COBRA Health Insurance Subsidies Waiting For Senate Action

People recently laid off are waiting to hear if they will be eligible to get subsidies to stay on their employer’s health insurance. The subsidies are part of an extension of jobless benefits that the Senate is considering. Four Republicans voted with 56 Democrats Monday to take up the bill later this week.

Under the federal COBRA law, workers can stay on their former employers’ health insurance plans for 18 months after losing a job, but they must pay the full amount of their premium. However, as part of efforts to avert some of the effects of the recession, and as part of the stimulus package, Congress voted to subsidize 65 percent of those costs for laid-off workers. Here’s a brief timeline of the provisions:

* February 2009: Workers laid off from September 2008 — December 31, 2009 are eligible for nine months of the subsidies.

* December 2009: Eligibility is expanded to those laid off through February 2010 and the subsidy is extended to 15 months.

* March 2, 2010: The eligibility period for newly laid-off workers is extended through the end of the month.

The bill lawmakers are considering now is a short-term extension and is meant to buy Congress more time, again, to pass longer-term benefit extensions.

According to Judy Conti, federal advocacy coordinator for the National Employment Law Project, the bill offers retroactive benefits to those people laid off between April 1 and when the bill passes.

Also, Conti said, the legislation would guarantee that people who enroll for the subsidy by the end of April will get the entire 15 months of federally subsidized health premiums, regardless of whether Congress passes another long-term extension to COBRA by the end of the month.

The longer-term options being considered include a Senate bill that would extend the subsidy through the end of the year. A House bill also offers a longer extension but the two bills would have to be reconciled.

While the debate continues between Republicans who say continually extending benefits without paying for it needs to stop and Democrats who equate unemployment benefits to natural disaster spending, one lawmaker wants to open coverage to even more people.

California Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer introduced the “Equal Access to COBRA Act of 2010” on March 25 that would guarantee COBRA coverage for domestic partners, same-sex spouses and extended family members, not just spouses and children, as the law currently stands. The bill has been referred to the Senate’s Health Education Labor and Pensions Committee, but no word yet on if, or when, it will move from there.

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