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What is an EAP?
An employee assistance program (EAP) is an arrangement between a corporation, academic institution or government agency and its employees that provides a variety of support programs for the employees. Although EAPs are aimed mainly at work-related difficulties, they can also help employees with problems that originate outside the workplace when such troubles impact work attendance or on-the-job performance.
The concept of the EAP originated in the 1970s in an effort to reduce substance abuse and intoxication in the workplace. Since that time, EAPs have evolved to deal with a variety of issues such as marital problems, depression, anger management, anxiety and physical illness. EAPs can provide day care for children of employees and elder care for parents of employees. Legal and financial assistance may also be available.
All EAP consultations and referrals are confidential and the services are provided at no cost. An employer with an established EAP can often attract and keep better talent than an otherwise similar employer without an EAP.
EAPs and COBRA
An employer is required to offer COBRA continuation to the extent that the EAP provides services that constitute medical benefits under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA).
Since benefits for the treatment of drug and alcohol abuse, stress, anxiety, depression and the like are medical benefits, the DOL concluded that the EAP benefits were subject to COBRA (see DOL Advisory Opinion 88-04A).
Generally, if there is an open enrollment period for similarly situated, active employees, each qualified beneficiary receiving COBRA coverage must be given the same open enrollment period rights. (Reg.§54.4980B-5, Q&A 4(c)) Therefore, to the extent an EAP offers medical benefits, qualified beneficiaries must be given an opportunity to elect continuation coverage with respect to the medical portion of the plan and, if not already covered by the EAP, elect to become covered under the EAP.