New IRS COBRA Subsidy Guidance Defines “Involuntary Termination” & Other Workings of Rules

Cynthia Stamer
April 2, 2009 — 1,836 views  
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Employers, plan administrators and group health plan insurers have more information about what terminations are considered "involuntary" and the meaning of other requirements imposed by temporary modifications (COBRA Subsidy Rules) to the group health plan medical coverage continuation requirements of the Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act of 1985, as amended (COBRA) enacted under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (Stimulus Bill).

The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) yesterday (April 1, 2009) released additional guidance about the COBRA Subsidy Rules, including information about the definition of "involuntary termination." Part of a series of guidance trickling out from the IRS, the Department of Labor (DOL) and the Department of Health & Human Services (HHS) about the COBRA Subsidy Rules.  The IRS publication of this guidance follows the release by March 20, 2009 of its Model Notices notify certain current and former participants and beneficiaries about some of the Stimulus COBRA Rules.

IRS Notice 2009-27 includes guidance about:

  • Who qualifies as an "assistance eligible individual;
  • When the IRS views a reduction in hours or termination of employment as qualifying as an involuntary termination of employment for purposes of the COBRA Premium Assistance Rules;
  • How to calculate the 35% of the standard COBRA premium is calculated for purposes of determining the reduced COBRA premium amount (the "Reduced Premium") that an assistance eligible individual must pay during the period (Premium Reduction Period) he qualifies for the premium subsidy assistance provided for under the Stimulus Bill;
  • The types of group health plan coverage eligible for the Reduced Premium under the Stimulus Bill;
  • The beginning and end of the Premium Reduction Period;
  • When and how an assistance eligible individual's income and eligibility for Medicare or other group health plan coverage affects his eligibility for the Reduced Premium;
  • The mechanics that employers and highly compensated assistance eligible individuals must use if the individual wishes to waive the Reduced Premium and resulting COBRA Subsidy
  • The application of the second election period required for assistance eligible individuals not enrolled in COBRA Coverage on February 17, 2009 and
  • Other details of the COBRA Subsidy Rules.

Stimulus COBRA Rules In A Nutshell

Congress enacted the COBRA Subsidy Rules that took effect February 17, 2009 to help certain involuntarily terminated former employees and their dependents maintain COBRA coverage by requiring COBRA-covered group health plans temporarily to extend certain special COBRA treatment for "assistance eligible individuals."

The Stimulus Bill temporarily limits the COBRA premium that a COBRA-covered group health plan can require an "assistance eligible individual" to pay for COBRA Coverage to 35% of the otherwise applicable COBRA premium (the "Reduced Premium") for a period of up to 9 months (the "Subsidy Period") beginning with the individual's first period of COBRA Coverage beginning after February 17, 2009.  The employer or insurer that collects this Reduced Premium must pay the remaining 65% of the COBRA premium (the "COBRA Subsidy") for the assistance eligible individual during the Subsidy Period.  However, the Stimulus Bill provides for that employer or insurer to claim a payroll tax credit equal to the amount of these COBRA Subsidy payments by complying with applicable IRS procedures. 

The Stimulus COBRA Rules also requires group health plans to offer a second COBRA enrollment period to each assistance eligible individual not enrolled in COBRA Coverage on February 17, 2009.  These second electors must be allowed to elect prospectively to enroll in COBRA coverage until the date that their COBRA Coverage eligibility otherwise would have ended if they had maintained COBRA Coverage since their termination.

Additionally, COBRA-covered group health plans that offer employees different plan options allow assistance eligible individuals the option to change their coverage choice from a higher cost option to a lesser cost option.  Group health plan administrators also must provide certain notifications to assistance eligible individuals concerning these changes.

 "Assistance Eligible Individuals"

The Stimulus COBRA Rules only apply to qualified beneficiaries whose loss of coverage resulted from the "involuntary termination of employment" of a covered employee. The Stimulus Bill definition of "assistance eligible individual" generally includes any COBRA "qualified beneficiary" who meets all of the following requirements:

  • Has a loss of coverage within the meaning of COBRA ("qualifying event") as a result of the "involuntary termination of employment" of a covered employee from September 1, 2008 to December 31, 2009;
  • Is eligible for COBRA Coverage at any time during the period beginning September 1, 2008 and ending December 31, 2009; and
  • Elects COBRA coverage when first offered or as during the additional second election period required for assistance eligible individuals not enrolled in COBRA Coverage on February 17, 2009.

IRS Notice 2009-27 defines an "involuntary termination" as "a severance from employment due to the independent exercise of the unilateral authority of the employer to terminate the employment, other than due to the employee's implicit or explicit request, where the employee was willing and able to continue performing services" based on all the facts and circumstances. 

For COBRA Premium Assistance purposes, the facts and circumstances determine whether a termination is involuntary. Thus, IRS Notice 2009-27 states that a termination designated as voluntary or as a resignation nevertheless will be considered involuntary where the facts and circumstances indicate that the employer would have terminated the employee's services, and that the employee had knowledge that the employee would be terminated.

Notice 2009-27 identifies as examples of terminations that fall within this definition of "involuntary termination" as including the following facts and circumstances:

  • The employer's failure to renew a contract at the time the contract expires, if the employee was willing and able to execute a new contract providing terms and conditions similar to those in the expiring contract and to continue providing the services;
  • An employee-initiated termination from employment if the termination from employment constitutes a termination for good reason due to employer action that causes a material negative change in the employment relationship for the employee;
  • An involuntary reduction of hours of employment to zero hours, such as a lay-off, furlough, or other suspension of employment, resulting in a loss of health coverage;
  • An employee's voluntary termination of employment in response to an employer imposed reduction of hours of employment where the reduction in hours is a material negative change in the employment relationship for the employee;
  • An employer's action to end an individual's employment while the individual is absent from work due to illness or disability (but not mere absence from work due to illness or disability before the employer has taken action to end the individual's employment);
  • A termination designated on account of "retirement" if the facts and circumstances indicate that, absent retirement, the employer would have terminated the employee's services, and the employee had knowledge that the employee would be terminated;
  • The covered employee resigned as the result of a material change in the geographic location of employment for the employee;
  • A lockout initiated by an employer but not a work stoppage as the result of a strike initiated by employees or their representatives; and
  • A termination elected by the employee in return for a severance package (a "buy-out") where the employer indicates that after the offer period for the severance package, a certain number of remaining employees in the employee's group will be terminated

Notice 2009-27 also clarifies that the termination of employment giving rise to the loss of group health plan coverage and the loss of the group health plan coverage both must occur between September 1, 2008 and December 31, 2009 in order for an individual to qualify as an assistance eligible individual. Consequently, if the involuntary termination occurs before September 1, 2008, but the loss of coverage resulting in eligibility for COBRA Coverage occurs after September 1, 2008 (but no later than December 31, 2009), Notice 2009-28 states that the individual will not qualify as an assistance eligible individual.  Likewise, where an individual's involuntary termination occurs by December 31, 2009, but the loss of coverage resulting in eligibility for COBRA Coverage occurs after December 31, 2009, the qualified beneficiary will not qualify as an assistance eligible individual for purposes of the Subsidy COBRA Rules.  According to Notice 2009-27, where the involuntary termination of employment and loss of coverage as a covered employee or dependent occur between September 1, 2008 and December 31, 2009, the election of COBRA Coverage need not occur by December 31, 2009.

Many group health plans are drafted to provide that the date that employee or dependent coverage ends or changes as a result of an employment loss is the last day of the month or some other date after the actual date of the employment termination.  Under group health plans where the loss of coverage due to the qualifying event is delayed, Notice 2009-27 also reminds employers and plan administrators of the need to focus on how group health plan provisions, separation agreements and other related documents define when the loss of coverage occurs under a group health plan when applying these rules.

For purposes of COBRA, Notice 2009-27 states that when a loss of coverage under a group health plan occurs under these circumstances depends on how the group health plan treats the provision of health coverage between the date of the employment loss and the date of the resulting loss of employee and/or dependent coverage. If the plan treats the provision of health coverage as deferring the loss of coverage, Notice 2009-27 indicates the loss of coverage generally occurs when the individual ceases to be entitled to employee or dependent coverage on the same terms and conditions as would have applied had he not experienced the qualifying event.  However, if the plan treats the continued provision of health coverage from the termination date until employee or dependent coverage later ends as a result as reducing the period of required COBRA Coverage, then the loss of coverage occurs on the termination date or other later date.  Appropriate drafting is important to support the desired characterization.

 Calculation of 35% of COBRA Premium

Based on the guidance in Notice 2009-27, many employers will want to terminate severance or other arrangements under which former employees are allowed to pay less than the maximum COBRA premium for some period of time.  According to Notice 2009-29,.the premium used to determine the 35% share that must be paid by (or on behalf of) an assistance eligible individual is the cost that would be charged to the assistance eligible individual for COBRA Coverage if the individual were not an assistance eligible individual. If absent the Stimulus COBRA Rules, the group health plan would require the assistance eligible individual to pay 102% of the "applicable premium" for continuation coverage, i.e., generally the maximum permitted, the Reduced Premium equals 35% of the 102% of the applicable premium. As no good deed goes unpunished, however, if the premium the group health plan would charge the assistance eligible individual is less than the maximum allowable COBRA premium, the Reduced Premium will be 35% of that lesser amount.  In determining whether an assistance eligible individual has paid 35% of the premium, payments on behalf of the individual by another person (other than the employer with respect to which the involuntary termination occurred) are taken into account.

 Coverage Eligible For Premium Reduction

Notice 2009-27 also provides guidance about what types of group health plan coverage qualifies for premium reduction.  According to the Notice, the premium reduction is available for COBRA Coverage of any group health plan, except a health flexible spending arrangement (FSA) under section 106(c) offered under a section 125 cafeteria plan. This includes vision-only or dental-only plans, "mini-med plans" and certain health reimbursement accounts (HRAs). 

The Notice 2009-27 distinguishes exempted FSAs from covered health reimbursement arrangements (HRAs) for purposes of these rules.  According to Notice 2009-27, while an HRA may qualify as an FSA under section 106(c), the exclusion of FSAs from the premium reduction is limited to FSAs provided through a section 125 cafeteria plan, which would not include an HRA. 

Notice 2009-27 also indicates that retiree coverage can qualify for the premium reduction where the retiree coverage does not differ from the coverage made available to similarly situated active employees.

 

Premium Reduction Period Duration

Notice 2009-27 also provides guidance about when periods of coverage and the Premium Reduction Period begin and end.  Under the Stimulus COBRA Rules, the premium reduction applies as of the first period of coverage beginning on or after February 17, 2009 (February 17, 2009)  for which the assistance eligible individual is eligible to pay only 35% of the premium  and be treated as having made full payment.   For this purpose, a period of coverage is a monthly or shorter period with respect to which premiums are charged by the plan with respect to such coverage.  

According to Notice 2009-27, when the Premium Reduction Period begins for an assistance eligible individual depends on the period the plan charges COBRA premiums.  Where a group health plan requires an individual who loses coverage other than on the last day of the month who wishes to enroll in COBRA Coverage to pay a pro-rata portion of the monthly premium, Notice 2009-27 states the first period of coverage to which the premium reduction applies for an assistance eligible individual who loses coverage after February 17, 2009 generally is the individual's first partial month of coverage.  A different rule applies when the assistance eligible individual elects COBRA Coverage under the second election period required by the Stimulus Bill Rules, however.  Whether a plan requires COBRA Coverage be paid for based on a calendar month or pro rata basis, March 1, 2009 is the beginning of the first period of coverage within the Premium Reduction Period for any assistance eligible individual enrolling during the second enrollment period and the Reduced Premium only applies to that individual for COBRA Coverage from March 1, 2009 through the end of his otherwise applicable Premium Reduction Period. 

End Of Premium Reduction Period

An assistance eligible individual ceases to qualify for the premium reduction on the earliest of:

  • The first date the assistance eligible individual becomes eligible for other group health plan coverage (with certain exceptions) or Medicare coverage,
  • The date that is nine months after the first day of the first month for which the Stimulus Bill premium reduction provisions apply to the individual, or
  • The date the individual ceases to be eligible for COBRA Coverage.

Notice 2009-27 confirms that the Premium Reduction Period of an assistance eligible individual ends on the first date he becomes eligible for other group health plan coverage or Medicare effect even if the assistance eligible individual does not enroll in the other group health plan coverage.  

According to Notice 2009-27, whether an offer of retiree coverage that is not COBRA Coverage simultaneously with the offering of COBRA Coverage ends the Premium Reduction Period depends on whether the retiree coverage is offered under the same group health plan as the COBRA Coverage or under a different group health plan.  If offered under the same group health plan, the offer of the retiree coverage has no effect on the Premium Reduction Period.  If offered under a different group health plan, the offer of retiree coverage that is not COBRA coverage ends the Premium Reduction Period.  However Notice 2009-27, however, If offered to someone whose eligibility for COBRA coverage arose between September 1, 2008 and February 17, 2009, the offer render the individual ineligible for the premium reduction only if the period the individual is given for enrolling in the retiree coverage extends to at least February 17, 2009.

Notice 2009-27 also addresses when eligibility for coverage under an HRA ends eligibility for the premium reduction.  It states that becoming eligible for HRA coverage ends the Premium Reduction Period unless the HRA qualifies as an FSA under section 106(c).   Under section 106(c), an FSA is health coverage under which the maximum amount of reimbursement which is reasonably available to a participant of the coverage is less than 500% of the value of the coverage. For this purpose, the maximum amount of reimbursement which is reasonably available is generally the balance of the HRA and the value of the HRA coverage would generally be the applicable premium for COBRA continuation of the HRA coverage.

Notice 2009-27 also clarifies that the Premium Reduction Period of an eligible individual may extend beyond December 31, 2009 for individuals who qualify as assistance eligible individuals on or before December 31, 2009.  For example, the Premium Reduction Period of an assistance eligible individual whose Premium Reduction Period begins on December 1, 2009 could extent until August 31, 2010, assuming the individual does not become eligible for other group health plan coverage or Medicare or lose eligibility for COBRA Coverage before that date.

With regard to the effect of Medicare eligibility on an assistance eligible individual's Premium reduction Period, Notice 2009-27 indicates that an individual currently enrolled in Medicare when the involuntary termination of employment occurs is ineligible for premium reduction, even though they may be eligible to elect COBRA continuation coverage by paying the otherwise applicable unreduced COBRA premium.

Dealing With Assistance Eligible Individuals Not Eligible For Premium Subsidy Based On Eligibility For Other Group Coverage

Under the Stimulus Bill, assistance eligible individuals are required to provide notification and resume paying the unreduced usual COBRA premium when they become eligible for Medicare or other group health coverage.  Where an assistance eligible individual fails to provide the required notice and continues to take advantage of the premium reduction after his Premium Reduction Period terminates due to his becoming eligible for other coverage or Medicare, Notice 2009-27 states the employer is not responsible for recovering the additional premium or otherwise recouping the COBRA premium.  

Dealing With Assistance Eligible Individuals Subject to Phase Out of Premium Subsidy Eligibility Based On Income

The Stimulus COBRA Rules include tax provisions designed phase out the COBRA Subsidy for certain highly compensated employees by taxing a portion of those amounts.  Notice 2009-7 discusses the mechanics through which highly compensated employees can avoid this tax liability by electing to waive the Premium Reduction and Premium Subsidy.  

An assistance eligible individual who wants to make a permanent election to waive the right to the premium reduction makes the election by providing a signed and dated notification (including a reference to "permanent waiver") to the employer or other person who is reimbursed for the premium reduction under the COBRA Premium Subsidy provisions of Code § 6432. No separate additional notification to any government agency. If an assistance eligible individual makes the permanent election to waive the right to the premium reduction, the individual may not later reverse the election and may not receive the premium reduction for any future period of COBRA Coverage in 2009 or 2010, regardless of modified adjusted gross income in those years.

Notice 2009-27 makes clear that these rules don't allow employers to deny the Reduced Premium to these assistance eligible individuals.  According to Notice 2009-27, "Even if an assistance eligible individual's income is high enough that the recapture of the premium reduction would apply, COBRA Coverage must be provided upon payment of 35% of the premium unless the individual has notified the plan that the individual has elected the permanent waiver of the premium reduction (or the period for the premium reduction has ended). 

Second COBRA Election Period

The Stimulus Bill also requires group health plans to offer a second election period to assistance eligible individuals not enrolled in COBRA Coverage on February 17, 2009 whose employment terminated between September 1, 2008 and February 16, 2009.  Notice 2009-27 confirms that any individual (including a dependent) who did not have an election of COBRA Coverage in effect on February 17, 2009, but who would have been an assistance eligible individual if the election were in effect must be offered this second election period. For those electing COBRA Coverage during this second election period, the resulting coverage begins with the first period of COBRA continuation coverage beginning on or after February 17, 2009.   Notice 2009-27 confirms that this extended election period is available for all individuals who are qualified beneficiaries as the result of an involuntary termination during the period from September 1, 2008, through February 17, 2009, even if they still have an open COBRA election period as of February 17, 2009. If these individuals elect COBRA under their original COBRA election period, COBRA coverage is retroactive to their loss of coverage and the premium reduction does not apply to the periods of coverage prior to the first period of coverage beginning on or after February 17, 2009 (generally, periods of coverage before March 2009 for plans with monthly coverage periods).

If, as a result of the extended election period, an assistance eligible individual becomes eligible for COBRA Coverage under a group health plan that requires payment of COBRA premiums on a calendar month basis, the individual's first period of coverage will begin on March 1 and the Reduced Premium only applies prospectively from that date. According to Notice 2009-27, this does not change even if the plan otherwise requires individuals who lose coverage before the last day of the month and who wish to enroll in COBRA continuation coverage to pay a pro-rata portion of the monthly premium for the first partial month of coverage.

In contrast, where a group health plan determines the required COBRA premiums based on the loss of coverage, Notice 2009-27 states that the first period of coverage begins on the first day after the loss of coverage and ends on the day of the following month corresponding to the day of the loss of coverage. For example, if the last day of coverage was October 3, 2008, the period of coverage runs from the fourth of the month to the third of the following month, and thus the first period of coverage on or after February 17, 2009, is the period March 4, 2009, through April 3, 2009.

Notice 2009-27 also discusses the operation of these rules as applied to certain HRAs

Who Pays The Premium Subsidy & Claims The Payroll Tax Credit

In previously issued guidance, the IRS indicated that between the sponsoring employer or union and a group insurer, the party that collects the Reduced Premium bears responsibility to pay the 65% Premium Subsidy then claiming the payroll tax credit under the Stimulus COBRA Rules.  According to Notice 2009-27, if the insurer and the employer of insured, single employer group health plan have agreed that the insurer will collect the premiums directly from the qualified beneficiaries, the insurer must treat an assistance eligible individual paying 35 of the premium as having paid the full premium, even before the employer pays the insurer the remaining 65%. If the insurer fails to treat a 35% payment by an assistance eligible individual as a payment of the full premium, the insurer may be liable for the excise tax under Code § 4980B(e)(1)(B), which applies to persons responsible for administering or providing benefits under the plan and whose act or failure to act caused (in whole or in part) the failure, if the person assumed responsibility for the performance of the act to which the failure relates.

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Cynthia Stamer

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Cynthia Marcotte Stamer, is nationally and internationally recognized for her work assisting businesses, governments, and other entities to develop creative strategies for dealing with employee benefit and related human resources, insurance, health care and finance concerns. Ms. Stamer helps businesses design, administer and defend cost-effective employee benefit other human resources programs, policies and procedures to meet their budgetary and other business objectives.