Guide useful.  And if not, here's another chance for some helpful advice!

So, like I said last time, a really good friend of mine lost her job, and is now dealing with all the issues I had to deal with a little over a year ago.  So I figured I'd help her out, and maybe help others out along the way.  Behold, the power of blogging!

Her question for me was about COBRA.  What is it, what does she need to do, what are her options?

Let's start with a simple definition.  COBRA stands for Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act.  Yeah, that doesn't mean a lot to me either.   But when you're handed a severance package with all sorts of information, one thing you're told about is COBRA (and if you didn't get any info for COBRA, I recommend you contact your former employer to find out what's up).

Basically, COBRA entitles you to continue your health coverage that you received through your employer.  Except you will be paying the premium (rather than your former employer).  However, recent legislation from The American Recovery And Reinvestment Act allows for assistance in your insurance premiums through COBRA.  As stated on this Department of Labor page:

"Eligible individuals pay only 35 percent of their COBRA premiums and the remaining 65 percent is reimbursed to the coverage provider through a tax credit. The premium reduction applies to periods of health coverage beginning on or after February 17, 2009 and lasts for up to nine months for those eligible for COBRA during the period beginning September 1, 2008 and ending December 31, 2009 due to an involuntary termination of employment that occurred during that period."

There also is an income threshold that you need to be under in order to fully benefit for this program.  For more information, you can check out their Fact Sheet for COBRA Premium Reduction here.

If you don't elect to continue your insurance from your previous job through COBRA, you still have options.  A friend forwarded me a link to a site that helps you pick out insurance options (in Massachusetts).  And the DOL has another good page telling you about how to attain health insurance.  You can search for a private insurance plan, or may be eligible for a government plan such as medicare.  Also, if you have a spouse with health insurance, you can get on his/her plan.  I'm not an expert on the different types of insurance, so you might have to do some searching on your own.  Also, there are apparently some tax implications with some health insurance premiums, that I'll let you check out on your own (mostly because I'm not as familiar with these tax rules).

What did I do?  Well, luckily, my severance package included a month of health insurance coverage, so I was able to depend on that while figuring everything else out.  I ended up paying the hefty premiums for COBRA coverage, continuing the coverage I enjoyed while at my old job.  It may not have been the best decision, financially, but it was the "easy" thing to do.  I found it difficult to sort through all my alternative options for health insurance.

Why is it important to have continued health coverage?  There are a few reasons.  As I learned firsthand a month into unemployment, you never know when you might need insurance.  My boyfriend hurt himself mountain biking, and I drove him to the hospital.  Since he had health insurance, he wasn't stuck with an enormous hospital bill.  Saving money by not paying for health insurance could end up losing you money if you end up requiring an expensive medical procedure.  Or you may have to decide if a procedure is financially worth it, even if it's medically important.

Another reason you don't want your insurance to lapse is because it might make it more difficult to prove that any condition you have down the road isn't a preexisting condition.  I know that's more of a worry/fear than an actual fact, so take that with a grain of salt.

So what do you need to do?  Decide whether or not you're going to continue your insurance plan through COBRA (talk to your former employer/fill out the forms they gave you).

So, like I've said before, I'm not a legal expert or anything, so this is merely friendly advice.  But if you see any errors or omissions here, or have specific questions, let me know in the comments or via email.  And if you have other layoff-related questions, you can ping me with those as well!