NU Online News Service, May 26, 2004, 11:15 p.m. EDT – The federal Employee Benefits Security Administration has published a final rule on health continuation coverage notices.[@@]

The rule affects employers who must offer departing employees and other health plan members continuation benefits to comply with the Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act of 1986.

The rule includes 4 model COBRA notices and sets minimum COBRA notification standards.

The final rule is a revision of a proposed regulation that EBSA published in May 2003.

Officially, the final rule applies only to notice obligations arising “on or after the first day of the first plan year beginning on or after the date that is 6 months after May 26,” EBSA officials write in a discussion of the final rule published today in the Federal Register.

But plan administrators already should be doing their best to use the proposed or final versions of the model COBRA notices, EBSA officials write.

EBSA officials received 41 public comments about COBRA notices while they were writing and revising the COBRA notice rule.

One decision by the revision team affects the general notice that goes out to employees and other beneficiaries who join a benefit plan.

Some commenters asked officials to let plan administrators use a generic notice, but EBSA decided that administrators ought to include the name of the benefit plan and contact information for either the plan administrator or the COBRA administrator.

Another decision will shape the notice plan administrators use to inform plan beneficiaries affected by firings, employee deaths and other “qualifying events” about their right to elect COBRA coverage.

The final version of the election notice requires plan administrators to give recipients general information about the relationship between COBRA coverage and the portability rights available under the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996.

HIPAA offers former members of group health plans who exhaust COBRA benefits a limited guarantee of access to individual health insurance and help with getting coverage from new employers.

Some commenters wanted EBSA and its parent, the U.S. Department of Labor, to leave out the HIPAA information, but “the department believes it is important that qualified beneficiaries understand that election or non-election of COBRA continuation coverage may have significant implications for their future exercise of HIPAA rights and their ability to obtain health care coverage,” EBSA officials write. “The department is concerned that the significance of the HIPAA information may be lost if the election notice merely refers to the [summary plan description] for more information about plan rights.”

EBSA did grant some of the requests for simplification of the model election notice. One change eliminates a requirement that plan administrators list children, spouses and other affected dependents on the election notice by name. Administrators can identify possible affected parties by referring to them using terms such as “spouse or former spouse” or “dependent children.”

The final rule is on the Web at http://a257.g.akamaitech.net/7/257/2422/14mar20010800/edocket.access.gpo.gov/2004/04-11796.htm