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NFL players and health insurance

The league will stop paying for players' health insurance when the collective bargaining agreement expires next month. What are the players' options?

By Karen Datko Feb 11, 2011 3:19PM

Now that Super Bowl XLV is history, the NFL has turned its attention to labor negotiations and a possible player lockout. As part of that, the league has announced it won't pay for players' health insurance after March 4, when the collective bargaining agreement expires.


So what, you might think. These guys can buy insurance with their NFL-size salaries.

What options do they have? Can they be insured? Or do concussions, torn ACLs, the greater risk of dementia, and all the other physical problems that go with the game count as pre-existing conditions? Insurance companies don't like to insure people who have health problems.

This seems complicated, and misunderstanding abounds. "Some of that misinformation has included suggestions that wives of players need to induce labor prematurely to give birth before March 4, that children with serious illnesses will lose their insurance coverage overnight, or other equally inaccurate and inflammatory statements," NFL senior vice president Dennis Curran said.


Fortunately, NFL players do have options, just like many other people who are out of a job. We can all learn something from the choices they face:


COBRA. Federal law allows players to continue their current coverage for 18 months, if they pay the entire premium, including the former employer's portion, plus an administrative fee of up to 2%. Not to worry: New babies and new spouses can be added to a COBRA plan.


Some points to remember:

Meanwhile, it's usually wise to get any expensive procedures out of the way while you're still employed. Players have been advised to get necessary surgeries before March 4. For them, it's a matter of access to team doctors. (We hope they're getting a second opinion.) In general, co-pays and deductibles are less of a burden when you still have a paycheck. 

All of this seems manageable, no? But what happens to an NFL player's health insurance when his career is over? Keep in mind that the average career is about 3½ years, according to the NFL Players Association. Many players don't last that long. Post continues after video.

Those who are vested, which happens after three years in the league, get five years of health care coverage after they leave. After that, or if they didn't qualify for the five-year extension, they have several options:

  • Sign up for COBRA. See above. It's available for 18 months. 
  • Get a job that provides group health insurance. This is their best bet, because they'll be paying the same premiums that co-workers pay, even though their bodies are banged up. However, it's best to act quickly. Generally speaking, if 63 days or more have passed since you last had insurance, pre-existing conditions you've been treated for within the last six months can be excluded from your new insurance coverage for 12 months -- 18 months if you enroll late. Rules vary state to state. (For more about how that works, see this U.S. Department of Labor Web page.)

(That raises a question for players union lawyers: If a player unwisely elects not to get COBRA or some other coverage and is uninsured for 63 days or more, does that mean pre-existing conditions can be excluded when a lockout ends and the NFL starts paying for health insurance again?)

  • Get on your spouse's work-based insurance plan. This is also an option for players after March 4.
  • Buy individual health insurance. Good luck with that -- at least until the major components of health care reform begin in 2014. "It's pretty tough to get health insurance after you've played six, eight, 10 years in the league," Baltimore Ravens cornerback Domonique Foxworth said last month. "It's pretty tough to find somebody who will insure you if you're that beat up."

The NFL Players Association also notes that "factors such as age, health status, pre-existing conditions and injuries can be serious obstacles" to getting coverage.

What's a player to do if individual coverage is the only option?

  • The league notes that former players, just like everyone else, can improve their chances of getting individual insurance by exhausting their COBRA benefits and immediately applying for a policy, having a gap in coverage of less than 63 days. But that coverage will likely be expensive.
  • Players whose applications for individual insurance are turned down may be eligible for the high-risk pools mandated by health care reform in each state. (The Washington Post says there are still plenty of openings.) Otherwise, insurance companies can continue to deny coverage to adults with pre-existing conditions until 2014.

How important is health care? It's particularly critical to players of the brutal sport so many of us love. Players say they won't consider an 18-game regular season unless owners extend post-career health care coverage beyond five years. (Like Steelers patriarch Dan Rooney, now the U.S. ambassador to Ireland, I think an 18-game regular season is "unnecessary.")


The players union advised current players to save their last three paychecks in case of a lockout. That's a good start. But with guys facing a limited number of playing years, living way below their means will vastly improve their prospects for the future. Health care after football can be very expensive.


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