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Ask the Health Insurance Expert

Do employers have to insure employees' family members?

Many companies that offer health insurance extend coverage to dependents because family coverage is an important tool for attracting and retaining employees.

But they do not have to offer coverage to dependents. They can choose to offer coverage only to employees -- or choose not to offer coverage at all. However, if the employer does extend coverage to dependents, it must allow young-adult children to stay on their parents' health plans until age 26.

That rule comes from the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, the health care reform law signed by President Obama in March 2010. It's unclear which parts of the law will remain in effect if the U.S. Supreme Court rules that portions of the law are unconstitutional. But for now, the rule that ensures young adults can remain on their parents' plans stands. The Supreme Court wrapped up three days of hearings March 28 and is expected to issue a ruling sometime in June 2012.

Otherwise, employers have fairly wide latitude in designing their health plans and deciding who gets coverage. They can cover certain classes of workers and not others, as long as they treat everyone within a classification the same way. Many companies, for instance, offer coverage only to full-time workers and not to part-time employees. Some offer coverage to executives, but not hourly workers.

Employers also can choose how much of the premium to pay for health coverage and how much employees must pitch in to get coverage. In many cases, employers pay a larger portion of the premium for employees than for dependents. Some are adding a surcharge for dependents who have coverage available through their own jobs, and a small percentage are not offering coverage at all to dependents who have coverage through another source.

For more, see Hey, can my employer do that? The top group health insurance questions.

Last updated: Apr. 13, 2012