The following questions-and-answers address the manner in which COBRA continuation coverage is elected:
Q-1: What is the election period and how long must it last?
A-1: (a) A group health plan can condition the availability of COBRA continuation coverage upon the timely election of such coverage. An election of COBRA continuation coverage is a timely election if it is made during the election period. The election period must begin not later than the date the qualified beneficiary would lose coverage on account of the qualifying event. (See paragraph (c) of Q&A-1 of § 54.4980B-4 for the meaning of lose coverage.) The election period must not end before the date that is 60 days after the later of -
(1) The date the qualified beneficiary would lose coverage on account of the qualifying event; or
(2) The date notice is provided to the qualified beneficiary of her or his right to elect COBRA continuation coverage.
(b) An election is considered to be made on the date it is sent to the plan administrator.
(c) The rules of this Q&A-1 are illustrated by the following example:
(i) An unmarried employee without children who is receiving employer-paid coverage under a group health plan voluntarily terminates employment on June 1, 2001. The employee is not disabled at the time of the termination of employment nor at any time thereafter, and the plan does not provide for the extension of the required periods (as is permitted under paragraph (b) of Q&A-4 of § 54.4980B-7).
(ii) Case 1: If the plan provides that the employer-paid coverage ends immediately upon the termination of employment, the election period must begin not later than June 1, 2001, and must not end earlier than July 31, 2001. If notice of the right to elect COBRA continuation coverage is not provided to the employee until June 15, 2001, the election period must not end earlier than August 14, 2001.
(iii) Case 2: If the plan provides that the employer-paid coverage does not end until 6 months after the termination of employment, the employee does not lose coverage until December 1, 2001. The election period can therefore begin as late as December 1, 2001, and must not end before January 30, 2002.
(iv) Case 3: If employer-paid coverage for 6 months after the termination of employment is offered only to those qualified beneficiaries who waive COBRA continuation coverage, the employee loses coverage on June 1, 2001, so the election period is the same as in Case 1. The difference between Case 2 and Case 3 is that in Case 2 the employee can receive 6 months of employer-paid coverage and then elect to pay for up to an additional 12 months of COBRA continuation coverage, while in Case 3 the employee must choose between 6 months of employer-paid coverage and paying for up to 18 months of COBRA continuation coverage. In all three cases, COBRA continuation coverage need not be provided for more than 18 months after the termination of employment (see Q&A-4 of § 54.4980B-7), and in certain circumstances might be provided for a shorter period (see Q&A-1 of § 54.4980B-7).
Q-2: Is a covered employee or qualified beneficiary responsible for informing the plan administrator of the occurrence of a qualifying event?
A-2: (a) In general, the employer or plan administrator must determine when a qualifying event has occurred. However, each covered employee or qualified beneficiary is responsible for notifying the plan administrator of the occurrence of a qualifying event that is either a dependent child's ceasing to be a dependent child under the generally applicable requirements of the plan or a divorce or legal separation of a covered employee. The group health plan is not required to offer the qualified beneficiary an opportunity to elect COBRA continuation coverage if the notice is not provided to the plan administrator within 60 days after the later of -
(1) The date of the qualifying event; or
(2) The date the qualified beneficiary would lose coverage on account of the qualifying event.
(b) For purposes of this Q&A-2, if more than one qualified beneficiary would lose coverage on account of a divorce or legal separation of a covered employee, a timely notice of the divorce or legal separation that is provided by the covered employee or any one of those qualified beneficiaries will be sufficient to preserve the election rights of all of the qualified beneficiaries.
Q-3: During the election period and before the qualified beneficiary has made an election, must coverage be provided?
A-3: (a) In general, each qualified beneficiary has until 60 days after the later of the date the qualifying event would cause her or him to lose coverage or the date notice is provided to the qualified beneficiary of her or his right to elect COBRA continuation coverage to decide whether to elect COBRA continuation coverage. If the election is made during that period, coverage must be provided from the date that coverage would otherwise have been lost (but see Q&A-4 of this section). This can be accomplished as described in paragraph (b) or (c) of this Q&A-3.
(b) In the case of an indemnity or reimbursement arrangement, the employer or employee organization can provide for plan coverage during the election period or, if the plan allows retroactive reinstatement, the employer or employee organization can terminate the coverage of the qualified beneficiary and reinstate her or him when the election (and, if applicable, payment for the coverage) is made. Claims incurred by a qualified beneficiary during the election period do not have to be paid before the election (and, if applicable, payment for the coverage) is made. If a provider of health care (such as a physician, hospital, or pharmacy) contacts the plan to confirm coverage of a qualified beneficiary during the election period, the plan must give a complete response to the health care provider about the qualified beneficiary's COBRA continuation coverage rights during the election period. For example, if the plan provides coverage during the election period but cancels coverage retroactively if COBRA continuation coverage is not elected, then the plan must inform a provider that a qualified beneficiary for whom coverage has not been elected is covered but that the coverage is subject to retroactive termination. Similarly, if the plan cancels coverage but then retroactively reinstates it once COBRA continuation coverage is elected, then the plan must inform the provider that the qualified beneficiary currently does not have coverage but will have coverage retroactively to the date coverage was lost if COBRA continuation coverage is elected. (See paragraph (c) of Q&A-5 in § 54.4980B-8 for similar rules that a plan must follow in confirming coverage during a period when the plan has not received payment but that is still within the grace period for a qualified beneficiary for whom COBRA continuation coverage has been elected.)
(1) In the case of a group health plan that provides health services (such as a health maintenance organization or a walk-in clinic), the plan can require with respect to a qualified beneficiary who has not elected and paid for COBRA continuation coverage that the qualified beneficiary choose between -
(i) Electing and paying for the coverage; or
(ii) Paying the reasonable and customary charge for the plan's services, but only if a qualified beneficiary who chooses to pay for the services will be reimbursed for that payment within 30 days after the election of COBRA continuation coverage (and, if applicable, the payment of any balance due for the coverage).
(2) In the alternative, the plan can provide continued coverage and treat the qualified beneficiary's use of the facility as a constructive election. In such a case, the qualified beneficiary is obligated to pay any applicable charge for the coverage, but only if the qualified beneficiary is informed that use of the facility will be a constructive election before using the facility.
Q-4: Is a waiver before the end of the election period effective to end a qualified beneficiary's election rights?
A-4: If, during the election period, a qualified beneficiary waives COBRA continuation coverage, the waiver can be revoked at any time before the end of the election period. Revocation of the waiver is an election of COBRA continuation coverage. However, if a waiver of COBRA continuation coverage is later revoked, coverage need not be provided retroactively (that is, from the date of the loss of coverage until the waiver is revoked). Waivers and revocations of waivers are considered made on the date they are sent to the employer, employee organization, or plan administrator, as applicable.
Q-5: Can an employer or employee organization withhold money or other benefits owed to a qualified beneficiary until the qualified beneficiary either waives COBRA continuation coverage, elects and pays for such coverage, or allows the election period to expire?
A-5: No. An employer, and an employee organization, must not withhold anything to which a qualified beneficiary is otherwise entitled (by operation of law or other agreement) in order to compel payment for COBRA continuation coverage or to coerce the qualified beneficiary to give up rights to COBRA continuation coverage (including the right to use the full election period to decide whether to elect such coverage). Such a withholding constitutes a failure to comply with the COBRA continuation coverage requirements. Furthermore, any purported waiver obtained by means of such a withholding is invalid.
Q-6: Can each qualified beneficiary make an independent election under COBRA?
A-6: Yes. Each qualified beneficiary (including a child who is born to or placed for adoption with a covered employee during a period of COBRA continuation coverage) must be offered the opportunity to make an independent election to receive COBRA continuation coverage. If the plan allows similarly situated active employees with respect to whom a qualifying event has not occurred to choose among several options during an open enrollment period (for example, to switch to another group health plan or to another benefit package under the same group health plan), then each qualified beneficiary must also be offered an independent election to choose during an open enrollment period among the options made available to similarly situated active employees with respect to whom a qualifying event has not occurred. If a qualified beneficiary who is either a covered employee or the spouse of a covered employee elects COBRA continuation coverage and the election does not specify whether the election is for self-only coverage, the election is deemed to include an election of COBRA continuation coverage on behalf of all other qualified beneficiaries with respect to that qualifying event. An election on behalf of a minor child can be made by the child's parent or legal guardian. An election on behalf of a qualified beneficiary who is incapacitated or dies can be made by the legal representative of the qualified beneficiary or the qualified beneficiary's estate, as determined under applicable state law, or by the spouse of the qualified beneficiary. (See also Q&A-5 of § 54.4980B-7 relating to the independent right of each qualified beneficiary with respect to the same qualifying event to receive COBRA continuation coverage during the disability extension.) The rules of this Q&A-6 are illustrated by the following examples; in each example each group health plan is subject to COBRA:
(i) Employee H and H's spouse are covered under a group health plan immediately before H's termination of employment (for reasons other than gross misconduct). Coverage under the plan will end as a result of the termination of employment.
(ii) Upon H's termination of employment, both H and H's spouse are qualified beneficiaries and each must be allowed to elect COBRA continuation coverage. Thus, H might elect COBRA continuation coverage while the spouse declines to elect such coverage, or H might elect COBRA continuation coverage for both of them. In contrast, H cannot decline COBRA continuation coverage on behalf of H's spouse. Thus, if H does not elect COBRA continuation coverage on behalf of the spouse, the spouse must still be allowed to elect COBRA continuation coverage.
(i) An employer maintains a group health plan under which all employees receive employer-paid coverage. Employees can arrange to cover their families by paying an additional amount. The employer also maintains a cafeteria plan, under which one of the options is to pay part or all of the employee share of the cost for family coverage under the group health plan. Thus, an employee might pay for family coverage under the group health plan partly with before-tax dollars and partly with after-tax dollars.
(ii) If an employee's family is receiving coverage under the group health plan when a qualifying event occurs, each of the qualified beneficiaries must be offered an opportunity to elect COBRA continuation coverage, regardless of how that qualified beneficiary's coverage was paid for before the qualifying event.