Health Benefit Plans Under ERISA
ERISA does not require that an employer provide health insurance to its employees or retirees, but it regulates the operation of a health benefit plan if an employer chooses to establish one.
There have been several significant amendments to ERISA concerning health benefit plans:
- The Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act of 1985 (COBRA) provides some employees and beneficiaries with the right to continue their coverage under an employer-sponsored group health benefit plan for a limited time the occurrence of certain events that would otherwise cause termination of such coverage, such as the loss of employment.
- The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA) prohibits a health benefit plan from refusing to cover an employee's pre-existing medical conditions in some circumstances. It also bars health benefit plans from certain types of discrimination on the basis of health status, genetic information, or disability.
During the 1990s and 2000s, many employers who promised lifetime health coverage to their retirees limited or eliminated those benefits. ERISA does not provide for vesting of health care benefits in the way that employees become vested in their accrued pension benefits. Employees and retirees who were promised lifetime health coverage may be able to enforce those promises by suing the employer for breach of contract, or by challenging the right of the health benefit plan to change its plan documents in order to eliminate those promised benefits.