What the COBRA Subsidy Extension Means To You

Those who have been laid off in the troubled economic climate clearly face many challenges, such as paying their bills and finding new employment. If you are out of work, maintaining your health insurance may be a little easier, however, because of a new law signed late last year. The Oklahoma Society of Certified Public Accountants said the new rules could help many cash-strapped families.

Under the Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act, known as COBRA, it’s possible for former employees to continue receiving health care coverage under their old employer’s plan. The former employee must pay for their continuing coverage, which can last up to 18 months. They must pay the entire premium, which makes COBRA out of reach for most unemployed individuals.

In the midst tough economic times, the government last year offered a special subsidy to those who were out of work and struggling to keep up payments on their COBRA coverage. Those who are eligible were subsidized for 65 percent of their COBRA premiums for up to nine months, starting in March 2009, allowing them to pay as little as 35 percent of their insurance bill for continuing group health insurance coverage. Although COBRA coverage is available to those who choose to leave a job, this special subsidy is intended only for those who face involuntary termination, such as a layoff. The subsidy was scheduled to expire on Dec. 31, 2009, but with unemployment still high, Congress decided to extend and expand the benefit.

To qualify under the new rules, you must have been fired or laid off between Sept. 1, 2008, and Feb. 28, 2010, rather than by Dec. 31, 2009, meaning that more people who lost their jobs in January or February are eligible. In addition, the period of time you can receive the subsidy has been lengthened, from nine months to as long as 15 months.

If you qualify, the premium reduction applies to coverage beginning on or after Feb. 17, 2009. So, let’s say you lost your job in June 2009 and your employer-paid health coverage ended at the same time. Assuming you are otherwise eligible, you can elect to continue being covered on your employer’s plan for as long as 18 months. For 15 of those months, you pay only 35 percent of the health care premiums, and a premium reduction (65 percent of the full premium) is reimbursable to the employer, insurer or health plan as a credit against certain employment taxes. 

However, there are some rules governing who can receive the subsidy. You no longer qualify if you become eligible for health care coverage under another group plan — by taking another job that offers health care benefits, for example — or for Medicare. In addition, you are only eligible for the full benefit if your adjusted gross income is below $125,000 during the tax year in which you receive the subsidy (or $250,000 for married couples filing jointly). The subsidy amount declines on a sliding scale for those with adjusted gross incomes between $125,000 and $145,000 (between $250,000 and $290,000 for joint filers). Those with adjusted gross incomes above those figures must repay the premium subsidy if they receive it.

Need more information? Visit www.KnowWhatCounts.org for free tax and financial advice, Ask-A-CPA, a free CPA referral and free 30-min consultation, and more.

With more than 6,000 members in public practice, industry, government and education, the OSCPA is Oklahoma’s only statewide professional association of CPAs. Since 1918, the organization has continued to provide professional education, conduct quality reviews and promote and maintain high standards of integrity and competence within the accounting profession.

Updated 02-24-2010

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