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Sign-up window for free COBRA coverage for many laid-off workers closes this week

Michelle Andrews, Kaiser Health News on

Published in Business News

Consumer advocates say they’re worried many more people may have been left in the dark about the subsidy since notices weren’t required to be sent to former workers until the end of May, two months after the benefit started.

“Even if everybody got the notices out on time, are folks reading them and understanding what they’re eligible for and what their options are?” said Katie Keith, an associate research professor at Georgetown University’s Center on Health Insurance Reforms.

Karen Pollitz, a senior fellow at KFF, said she talked with some people who were notified promptly, while others weren’t informed about the subsidy until the very end of May and had to get reimbursed for the first two months of the subsidized premiums. (KHN is an editorially independent program of KFF.)

The Department of Labor said it has “conducted extensive outreach and education to promote awareness of the available premium assistance” to help workers and employers.

The outreach includes virtual webcasts and webinars, social media, radio and TV public service announcements, billboards and posters, according to Labor officials. They added that consumers or employers with questions can contact the department online or by phone.

Under federal COBRA law, people can generally choose to continue their employer health coverage for up to 18 months after being laid off. They usually have 60 days to decide, though that deadline has been extended while the pandemic continues. The law applies to employers with 20 or more employees.

 

Without the special federal subsidy, however, it’s a pricey benefit: People are usually responsible for the entire premium plus a 2% administrative fee.

People who work at smaller companies — those with fewer than 20 employees — that are located in states that have so-called mini-COBRA coverage continuation laws can also take advantage of the subsidy. But there’s a catch: To qualify, workers generally must already have elected COBRA continuation coverage before April 1 or become eligible after that.

Getting the word out was hampered by the program’s short time frame. It was challenging for employers to figure out who was eligible for the subsidy and get notices out within such a tight timeline, experts said. The law passed in March, and guidance from the Department of Labor and the IRS about implementing the law came in April and May. Notices to workers were due May 31.

“My sense is that employers were working around the clock to make sure the notices went out,” said Katy Johnson, senior counsel for health policy at the American Benefits Council, which represents large employers.

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