Under COBRA, a qualified beneficiary has all of the same rights as an active employee enrolled in a group health plan. Qualified beneficiaries must be offered benefits identical to those received immediately before qualifying for continuation coverage.
For example, a beneficiary may have had medical, hospitalization, dental, vision and prescription benefits under single or multiple plans maintained by the employer. Assuming a qualified beneficiary had been covered by three separate health plans of his former employer on the day preceding the qualifying event, that individual has the right to elect to continue coverage in any of the three health plans.
Non-core benefits are vision and dental services, except where they are mandated by law, in which case they become core benefits. Core benefits include all other benefits received by a beneficiary immediately before qualifying for COBRA coverage.
If a plan provides both core and non-core benefits, individuals may generally elect either the entire package or just core benefits. Individuals do not have to be given the option to elect just the non-core benefits unless those were the only benefits carried under that particular plan before a qualifying event.
A change in the benefits under the plan for active employees may apply to qualified beneficiaries. Beneficiaries also may change coverage during periods of open enrollment by the plan.
Duration of Coverage
COBRA establishes required periods of coverage for continuation health benefits. A plan, however, may provide longer periods of coverage beyond those required by COBRA. COBRA beneficiaries generally are eligible to pay for group coverage during a maximum of 18 months for qualifying events due to employment termination or reduction of hours of work. Certain qualifying events, or a second qualifying event during the initial period of coverage, may permit a beneficiary to receive a maximum of 36 months of coverage.
Coverage begins on the date that coverage would otherwise have been lost by reason of a qualifying event and can end when:
Special rules for disabled individuals may extend the maximum periods of coverage. If a qualified beneficiary is determined under Title II or XVI of the Social Security Act to have been disabled at the time of a termination of employment or reduction in hours of employment and the qualified beneficiary properly notifies the plan administrator of the disability determination, the 18-month period is expanded to 29 months.
Although COBRA specifies certain maximum required periods of time that continued health coverage must be offered to qualified beneficiaries, COBRA does not prohibit plans from offering continuation health coverage that goes beyond the COBRA periods.
Some plans allow beneficiaries to convert group health coverage to an individual policy. If this option is available from the plan under COBRA, it must be offered to you. In this case, the option must be given for the beneficiary to enroll in a conversion health plan within 180 days before COBRA coverage ends. The premium is generally not at a group rate. The conversion option, however, is not available if the beneficiary ends COBRA coverage before reaching the maximum period of entitlement.