EBRI Issue Brief

Health Insurance Portability: COBRA Expansions and Job Mobility

Feb 1, 1998 20  pages


  • This Issue Brief discusses continuation-of-coverage mandates under the Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act of 1985 (COBRA). It provides background information on health insurance portability and job mobility, data on the cost to employers of providing continuation of coverage to former employees, and a summary of empirical research on COBRA's effect on employee benefits and job mobility.
  • COBRA coverage can be considered advantageous for most workers, as it allows continuation of the health insurance policy they had in place at work when they lose or leave a job. Although employees can be required to pay 102 percent of the premium for COBRA coverage, they can usually realize significant savings compared with the cost of purchasing the equivalent insurance policy in the private market.
  • Many employers consider COBRA to be a costly mandate for three reasons. First, premiums collected from COBRA beneficiaries typically do not cover the costs of the health care services rendered. Second, COBRA imposes an additional administrative cost on employers. Third, many employers view the penalties for noncompliance as excessively large.
  • According to a survey conducted by Charles D. Spencer & Associates, of the 10.2 percent of employees and dependents who were eligible for COBRA coverage in 1996, over 28 percent elected it. In addition, average employer claims costs for COBRA beneficiaries amounted to $5,591, compared with $3,332 for active employees in surveyed plans.
  • According to Employee Benefit Research Institute estimates of the Survey of Income and Program Participation (SIPP), the COBRA population is much older than the general insured population. COBRA beneficiaries also have higher personal income than the general insured population, with this difference being almost entirely due to differences in retirement income.
  • Any attempt to expand COBRA coverage, either through subsidies or by allowing workers to choose from plans with lower premiums, would likely result in increased employer health care costs. As a result, employers may consider various alternatives to reduce, shift, or eliminate the impact of this increased cost. One alternative would be to continue requiring active employees to share in the increased costs through higher employee contributions. A second alternative would be to reduce or eliminate health care benefits for active employees and/or future retirees and their families. A third alternative would be to reduce the size of the work force eligible for health insurance benefits. Finally, employers may pass additional costs on to workers or consumers.