The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act has passed both the House and Senate and awaits the President’s signature. The substance of the Act as it relates to COBRA continuation subsidies is as follows:

COBRA Subsidy: Eligible Employees who are involuntarily separated from employment can receive a 65% subsidy toward COBRA premiums for up to 9 months. The Eligible Employee or a third party must pay the remaining 35% of the COBRA premium. Employers cannot pay this amount. Severance agreements that offer employer-paid health continuation should be drafted to take advantage of the subsidy.

Employee Eligibility: Individuals who have been involuntarily terminated between September 1, 2008 and December 31, 2009 with annual incomes less than $125,000 (individual) or $250,000 (joint) are eligible for the COBRA premium assistance. The amount of the subsidy covers both employee and family coverage. The premium assistance is not considered income to the Eligible Employee. 

Employer/Health Plan Payroll Tax Credit: Employers or health plans (if they administer COBRA benefits) must front the COBRA subsidy amount and in exchange receive a credit against payroll taxes for the cost of the subsidy. 

Duration of Subsidy: The subsidy terminates upon offer of any new employer-sponsored health care coverage or Medicare eligibility.

Special Elections and Alternate Enrollment Options: Qualified individuals, who initially decline COBRA coverage, have an additional 60 days after they receive notice of the special election period to elect to receive the subsidy. The election period begins on the date of enactment. Group health plans may provide a special enrollment right for eligible individuals to elect different coverage under the plan in conjunction with a COBRA continuation coverage election. The alternate coverage must meet certain requirements and may not be more expensive than the original coverage.

 Notice Requirements: COBRA notices must include information on the availability of the premium assistance. Model notices from the Department of Labor will be published 30 days after enactment.

Effective Date:  The law is effective for premiums as of the first calendar month following the date of enactment.

UPDATE:  IRS Releases Information for Employers to Claim COBRA Assistance Credit on Payroll Tax Form