Congress passed the landmark Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act (COBRA)
health benefit provisions in 1986. The law amends the Employee Retirement Income
Security Act (ERISA), the Internal Revenue Code and the Public Health Service Act
to provide continuation of group health coverage that otherwise would be terminated.
COBRA contains provisions giving certain former employees, retirees,
spouses and dependent children the right to temporary continuation of health coverage
at group rates. This coverage, however, is only available in specific instances.
Group health coverage for COBRA participants is usually more expensive than health
coverage for active employees, since usually the employer formerly paid a part of
the premium. It is ordinarily less expensive, though, than individual health coverage.
The law generally covers group health plans maintained by employers with 20 or more
employees in the prior year. It applies to plans in the private sector and those
sponsored by state and local governments. The law does not, however, apply to plans
sponsored by the Federal government and certain church- related organizations.
Group health plans sponsored by private sector employers generally are welfare benefit
plans governed by ERISA and subject to its requirements for reporting and disclosure,
fiduciary standards and enforcement. ERISA neither establishes minimum standards
or benefit eligibility for welfare plans nor mandates the type or level of benefits
offered to plan participants. It does, though, require that these plans have rules
outlining how workers become entitled to benefits.
Under COBRA, a group health plan ordinarily is defined as a plan that provides medical
benefits for the employer's own employees and their dependents through insurance
or otherwise (such as a trust, health maintenance organization, self-funded pay-as-you-go
basis, reimbursement or combination of these).