Health Care

How to Keep Your Health Insurance If You're Furloughed Or Laid Off

Monthly COBRA premiums on employer plans can be very expensive

A man takes a photo of a sign advising that the Employment Development Department is closed due to coronavirus concerns, in San Francisco on Thursday, March 26, 2020.
AP Photo/Jeff Chiu

If you find yourself out of a job due the coronavirus crisis, money may be tight, but it’s especially important now to try to make sure you have health insurance.

There are different rules that apply when it comes to maintaining health coverage, depending on whether you’re furloughed — let go temporarily — or you’re terminated through a layoff.

Health benefits for furloughed vs. laid-off employees

If you are furloughed: For a temporary leave, your employer generally keeps up with your health benefits while you’re not working, though the extent can vary depending on the rules in your state. You are also eligible to file for unemployment without it affecting your health benefits.

“Your benefits continue, but you’re still likely going to have to pay your required contributions ... so you’ll have to either send a check to pay as you go or, in some cases, employers may allow the employee to catch up with their contributions once the furlough ends,” said Steven Schinderle, senior regulatory legal consultant at benefits advisory firm Mercer.

Either way, you will still be responsible for your out-of-pockets costs if you need medical care.

The $2 trillion coronavirus stimulus bill, known as the CARES Act, passed by Congress on March 27 provides funding for small employers to obtain loans to keep workers on the books, and for those loans to be forgiven if they don’t cut jobs. But small business owners also need to make sure they maintain contact with their benefits providers.

The question is how long employers can keep their employees on benefits when they’re not working or being paid. That is a situation where the company needs to contact the health insurance company directly” to maintain the insurance contract, said financial advisor Marguerita Cheng, CEO of Blue Ocean Global Wealth.

If you’re laid off: For employees who are terminated, benefits usually end with your job and you’ll have to pay for health insurance yourself. 

You can keep your employer plan for up to three years, under a federal program known as COBRA, but now you’ll have to foot the entire bill.

If you have a high-deductible plan and health savings account, or HSA, you can use those funds to pay for COBRA premiums and for your medical costs. If you have a Flexible Savings Account, or FSA, you can only use those funds for medical costs. 

“In some instances, we have seen employers offer to subsidize COBRA coverage ... for a period of time. So employees should be asking for that as well, as a possibility,” said Schinderle.

But monthly COBRA premiums on employer plans can be very expensive, so it may not be the best option. Plus, if your employer has gone out of business, the health plan is usually terminated, so COBRA won’t be available.

In general, laid-off employees may be better off buying insurance through the Affordable Care Act exchanges. Your drop in income could mean you’ll qualify for a premium tax credit, which could bring your premiums down substantially.

“If your normal income for the year is around $60,000 and now you’ve made $15,000 through the first quarter of the year, you’re going to get a very nice tax credit to pay for health insurance, so don’t go COBRA,” said Dr. Carolyn McClanahan, director of financial planning at Life Planning Partners.

“The marketplace enrollment will also determine if the employee and dependents qualify for free or low-cost plans, Medicaid or the Children’s Health Insurance Plan,” said Cheng of Blue Ocean Global Wealth. 

If you lose your job, you qualify for a special enrollment period to sign up on the exchanges. Washington, California and New York are among nearly a dozen states that have also opened up special enrollment periods during the coronavirus crisis for the uninsured to sign up for coverage.

Tapping your IRA to pay for health care

If you don’t qualify for subsidized care, financial planners say you can use the money in your IRA to pay for your health-care needs without having to pay a penalty withdrawal.

Under the financial hardship withdrawal, the IRS allows you to take up to $100,000 out of an individual retirement account, without the 10% early withdrawal penalty. You then have up to three years to pay the money back into the IRA without incurring taxes on the withdrawal.

During the coronavirus crisis, you don’t have to be laid off to qualify for the withdrawal to pay for health care.

“If you have been diagnosed (with coronavirus) or you have a spouse or dependent who’s been diagnosed, or you’ve experienced adverse financial consequences as a result of being quarantined ... or you can’t work because you don’t have childcare,” you may qualify, said McClanahan.

That hardship rule does not apply to 401(k) savings plans, but if you are laid off from your job, you can roll over some or all of your money from your 401(k) into an individual retirement account in order to have access to those funds.

Staying covered with health insurance now is an important part of staying safe.

This story first appeared on CNBC.com. More from CNBC:

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