Policy-ish

Time Runs Short For COBRA Insurance Help

Almost since its inception back in the mid 1980s, the COBRA health insurance program has been both a blessing and a curse.

A blessing because it helps people who lose their jobs keep their job-based health insurance. A curse because they have to pay the full freight plus an administrative fee.

Now, some extra help the government made available during the depths of the country's recent financial crisis may finally be coming to an end.

That would be a real drag. The average COBRA premium for an individual in a PPO in 2010 was $5,184, while the average premium for family coverage was $15,202, according to a recent report by the consulting firm Towers Watson and the National Business Group on Health. Pretty pricey if you're unemployed.

So as part of the 2009 fiscal stimulus bill, Congress offered people who'd lost their jobs involuntarily help paying their COBRA premiums. For nine months, they could get a 65 percent subsidy towards the cost of health insurance coverage.

Last December, Congress extended the eligibility dates for those qualifying for the subsidy and extended the length from nine months to 15 months. When that program expired at the end of February, it was extended again, first to the end of March, and then to June 1.

The bill to which the subsidy has been attached originally also extends unemployment insurance and cancels a 21 percent cut in Medicare payments to doctors. It also makes other changes to taxes and spending, but it didn't include the COBRA subsidy when it passed the House just before Memorial Day.

And it wasn't included in the Senate version of the bill now being debated on the floor.

It has been offered as an amendment by Sen. Bob Casey (D-PA), but it's chances don't look too good. "Americans who lose their coverage through job loss cannot be expected to purchase expensive health care plans while they're unemployed," he said on the Senate floor. "We ought to give them some measure of peace of mind so they can concentrate on finding a job instead of worrying about whether they or someone in their family, a loved one, is going to get the medical treatment that they deserve."

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