COBRA is not a health insurance company that offers special benefits. Rather, it is an acronym for federal legislation called Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act. Under COBRA, former employees who participated in employer-sponsored group health insurance plans can continue their coverage after their employment ends in most circumstances.
Whether you leave your job voluntarily or involuntarily, COBRA allows you to keep your health insurance benefits for up to 18 months unless you were terminated due to gross misconduct. In some cases, you may be eligible to receive benefits for up to 36 months. Participating in COBRA isn't free; rather, you typically spend more for COBRA benefits than you did for the same plan while you were employed. Despite this, many people feel the cost is better than being uninsured.
How to Enroll
COBRA is automatically available to you if you stop working at a qualified employer that provided group health insurance, but your participation in the program is not automatic. You must complete an enrollment form within the specified period of time and pay your first insurance premium. Unless you do these things during the enrollment period, you will not be enrolled in COBRA and you will become ineligible to participate in the program retroactively.
Regardless when in the enrollment period you complete the form and pay your premiums, COBRA coverage always begins the day after your standard coverage ends. In most cases, employer-sponsored coverage ends the last day of the final month of your employment, meaning COBRA begins the first day of the following month. This is not always the case, however, and it is your responsibility to determine when your previous benefits end so you know when your COBRA coverage begins.
Gaps in Coverage
COBRA does not permit gaps in your insurance coverage. This means that, if you elect to participate, COBRA always begins as soon as your previous coverage ends. You cannot save premium dollars by skipping a few months or even a few days before COBRA begins. Similarly, COBRA coverage is continuous until you terminate it or until the benefits expire, usually after 18 months. You cannot stop COBRA coverage and start it again at your discretion.