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Counting On The COBRA Subsidy For Coverage

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Counting On The COBRA Subsidy For Coverage

Health

Counting On The COBRA Subsidy For Coverage

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

Many workers who lost their jobs in the recession still have their health insurance. A temporary federal program helps pay their premiums. The program has been extended several times, but it's not clear how long that will last. Jenny Gold of Kaiser Health News, a nonprofit news service, has more.

JENNY GOLD: When musician Matthew Skoller's wife was laid off from her job at a Chicago department store, they didn't think they'd be able to keep their health insurance. They were allowed to stay on his wife's employer plan for 18 months under a federal program called COBRA, but there was a catch - they'd have to pay the full monthly premium costs themselves.

Mr. MATTHEW SKOLLER (Musician): Our insurance was $1,035, and we couldn't afford it, obviously, especially since she had just gotten laid off.

GOLD: But they caught a break.

Mr. SKOLLER: One of my wife's friends saw a program on Oprah Winfrey, talking about the stimulus package and how it would extend COBRA.

GOLD: A year ago, the government offered to pay 65 percent of COBRA premiums for laid-off workers, bringing the average cost per family down from more than $1,000 a month to a more manageable $400 a month.

Mr. SKOLLER: We would not have insurance right now if we didn't have a subsidy. That's for sure.

GOLD: Since then, Congress has been extending the program in fits and starts, allowing more and more workers to benefit for a longer time. First, the program was a nine-month subsidy for workers laid off from September 2008 through December 2009. Then it was extended through February of this year. Now, workers laid off before March 31 are eligible for 15 months of the subsidy.

All those changes have left many people confused about whether or not they're eligible.

Mr. GEORGE FOX (COBRA Help Center): George Fox, may I help you.

GOLD: George Fox works for a small company called the COBRA Help Center, which administers COBRA plans and helps customers buy a new policy once their COBRA benefits run out. He says he's getting dozens of questions every day.

Mr. FOX: There's just so much unclear information out there in the general public about the COBRA extension in the Stimulus Act that there's a lot of confusion about it.

GOLD: Now, the jobs bill, just passed by the Senate last week, would extend the program again, allowing workers laid off through the end of 2010 to get the subsidy. But the bill is stuck in a back and forth with the House, and in the meantime, families of laid off workers are waiting for word from Washington.

Here's Matthew Skoller.

Mr. SKOLLER: All of this waiting for the subsidy extensions to be announced or not announced is incredibly stressful on families.

GOLD: And that, unto itself, he says, has been debilitating.

For NPR News, I'm Jenny Gold.

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