Policy-ish

COBRA Relief May Soon Get Senate Nod

People hoping to get to stay on their former employer's health insurance are likely to get welcome news this week. The Senate is expected to pass an extension of jobless benefits which will interest folks eager for any news about COBRA.

Under the federal COBRA law, workers keep the health coverage they got on the job for as long as 18 months after leaving, but they must pay the full amount of their premium. However, since those premiums cost typically around $1,000 a month for a family — a big slice of an unemployment check — Congress voted in February 2009 to subsidize 65 percent of the coverage costs for workers laid off through December 31, 2009.

That deadline got extended again in December and again in March, but only until the end of the month, so it officially expired for anyone laid off after April 1. People who enrolled before the expiration date are eligible to receive the subsidies for 15 months.

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

According to Judy Conti, federal advocacy coordinator for the National Employment Law Project, the bill coming to a Senate vote would offer benefits retroactively to 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 program through the end of the year. A House bill also offers extends COBRA for longer.

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 HELP committee, but no word yet on if, or when, it will move from there.

Villegas is a reporter and Mertens is a writer at Kaiser Health News, a nonprofit news service.

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