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You have 60 days from the date you lost coverage or when you were sent an election notice from the employer or plan administrator–whichever date was later.

The landmark Consolidated Omnibus Reconciliation Act (COBRA) of 1986 sets the rules for continuing group health insurance coverage that otherwise would be lost. COBRA was created to provide an insurance safety net for families after loss of a job, death or divorce.

Employers must notify health insurance plan administrators within 30 days after an employee’s death, termination, entitlement to Medicare or reduction of hours of employment. If the coverage is lost as a result of divorce, legal separation or a child’s ceasing to be covered as a dependent under the plan rules, the health plan beneficiary must notify the plan administrator.

The plan administrator must then send an election notice for COBRA within 14 days. You then have 60 days to decide whether to choose COBRA continuation coverage, and after electing coverage, you have 45 days to pay the initial premium.

Contact your former employer or health plan administrator if you haven’t received your COBRA enrollment packet.

Besides providing health insurance now, continuing coverage through COBRA protects your health insurance rights in the future. The federal Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) guarantees that people who have continuous group health coverage–without a gap in coverage of more than 63 days–can’t be forced to sit out a waiting period because of a pre-existing condition under a new group health insurance plan.