More employees than ever before are working beyond age 65, and this also happens to be the age when most people in the U.S. qualify for Medicare. Requirements of when an employee is eligible for both a group health plan and Medicare vary. Employers and plan administrators need to understand their options. Let’s stating with understanding the basics of Medicare.
Medicare is comprised of four parts, each of which is identified by a letter in the alphabet.
Parts A and B are referred to as Original Medicare, and the benefits are administered by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), a federal government agency.
Although technically not a “part” of Medicare, there is one other plan to point out. Medicare Supplement plans, also known as Medigap plans, are available to people enrolled in Original Medicare. These plans cover some of the deductibles and out-of-pocket costs associated with Parts A and B. Parts A and B cover 80% of your deductible and out-of-pocket costs—Medicare Supplement covers the additional 20%.
Most people qualify for Medicare on the first day of the month that they turn age 65. For example, if your birthday was on May 15, your eligibility for Medicare will start on May 1.
Some people qualify for Medicare under age 65 because of a disability. These people are eligible for Medicare on the first day of the 25th month of receiving Social Security Disability Income benefits. For example, those under age 65 with end-stage renal disease (ESRD) or amyotropic lateral sclerosis (ALS) can qualify for Medicare earlier.
As an Employer and plan administrator you should be prepared to answer questions from employees as they enroll or consider enrolling in Medicare while still working or having coverage through a spouse who is still working. The federal government has a set of rules in place, referred to as Medicare Secondary Payer (MSP) rules that determines which health plan is primary and secondary when an employee is enrolled in both a group health plan and Medicare. This is primarily based on the size of the employer company/business, when determining the size, make sure you include all full-time and part-time employees in the count.
You may be interested in providing an alternative benefit to employees who are eligible for Medicare. This alternative benefit generally involves a financial incentive to disenroll in the group health plan and pursue coverage exclusively through Medicare. This could create savings to the employer, coverage under Medicare may be better than the group health plan, or it could be a combination of both. The coverage under Medicare may be better than the group health plan and it may save you money to have less employees on the group plan, this combination is a win-win.
The MSP rules also dictate when a financial incentive encouraging disenrollment from the group health plan may be offered. These rules are in place to protect the solvency of the Medicare Program.
When Medicare would be the secondary payer of coverage if the employee were enrolled in both the group health plan and Medicare, the employer cannot offer any incentive (financial, or otherwise) that would encourage disenrollment from the group health plan. Penalties of up to $5,000 for each violation may apply. In addition, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) may impose a penalty of up to 25% of the employer’s group health plan expenses for the relevant year. It would not be advisable to pay or reimburse employees for Medicare premiums (with pre-tax or after-tax dollars) in situations where Medicare would be the secondary payer of coverage if the employee enrolled in the group health plan.
Medicare entitlement of the employee is listed as a COBRA qualifying event, however, it is rarely a qualifying event. In situations where it is a qualifying event, it is only a qualifying event for the spouse or children that are covered under the group health plan.
For Medicare entitlement of the employee to be a qualifying event, the terms of the group health plan must specify that the employee is no longer eligible for coverage under the group health plan once entitled to Medicare. This is prohibited in most instances by the MSP rules, and thus, Medicare entitlement of the employee is rarely a COBRA qualifying event.
Here’s an example:
John works for XYZ Company which has 200 employees and is subject to COBRA and the MSP rules. John is enrolled in the group health plan offered by XYZ Company, and he also has elected to cover his spouse Jill under the plan. John just turned age 65 and has become eligible for Medicare, but Jill is only 62 years old and is not yet eligible for Medicare. John has decided to enroll in Medicare, and consequently, Jill will be losing coverage under the group health plan.
Does XYZ Company have to offer COBRA to Jill? No.
John voluntarily dropped coverage under the group health plan, XYZ Company did not. XYZ Company is prohibited from changing John’s eligibility for coverage under the group health plan because he enrolled in Medicare. John could have continued coverage under the group health plan even while enrolled in Medicare. As a result, John’s Medicare entitlement does not trigger a COBRA qualifying event for Jill.
Employers and plan administrators should educate themselves on the Medicare and group health plan relationship. It’s important for compliance reasons, but it’s also important to help employees understand what does (or doesn’t) change upon becoming eligible for Medicare.