After less than a month after his inauguration, President Obama signed a $787 billion economic stimulus package on February 17, 2009. The intent of The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (ARRA) is to lead America outof the economic downturn and prevent further financial catastrophe in the market. While political pundits, politicians, and the public engage in debate about the merits of the stimulus package, employers face pressing matters that must be addressed as portions of the bill directly relate to their business.

Primarily the stimulus bill requires that employers who are subject to COBRA (Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act of 1985), those with group health plans with 20 or more employees, to provide a subsidy to eligible individuals. Specifically the COBRA provision provides a 65% subsidy of their COBRA premium to eligible individuals for up to 9 months, while the individual will be responsible for paying the other 35%. Employers with assistance eligible individuals will receive a tax credit on their payroll taxes and in the event that the credit exceeds the amount of payroll taxes owed, the U.S. Department of the Treasury will issue tax credits or refunds.

While the specifics of eligibility for the subsidy are reasonably defined, some areas remain ambiguous; particularly in regards to what “involuntary termination” is classified as. In any event, the COBRA subsidy covers anyone who qualified for COBRA benefits anytime between September 1, 2008 and December 31, 2008 and is considered a beneficiary because of an involuntary termination of employment. The stimulus package does impose income limits for subsidy eligibility for those with adjusted gross incomes over $145,000 as an individual or $290,000 for joint filers in the previous taxable year will be responsible for repaying the amount of the subsidy for all months in the tax year. For those with incomes between $125,000 and $145,000 individual and $250,000 and $290,000 joint filers will repay the amount of the subsidy at a reduced proportionate rate.

The time period for receiving the subsidy begins on March 1, 2009 for those group health plans using calendar monthsfor COBRA coverage and immediately ends when one of three events occur: 1. the eligible individual becomes qualifiedfor coverage under a different group health plan or Medicare; 2. 9-months after the subsidy begins; 3. the end of the maximum COBRA period for the particular qualifying event. In its entirety, the subsidy is available for COBRA eligible plans with the exception of health flexible spending accounts.

Since the subsidy comes in effect this month, employers need to be aware that they are responsible for notifying all assistance eligible employees currently covered under COBRA as well as those eligible individuals who did not elect COBRA coverage during their 60-day election period that a subsidy will be applied to their premium costs. Employers should note that all employees who terminated employment between September 1st and December 31st, 2008 should benotified of the subsidy. Moreover the notices should advise them on the availability of the subsidy and whatrequirements they must meet in order to qualify for the subsidy (at the time of this publication the Department of Labor has not yet released a template notice to provide terminated employees). All notices are required to be sent out within 60 days of the enactment of the American Recovery Reinvestment Act.

While the stimulus package contains many provisions that have the potential to lead to other areas of change for employers, such as the establishment of the Federal Coordinating Council for Comparative Effectiveness Research-a 15-member board of federally appointed employees by the president, whom are assigned to investigate the effectiveness of different drugs and medical devices, which some observers say carries the potential to revolutionize the way medicaltreatment is delivered, will undoubtedly influence group health care plans in the future.
In the meantime, however, employers should remain cognizant of their responsibility to notify all eligible employees of the COBRA subsidy and keep a close eye on Congress to ensure that they are in full compliance with any pieces of legislation being introduced and passed during these chaotic and challenging times.