Feds temporarily expand COBRA escape option

By BenefitsPro

By Allison Bell

The Obama administration is giving workers who’ve lost group health coverage an option many thought they already had.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has created a 60-day special enrollment period for anyone who has COBRA group health benefits continuation coverage.

The Center for Consumer Information & Insurance Oversight announced the “SEP” for holders of COBRA coverage late Friday.

Its set to end July 1.

The bulletin affects consumers using the federal exchanges and has no direct effect on state exchange consumers.

HHS earlier put out regulations that let holders of employer-sponsored group health coverage sign up for individual coverage through the public exchanges during a 60-day period after the loss of group coverage.

HHS also let the people who paid for COBRA continuation coverage sign up for insurance through the public exchanges during a 60-day period after the COBRA coverage runs out.

But consumers eligible for COBRA coverage can keep it in force for up to 18 months.

Between the end of the PPACA individual coverage open enrollment period and Friday, consumers who had had COBRA in force for more than 60 days and wanted to trade it in for ordinary individual health insurance had no automatic way to do so.

COBRA holders in that position would have had to come up with some other reason to apply for a special enrollment period. Otherwise, the COBRA holders who wanted regular individual coverage would have had to wait until their COBRA benefits ran out, or until Nov. 15 – the proposed start date of the next open enrollment period.

HHS is providing the new special enrollment period because it worries earlier COBRA model notices didn’t describe the enrollment period limits facing COBRA coverage holders clearly enough, CCIIO officials write.

COBRA holders who want to trade their coverage in for exchange plans now, during the new special enrollment period provided by the bulletin, should call the HHS exchange call center at (800) 318-2596, officials say.

In the same bulletin, officials also provide a hardship exemption for some consumers who might otherwise have to pay the new PPACA “shared responsibility” penalty to be imposed on taxpayers who fail to buy what PPACA and HHS define as minimum essential coverage.

The hardship exemption will help taxpayers who bought PPACA-compliant coverage outside the exchange system from April 1 through May 1.

HHS is offering the penalty exemption because it created a similar exemption for people who bought plans through the HHS-run exchanges after March 31. The department fears some taxpayers may have thought the exemption applied to taxpayers who bought any PPACA-compliant coverage, not just exchange plans, officials say in the new bulletin.

Originally published on BenefitsPro.com