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On August 21, 1996, the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA) was signed into law (Pub. L. 104-191). HIPAA section 421 makes changes, described below, to three areas in the continuation coverage rules applicable to group health plans under the Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act of 1985 (COBRA), as amended. These three areas relate to the disability extension, the definition of qualified beneficiary and the duration of COBRA continuation coverage. These changes are effective beginning Jan. 1, 1997, regardless of when the event occurs that entitles an individual to COBRA continuation coverage.

Section 421(e) of HIPAA requires group health plans that are subject to COBRA to notify, by November 1, 1996, individuals who have elected COBRA continuation coverage of these changes. The Department is issuing this release to apprise employers and plan administrators of the changes in the continuation coverage rules made by HIPAA and to inform them of their obligation under HIPAA to notify qualified beneficiaries of such changes. Such notification must be given to qualified beneficiaries by Nov. 1, 1996. The following is a discussion of the specific changes in the continuation coverage rules made by HIPAA.

Disability Extension. Under current law, if an individual is entitled to COBRA continuation coverage because of a termination of employment or reduction in hours of employment, the plan generally is only required to make COBRA continuation coverage available to that individual for 18 months. However, if the individual entitled to the COBRA continuation coverage is disabled (as determined under the Social Security Act) and satisfies the applicable notice requirements, the plan must provide COBRA continuation coverage for 29 months, rather than 18 months. Under current law, the individual must be disabled at the time of the termination of employment or reduction in hours of employment. HIPAA makes changes to the current law to provide that, beginning Jan. 1, 1997, the disability extension will also apply if the individual becomes disabled at any time during the first 60 days of COBRA continuation coverage. HIPAA also makes it clear that, if the individual entitled to the disability extension has nondisabled family members who are entitled to COBRA continuation coverage, those nondisabled family members are also entitled to the 29 month disability extension.

Definition of Qualified Beneficiary. Individuals entitled to COBRA continuation coverage are called qualified beneficiaries. Individuals who may be qualified beneficiaries are the spouse and dependent children of a covered employee and, in certain cases, the covered employee. Under current law, in order to be a qualified beneficiary an individual must generally be covered under a group health plan on the day before the event that causes a loss of coverage (such as a termination of employment, or a divorce from or death of the covered employee). HIPAA changes this requirement so that a child who is born to the covered employee, or who is placed for adoption with the covered employee, during a period of COBRA continuation coverage is also a qualified beneficiary.

Duration of COBRA Continuation Coverage. Under the COBRA rules there are situations in which a group health plan may stop making COBRA continuation coverage available earlier than usually permitted. One of those situations is where the qualified beneficiary obtains coverage under another group health plan. Under current law, if the other group health plan limits or excludes coverage for any preexisting condition of the qualified beneficiary, the plan providing the COBRA continuation coverage cannot stop making the COBRA continuation coverage available merely because of the coverage under the other group health plan. HIPAA limits the circumstances in which plans can apply exclusions for preexisting conditions. HIPAA makes a coordinating change to the COBRA rules so that if a group health plan limits or excludes benefits for preexisting conditions but because of the new HIPAA rules those limits or exclusions would not apply to (or would be satisfied by) an individual receiving COBRA continuation coverage, then the plan providing the COBRA continuation coverage can stop making the COBRA continuation coverage available. The HIPAA rules limiting the applicability of exclusions for preexisting conditions become effective in plan years beginning on or after July 1, 1997 (or later for certain plans maintained pursuant to one or more collective bargaining agreements).

Effect of this Release. As noted above, the Department is issuing this release to advise employers and plan administrators of their obligation to notify, by Nov. 1, 1996, qualified beneficiaries of these statutory changes. The Department, as a matter of enforcement policy, will deem that supplying qualified beneficiaries with a written copy of the information described above (or with a copy of this release) constitutes compliance with the notice requirement in section 421(e) of HIPAA if this information is sent to each qualified beneficiary by first class mail at the last known address of the qualified beneficiary by Nov. 1, 1996.

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