HRC Issue Brief: Equal Access to COBRA Act
The Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act (COBRA) mandates that employees, their spouses and dependent children be allowed to continue participation in their employer-sponsored health coverage, usually at their own expense, after certain qualifying events, most commonly when the employee leaves or loses his or her job. Many same-sex partners and spouses are not covered by employer plans, but even when they are, it is not clear that COBRA benefits must be made available to an employee’s same-sex partner or spouse, or even the children of that partner or spouse in many cases. As a result, when more and more Americans are depending on continuation health coverage to protect the health of their families, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people and their loved ones may not have equal access to this important safety net.
What is the Equal Access to COBRA Act?
The Equal Access to COBRA Act would require employers to provide COBRA continuation coverage to any persons who are covered under the employer’s group health plan prior to an employee’s COBRA qualifying event, including same-sex partners and spouses. Thus, to the extent that an employer sponsors a plan that allows an employee to elect coverage for his or her same-sex partner or spouse, and an employee elects such coverage for his or her same-sex partner or spouse and then has a qualifying COBRA event, the employer would be required to extend COBRA continuation coverage to the employee’s same-sex partner. It would also ensure that a same-sex partner or spouse, like a different-sex spouse, has an independent right to assert a claim for COBRA benefits. The bill does not create a new mandate on employers to provide domestic partner health benefits to active employees, but simply ensures that the families of LGBT employees already depending on employer-provided health coverage are not denied the ability to continue that coverage under COBRA should the need arise. The bill would also provide equal access to these LGBT families to very important federal COBRA premium assistance, as mentioned above.
Despite the fact that federal law does not require it, more than 500 companies, including over 200 of the Fortune 500 corporations, voluntarily make COBRA-like continuation coverage available to the domestic partners of their employees.
What is the Current Status of the Bill?
The Equal Access to COBRA Act was originally reintroduced in the House by former Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-NY) on March 10, 2011 (H.R. 1028), and is now sponsored by Rep. Jackie Speier (D-CA). The bill was reintroduced in the Senate by Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA) on March 10, 2011.