Worst Case Scenario: I Lost My Job—and My Health Insurance

Get the facts about COBRA and other options for maintaining health insurance coverage.

office employee packing up personal items and leaving job

Updated on April 27, 2023.

When you learn you will lose your job, one of the first things you may worry about—besides lost income—is your health insurance. If you receive coverage through your employer, it may end the day you clean out your desk and walk out the door for the last time. If you’re lucky, it will last until the end of the month, but that depends on your employer’s plan.

The easiest solution to a health insurance dilemma is to join a spouse or partner’s plan. If that’s not possible, it’s important to understand the options and act quickly, since they’re time-sensitive. 

After a layoff, you have three basic options:

Pay for COBRA (Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act) 

COBRA is a federal law that allows you to stay on your employer’s plan for 18 to 36 months after being laid off or fired. (The only reason you wouldn’t qualify is if you’re fired for “gross misconduct.”) The catch: You have to pay for it. That’s not always easy when you’ve just lost your job. 

You may not even have known what your employer’s cost for your health insurance plan was, but now you’ll find out. You may pay up to 102 percent of the cost, to cover some administrative costs. Some employers cover COBRA costs as part of a severance package. It’s worth asking your employer to extend your coverage for a month or two while you get on your feet. If your employer doesn’t come through, you must sign up for COBRA within 60 days of being laid off. Contact your employer if you’re interested in COBRA.

Buy insurance in the Affordable Care Act (ACA) marketplace

Normally, you can only purchase health insurance through the ACA, also known as Obamacare, during the open enrollment period from November 1 through January 15. However, when you have a “life event,” such as losing your job, moving, getting married, having a baby, or adopting a child, you qualify for a Special Enrollment Period and can apply at any time during the year. Household income that meets certain requirements can also make you eligible for a Special Enrollment Period. You may qualify for a government subsidy, or even free or low-cost coverage. You may not want to accept the subsidy now, however, if you aren’t sure you will qualify for the subsidy when your annual income is considered. Otherwise, you may have to pay some or all of it back when you file your income tax return.

Choose from other health insurance plans 

You don’t have to purchase health insurance through the marketplace. You can search for individual health insurance plans yourself or use an insurance broker. You may have more options this way, which can be important if you want to use a particular health care provider. But you cannot qualify for premium subsidies if you don’t purchase your health insurance through the ACA marketplace.

Of course, you can take your chances and go without health insurance. If you’re healthy and expect to get another job soon, that can be tempting. However, a serious illness or accident can be financially disastrous. 

While you look for your next career move, make sure you maintain access to medical care and financial protection. It’s one of the most important things you can do for you and your family.

Sally Herigstad is a certified public accountant, personal finance expert, and author of Help! I Can’t Pay My Bills: Surviving a Financial Crisis.

Article sources open article sources

AARP. Health Insurance Options After You Lose Your Job. Last reviewed April 6, 2020.
Martin L. 7 Insurance Options to Consider Before Quitting Your Job. GoodRx.com. May 31, 2022.
U.S. Department of Labor. FAQs for COBRA Continuation Coverage. Accessed on February 11, 2023.
U.S. Department of Labor. COBRA Continuation Coverage. Accessed on February 10, 2023.
Department of Health and Human Services. Affordable Care Act (ACA). Healthcare.gov. Accessed on February 10, 2023.
Department of Health and Human Services. Find out if you can still get health coverage. Healthcare.gov. Accessed on February 10, 2023.
Department of Health and Human Services. Advance premium tax credit (APTC). Healthcare.gov. Accessed February 11, 2023.

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