COBRA, the federal Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act, requires that administrators of covered health plans notify their terminated employees of a limited option to continue the group health benefits they had before termination. Substantial liability can be at risk if the employee asserts that he or she never received this “COBRA notice” and the plan administrator has inadequate records to satisfy its burden of proof. A recent case will help employers and administrators know what types of records should be created and retained.

The Eighth Circuit of the United States Court of Appeals has ruled that administrators, to carry their burden of proof that a COBRA notice was mailed to an employee, must have “evidence that the employer had a system for sending out the required notices [and] that the system was in fact followed with respect to the person in question.” Crotty v. Dakotacare Administrative Services (8th Cir. 2006) (No. 05-3798).

The Court held that COBRA administrators “must provide something that indicates that its mailing system was reliable and that the system was followed in the relevant instance.” Examples of the records that the administrator in that case did not have are “any evidence that [the contested] letter was printed out, placed in a properly addressed envelope, or sent through the mail.” Examples of records that, in other cases, were sufficient were a photocopy of the addressed envelope, a report stamped with the date of mailing, and an affidavit from the person who recalled mailing the notice.

Employers should be sure that they or their contracted COBRA administrators are creating and retaining the appropriate records. The records should reflect (a) a well-planned and well-executed system for tracking and notifying eligible former employees and also (b) contemporaneous records of the actual mailing to specifically identified recipients.