There are numerous implications for benefit plans as a result of a merger or acquisition (M&A). One question raised frequently by HR departments is, who is responsible for COBRA for the COBRA qualified beneficiaries?
In simplified terms, the COBRA M&A qualified beneficiaries consists of—
- those qualified beneficiaries already receiving COBRA coverage before the sale under a plan of the seller as a consequence of employment associated with the assets or the entity being sold; and
- those qualified beneficiaries who experience their qualifying event in connection with the sale.
Often during the M&A negotiations, the only due diligence done in regards to benefit plans is a quick check to make sure Forms 5500 have been filed (if applicable) and to make sure there are no outstanding lawsuits or audits. Therefore, when the purchase agreement is silent in regards to COBRA, or the agreement is not followed, one can look to the guidelines the IRS has established in the COBRA regulations as to which party is liable to provide COBRA continuation coverage in a business reorganization.
In general, unless the purchase agreement stipulates otherwise, if the selling group maintains a group health plan after the sale, then a group health plan maintained by the selling group must provide COBRA coverage to M&A qualified beneficiaries.
i.e. If the seller maintains any health coverage, even if the entity sold (or employees terminating) never participated in that particular coverage, then that health plan must be made available to M&A qualified beneficiaries
If no plan remains (e.g. the selling group ceased providing any group health plan) COBRA liability may shift to buyer if the sale is a stock sale, or it may also shift to the buyer if the sale is an asset sale and the buyer is a successor employer (which is a legal determination).
When in doubt, it is best to work with qualified counsel to ensure liability issues regarding COBRA continuation coverage in connection with a M&A are properly addressed.