09 July 2008

Calling for COBRA

As mentioned previously on this blog (2 July 2008: Working for Benefits), COBRA can serve to extend health insurance when a job ends or bridge to private insurance (at, we hope, group rates). A common misconception—well, make that my misconception—is that there's a COBRA desk somewhere that the newly unemployed must deal with. Actually, it's much simpler than that.

COBRA coverage is literally extended to us from the folks who already have our records. In Tom Bold's case, that's the insurance desk that's been handling his corporate benefits for the past 19 years. For me, it will be the State office that is coordinating all of my paperwork tied to end of employment. This is not to say that we don't have to do anything. We must read the papers, and we must respond with payment when prompted. The point is, the prompts do surface.

COBRA has not enjoyed a good reputation. My image was one of HIGH EXPENSE. And COMPLICATED PAPERWORK. And SCARY TEMPORARY. There is expense, of course. COBRA translates the cost of the group insurance previously enjoyed through employment to a payment the individual must make. Chances are, it will be noticeable increase. Perhaps the corporate package was "free" to the employee, so any change at all seems dramatic. For many, the premium is shared between employee and employer, so shifting to COBRA means the individual must absorb both parts of the payment. And while not unexpected, the shift to payment as opposed to automatic payroll deduction is nevertheless a change. And in a time of many changes, even this logical adjustment adds stress.

As to paperwork, our experience so far has been easy. Admittedly, we have not yet reached the end of COBRA, so we don't know the full story.

SCARY TEMPORARY is the most emotional of the imagery of COBRA. By definition, the coverage is temporary. And with concerns about pre-existing conditions and "insurability," the SCARY part is inevitable.

My strategy has been simple: get on the phone and start calling. And when I didn't like doing that, I asked my daughter to research it. Out of love, or concern, or fear that she might someday be called upon to pay my insurance premiums, she stepped up to the request. We did have to coordinate: I had to speak on the phone first and give the rep permission to discuss my options with my daughter. Clearly, he had done this before.

And that's worth repeating. Researching COBRA was new and daunting for us. We did not have the vocabulary. We hardly knew what questions to ask. But on the other end of the phone, benefits representatives do have the vocabulary. They know exactly what questions we will ask, and they can even tell us what questions we should be asking.

Where to begin? Select the venue that you are most comfortable calling. All of the folks listed here will know where to send you next (and you won't be first person to ever ask about COBRA):

HR - Human Resources
EAP - Employee Assistance Programs
PAYROLL - Payroll office
YOUR BENEFITS PROVIDER -Insurance company (1-800 number on your card)
YOUR RETIREMENT OFFICE - Either on-site or a regional/state office
U.S. DEPARTMENT OF LABOR Employee Benefits Security Administration

© 2008 Mary Bold, PhD, CFLE. The content of this blog or related web sites created by Mary Bold is not under any circumstances to be regarded as professional, legal, or medical advice. Or education advice. Or marital advice. Or even a tip.

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