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AT THE OFFICE: Paying for COBRA insurance after landing a new job

Q: I have been receiving COBRA health insurance since I lost my job four months ago. Even though I am working again, I am still paying for the benefit because my new insurance won't take effect until next month. Do I qualify for the 65 percent CO...

Q: I have been receiving COBRA health insurance since I lost my job four months ago. Even though I am working again, I am still paying for the benefit because my new insurance won't take effect until next month. Do I qualify for the 65 percent COBRA reduction provided under President Barack Obama's stimulus package both retroactively and going forward?

A: You're referring to the COBRA premium deduction program that Obama signed into law on Feb. 17 as part of the stimulus legislation to jump-start the economy. Under the program, the government temporarily subsidizes up to 65 percent of eligible workers' COBRA premiums. COBRA -- which stands for the Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act of 1985 -- gives laid-off workers access to their former employers' group insurance rates, generally for up to 18 months. The laid-off employees pay the full amount of the premium, though, which makes COBRA benefits expensive. So the temporary subsidy is a godsend indeed for laid-off workers.

You could be eligible for the COBRA reduction, and thus reimbursement, depending on several criteria, said employment attorney Ellen Storch, counsel at Kaufman, Dolowich, Voluck & Gonzo in Woodbury, N.Y.

If you lost your job through no fault of your own, you could qualify for the subsidy. And you could qualify if your COBRA eligibility began as of Feb. 17, or as of March 1, for those plans that charge monthly based on a calendar year.

Those are the main criteria. But some income limits also come into play. For example if your gross income exceeds $145,000 ($290,000 for joint filers), in the tax year that you applied for the reduction or reimbursement, you wouldn't qualify for any assistance. People in that tax bracket who receive the reduction must pay it back.

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As I mentioned, the program is limited. The reduction expires nine months after a laid-off employee began receiving it or when the person's general COBRA coverage ends or when the person becomes eligible for coverage under another group health plan or Medicare, whichever comes first.

If you qualified for a reimbursement, it would take the form of a credit toward future COBRA premium payments, if it's reasonable to expect you will need COBRA again within 180 days of the overpayment, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. Otherwise, you would be reimbursed within 60 days of the overpayment.

If you still think you qualify, then Storch says you should contact your former company's insurance plan administrator about the subsidy.

Q: I am confused as to the rights (or lack thereof) of hourly workers in so-called employment-at-will states. Are they covered by some standard list of rights afforded all nonunion employees?

A: An employee not covered by a union contract or other employment agreement is considered to be employed at will. Those employees can legally be dismissed at any time for any reason, unless the firing proves to be discriminatory.

So a more accurate distinction in terms of workplace rights would be employees with contracts, versus those without. The contracts could be union or employment agreements. They would give employees protections beyond employment at will.

(Mason-Draffen is the author of "151 Quick Ideas to Deal With Difficult People." She welcomes questions for the "Help Wanted" column. Contact her at 631-843-2450 or carrie.draffen@newsday.com .)

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