Academic journal article Journal of Law and Health

COBRA Continuation Coverage and the Plain Reading of the Statute: Geissal V. Moore Medical Corporation

Academic journal article Journal of Law and Health

COBRA Continuation Coverage and the Plain Reading of the Statute: Geissal V. Moore Medical Corporation

Article excerpt

I. INTRODUCTION

In 1986 Congress passed the Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act (COBRA).(2) This legislation amended the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA)(3) by requiring employers to offer group health insurance coverage to terminated employees for a specific time period after termination. The purpose of this legislation was to provide for "the growing number of Americans without any health insurance coverage and the decreasing willingness of our Nation's hospitals to provide care to those who cannot afford to pay."(4)

The statute requires that the group health insurance coverage extend for eighteen months or thirty-six months, depending upon the qualifying event, or until "[t]he date on which the qualified beneficiary first becomes, after the date of the election, covered under any other group health plan."(5) There has been a split among the Circuits as to the meaning of the "first becomes" statutory language and how this language should be applied when a terminated employee has preexisting coverage through his or her spouse's employer at the time of termination and makes an election for COBRA continuation coverage.

The Tenth and Seventh Circuits have held that the employee is not disqualified from obtaining COBRA continuation coverage because of the spouse's preexisting group health insurance coverage.(6) The Fifth, Eleventh, and Eighth Circuits, on the other hand, have held that the employee is disqualified from obtaining continuation coverage because of the spouse's preexisting group health insurance coverage.(7) The Supreme Court recently decided the Eighth Circuit case regarding the issue of an employee's right to COBRA continuation coverage when the employee has preexisting spousal coverage.(8)

This Paper will discuss the relevant statutes, case law and the Supreme Court's opinion in Geissal v. Moore Medical Corp.(9) It concludes that the Supreme Court correctly reversed the Eighth Circuit's opinion in Geissal by applying the plain meaning of the statute and rejecting the "significant gap" theory. James Geissal was entitled to COBRA continuation coverage even though his wife had preexisting group health insurance coverage. The Fifth, Eleventh and Eighth Circuits' significant gap theory is not supported by the plain meaning of the statute or Congress' intent. The employee should have the choice to elect COBRA or decide whether different coverage is in his or her best interest. As long as the employee bears the risk and pays the premiums during the limited time period provided by COBRA the courts should not supplant their own views as to what constitutes adequate coverage or whether there is a significant "gap" in health insurance coverage between the employee's coverage and the spouse's coverage.

Part I of this paper will provide a background analysis of the statutory provision at issue and discuss the holdings of the Circuit Courts of Appeal. Part II of this paper will analyze the Geissal case. Part III of this paper will conclude that the Supreme Court's opinion in the Geissal case is the only possible decision that could preserve the plain meaning of the statute and limit judicial intrusion into the group health insurance arena.

II. BACKGROUND

A. COBRA

The obligation to provide COBRA continuation coverage applies to employers with twenty or more employees.(10) The statute requires that the "qualified beneficiary who would lose coverage under the plan as a result of a qualifying event is entitled, under the plan, to elect within the election period, continuation coverage under the plan."(11) A "qualified beneficiary" is defined as the individual employee or an individual, whom on the day before the qualifying event for the employee, is a plan beneficiary as the individual's spouse or dependent child.(12) A "qualifying event" is defined as an event which would, but for the continuation coverage provisions, result in the loss of coverage for the beneficiary. …

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