November 3, 2009

Good for Joe Sestak for recognizing the problem. Let your congress person know you support the bill, even if you can't afford COBRA yourself. Keeping health coverage on the political radar is an important step towards affordable universal health care:

Laura C. Trueman has spent much of her career promoting affordable health care. Now, she wishes she could find some herself.

Laid off from her marketing job at a managed-care company late last year, Trueman was able to keep her health insurance thanks to a provision in the federal stimulus bill that gave furloughed workers the right to purchase their old employer-based coverage at a 65% discount. The subsidies, which last up to nine months, were designed to give workers like Trueman time to get back on their feet.

Today, with the job market weak, Trueman is still without a job, and her family is bracing for an uncertain future. With the subsidies, she and her husband, a self-employed attorney were paying a manageable $460 a month for their health insurance; starting Dec. 1, the cost jumps to $1,313. They can ill afford the increase. They're already having trouble making their mortgage payment, and fear they might lose their Northern Virginia home.

“It has really made a huge difference for us,” she says of the insurance assistance, adding that the higher payment “would be a real stretch.”

Since 1985, a law known as COBRA has given laid off-workers the right to hold onto their employer-based health insurance for up to 18 months so long as they continue to pay the premiums, including payments that their employers used to make on their behalf.

In the past very few people could afford this option, but the government subsidies have changed that, and now enrollments appear to be growing sharply. Hewitt Associates, a Lincolnshire, Ill., consulting firm, recently estimated that the rate at which workers were opting for coverage under COBRA had doubled compared with pre-subsidy levels.

Although federal officials do not have figures on the number of people participating in the program, millions have been eligible. The law covers anyone laid off between Sept. 1 of last year and Dec. 31 of this year.

But with the first discounts having gone into effect March 1, many people are about to see the benefit expire, including many who remain unemployed. The Obama administration and some members of Congress are talking about whether to extend the subsidy. Some lawmakers aren't enthused because of budget concerns, but backers say the subsidy is a crucial lifeline for people still hunting for jobs.

Just this week, Rep. Joe Sestak, D-Penn., introduced legislation that would extend from 9 to 15 months the total allowable time an unemployed worker and her family could receive the subsidized COBRA assistance. The legislation would also extend the subsidies to people laid off through June 30, 2010, widening the window of eligibility by six months. A third provision would give an extra six months of undiscounted COBRA coverage to people who were laid off early in 2008 before the subsidy law took effect.

I was laid off in July 2007, just before the subsidies kicked in. But at this point, I'd be happy just to be eligible for another six months.

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