EBRI Issue Brief

Portability of Health Insurance: COBRA Expansions and Small Group Market Reform

Oct 1, 1995 17  pages


  • Proposals are currently being put forth to change the health care system incrementally. One area of proposed legislation addresses portability, which allows an individual to change insurers without being subjected to a new waiting period for preexisting conditions. These proposals, discussed in this Issue Brief, contain provisions to limit preexisting condition exclusions, guarantee access to health insurance, guarantee renewal of health insurance, allow individuals to contribute to medical savings accounts on a pretax basis, and change the current law under the Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act of 1985 (COBRA). The proposals would affect insurers, employers, and insured individuals by potentially increasing the cost of providing and purchasing health insurance.
  • Concern about the portability of health insurance primarily arises in situations where an individual is leaving, or would like to leave, a job. If health insurance is not offered by a prospective employer, if the worker must satisfy a waiting period before becoming eligible for coverage, if the benefits package offered through the prospective employer is less generous, or if the employee (or a dependent) has a medical condition that is considered a preexisting condition and would not be covered by the new plan, the employee may opt to remain with his or her current employer—a situation known as job lock.
  • Expansions of COBRA may not have any effect on portability. Employers can charge up to 102 percent of the premium for COBRA coverage, making it unaffordable for many workers. Because cost is a major factor, if there is no reduction in cost (or health care cost inflation) there could be little or no increase in coverage.
  • According to one survey, in 1994 average COBRA costs were $5,301 per COBRA covered worker, compared with $3,420 for active employees. Any expansion of COBRA would almost certainly increase employer cost for health insurance.
  • Guaranteed issue and guaranteed renewal may have the effect of increasing average premiums if insurers and employers are forced to accept relatively unhealthy individuals. Many states have already enacted small group insurance market reforms. While it is still too early to measure the effects of these laws on health insurance coverage, anecdotal evidence indicates that there has been a movement of small firms out of the small group market.