QUESTION: We understand that our group health plan can terminate COBRA coverage early if a qualified beneficiary becomes entitled to Medicare after electing COBRA. What does it mean to be “entitled” to Medicare?
ANSWER: When qualified beneficiaries (including covered employees) first become entitled to Medicare after electing COBRA coverage, their COBRA coverage can be terminated early—before the end of the maximum coverage period. For this purpose, the Medicare terms “eligibility” and “entitlement” are not synonymous, and it is important to understand the difference. “Entitlement” means that an individual who is eligible for Medicare has actually enrolled in Medicare and may currently receive benefits. An individual who must take additional steps to enroll in Medicare before receiving benefits is not yet “entitled” to Medicare for purposes of the COBRA rules.
Individuals who become eligible for Medicare Part A (hospital insurance) based on age, disability, or end-stage renal disease (ESRD) must apply to become entitled to Part A coverage in many cases, but entitlement is automatic for individuals who have already applied for and are receiving Social Security or Railroad Retirement Act benefits. Individuals become entitled to Medicare Part B (physicians’ services and other health expenses) either automatically when they become entitled to Part A, or later during specified enrollment periods.
Although group health plans are allowed to terminate a qualified beneficiary’s COBRA coverage early upon Medicare entitlement, it is important to remember that the COBRA rights of other qualified beneficiaries in the family unit who are not entitled to Medicare are not affected. For example, the plan could not terminate the COBRA coverage of the spouse and dependent children of a Medicare-entitled former employee.
Source: Thomson Reuters
QUESTION: Although Medicare entitlement is listed as a COBRA triggering event, our company’s COBRA TPA does not offer COBRA to covered employees when they become entitled to Medicare. Is Medicare entitlement a COBRA qualifying event for active employees who become entitled to Medicare but do not lose coverage under our group health plan?
ANSWER: Medicare entitlement is not a COBRA qualifying event for active employees who become entitled to Medicare but do not lose coverage under a group health plan. If a COBRA triggering event (such as Medicare entitlement) does not cause a loss of plan coverage, there is no qualifying event, and COBRA need not be offered. Medicare entitlement rarely causes a loss of plan coverage for active employees and, therefore, will rarely be a qualifying event. This is because the Medicare Secondary Payer (MSP) rules generally prohibit group health plans from making Medicare entitlement an event that causes a loss of coverage for active employees.
The MSP statute generally prohibits a group health plan from “taking into account” the age-based or disability-based Medicare entitlement of an individual who is covered under the plan by virtue of the individual’s current employment status. In addition, the plan generally must provide a current employee who is age 65 or older with the same benefits, under the same conditions, as those provided to employees who are under age 65. Among the employer or insurer actions that constitute an impermissible “taking into account” are (1) terminating coverage because the individual has become entitled to age-based Medicare; or (2) in the case of a large group health plan, denying or terminating coverage because the individual is entitled to disability-based Medicare without also denying or terminating coverage for similarly situated individuals who are not entitled to disability-based Medicare. (Special rules apply for ESRD-based Medicare.) Consequently, Medicare entitlement will rarely be a COBRA qualifying event because it will rarely cause a loss of plan coverage for active employees.
Be aware, however, that it is permissible under the MSP rules for Medicare entitlement to cause a loss of coverage for covered retired employees. In such a case, Medicare entitlement would constitute a qualifying event for the affected spouse and dependent children (not for the covered retiree), permitting them to elect up to 36 months of COBRA under the plan.
Source: Thomson Reuters