Monday, December 7, 2009

Millions of laid-off workers lose health coverage as federal COBRA subsidies expire

On December 1, many of the millions of laid-off workers and dependents who received federal subsidies to help pay for health care coverage lost those subsidies and likely joined the ranks of the uninsured, according to the consumer health organization Families USA. The subsidies -- which were started last March by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) but were made available for only nine months -- have enabled millions of laid-off workers and dependents to afford so-called "COBRA" premiums needed to continue health coverage from their previous employer.

Under the ARRA, the federal subsidies pay 65 percent of the cost of COBRA premiums. Nationwide, the federal subsidies for COBRA family coverage average $722 per month. Without subsidies, the report finds, nationwide COBRA premiums for family health coverage will cost laid-off workers, on average, $1,111 per month -- 83.4 percent of the average ($1,333) monthly Unemployment Insurance (UI) checks they receive. For the first recipients, who began receiving subsidies in March, the subsidies will expire on November 30. For those who started receiving subsidies after March, the expiration will be nine months after their start-up date.

"When workers lose their jobs, they often lose their health coverage as well," said Ron Pollack, executive director of families USA. "For millions of laid-off workers and their families, the federal COBRA subsidies have been a health-coverage lifeline. It is essential, therefore, that new jobs legislation extends those subsidies."

Pollack noted that pending health reform legislation would provide a permanent source of help to laid-off workers. The health reform bills pending in Congress would enable laid-off workers and their families to obtain health coverage through a newly created marketplace, called an "exchange," and families with low incomes would receive tax-credit subsidies to help pay the premiums.

According to the Families USA report, average monthly family COBRA premiums vary quite significantly from one state to another --ranging from $979 in Idaho and $989 in Iowa to $1,232 in Minnesota.

The report also indicates that average monthly UI checks vary substantially from one state to another. The two states with the lowest average UI benefits are Mississippi ($839) and Alabama ($903), and the two states with highest benefits are Washington ($1,826) and Hawaii ($1,808).

In nine states, the average family COBRA premium exceeds the average UI benefit. In Mississippi, for example, the average monthly unsubsidized family COBRA premium is 22.4 percent higher than the average monthly UI check: The average family COBRA premium in the state is $1,027, while the average monthly UI check is $839.

The eight other states in which the average family COBRA premium exceeds the average UI check are: Alabama ($1,005 vs. $903); Alaska ($1,209 vs. $1,032); Arizona ($1,111 vs. $941); Delaware ($1,209 vs. $1,125); Florida ($1,147 vs. $1,010); Louisiana ($1,013 vs. $968); South Carolina ($1,090 vs. $1,061); and Tennessee ($1,112 vs. $975).

"Extending the federal COBRA subsidy is a critical, immediate measure to protect recently laid-off workers and their families," said Pollack. "For the future peace of mind of working families, however, it is important to pass health care reform so that nobody has health coverage taken away when he or she switches jobs."

Any extension of the COBRA subsidy program will also likely make the subsidies available to newly unemployed individuals. Under the current program, people who lose their jobs after December 31, 2009, will not qualify for the subsidy.

The Congressional Budget Office and Joint Tax Committee estimated that approximately 7 million adults and dependent children would receive the COBRA subsidy in 2009. The Treasury Department is compiling data about how many workers received the subsidy, but a count of the people benefiting from the subsidy is not yet available.

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