The Jobs Bills: The Battle for COBRA

Congress has not yet seen fit to give Americans health care. But there’s a new health care battle heating up right in the middle of the jobs bills that will be the next focus of Congress.

The jobs bill the House passed in December extended subsidies to help laid off workers pay for COBRA that were originally enacted as part of the Stimulus bill. The subsidy pays 65% of COBRA for those laid off, ensuring that families don’t have to spend the bulk of their unemployment insurance check to pay for health coverage. At a cost of $12.3 billion, the bill extended the subsidy from 9 to 15 months, and made it available for those laid off through June 30, 2010.

Obama has said he supports such a measure. And, a bunch of Democrats in the Senate have written to Harry Reid and Max Baucus urging that he pass the same legislation through the Senate. They write:

… recent employment numbers are an indication that we must immediately extend jobless benefits and health assistance for individuals and families squeezed in this tighter economy. Nearly 40 percent of the unemployed – more than 6.1 million people – have been out of work for six months or longer. The average duration of unemployment is now at 29.1 weeks.What is more, many of those individuals and their families lost their health coverage when they lost their jobs. On average, a monthly healthcare premium payment to cover a family costs $1,111, which represents 83.4% of the average unemployment check. In some states, the average unemployment check is less than the cost of a monthly healthcare plan premium.

Based on these figures, Congress must extend unemployment benefits and eligibility for the COBRA Premium Assistance Program through the end of the year. Short term extensions, while still helpful to families, only add strain to state agencies that must constantly re-tool their computer systems, and at the same time, continue to assist the millions still searching for work. As our economy continues on a path to recovery, we need a robust extension of safety net programs that have provided a lifeline to families since the recession began.

We urge quick action on the extension of the unemployment insurance provisions in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act through December 31, 2010, including the Emergency Unemployment Compensation Program, full federal funding of the Extended Benefit program, an increase of $25 per week in state and federal benefits, and the suspension of the federal income tax on an individual’s first $2,400 of unemployment benefits. In addition, we must also extend the eligibility period of the COBRA Premium Assistance Program through December 31, 2010.

Due to the importance of these issues, we respectfully request a meeting with you to discuss how we can provide for an extension of both programs. We thank you for your consideration of our request. All of our offices are committed to ensuring our constituents are able to properly provide for their families during this difficult time. [my emphasis]

The list of signers is interesting for those it includes–as well as those missing.

Barbara Boxer (D-CA)

Dianne Feinstein (D-CA)

Michael Bennet (D-CO)

Christopher J. Dodd (D-CT)

Edward E. Kaufman (D-DE)

Daniel Akaka (D-HI)

Tom Harkin (D-IA)

Roland W. Burris (D-IL)

John F. Kerry (D-MA)

Benjamin L. Cardin (D-MD)

Barbara Mikulski (D-MD)

Carl Levin (D-MI)

Debbie Stabenow (D-MI)

Al Franken (D-MN)

Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH)

Frank R. Lautenberg (D-NJ)

Robert Menendez (D-NJ)

Tom Udall (D-NM)

Kirsten E. Gillibrand (D-NY)

Sherrod Brown (D-OH)

Jeff Merkley (D-OR)

Ron Wyden (D-OR)

Bob Casey (D-PA)

Arlen Specter (D-PA)

Jack Reed (D-RI)

Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI)

Bernard Sanders (I-VT)

Patrick J. Leahy (D-VT)

Herb Kohl (D-WI)

Robert C. Byrd (D-WV)

Jay Rockefeller (D-WV)

Aside from the usual ConservaDems (and Harry Reid himself) and a number of western Senators, even Chuck Schumer appears not to have signed the letter yet.

Granted, I live in the Clusterfuck state. But I know a ton of people for whom the COBRA subsidy has been the single thing that has kept them from panicking as they face long months with no job. Let’s make sure the Democrats come together–with at least one Republican–to include this COBRA subsidy extension in the jobs bill.

  1. joanneleon says:

    Just an FYI, this COBRA legislation was originated by Joe Sestak in the House. He’s been stumping for it and working on it for months. I’m glad to see that Specter supports it.

    Sestak, back in October:

    To help ease that burden, I have introduced the Extended COBRA Continuation Protection Act of 2009, which extends by six months a provision from the Economic Stimulus Bill that provides 65 percent of health insurance premiums to individuals eligible for COBRA benefits who have been involuntarily terminated during the recession.

    • Blutodog says:

      COBRA is aptly named. 1st u lose your job and then a snake called COBRA tries to bite u. Most people don’t even realize that COBRA really benefits your ex-employer more then you the ex-employee. You end up carrying the employers half of the policy and in essence subsidizing their rate. I did this for almost a yr. from 2008 to mid-2009 when my wife after yrs. of waiting patiently in line behind someone who finally retired got a full-time position again. This after working for the same Union for 30 yrs! I’m still unemployed since Aug. 2008. I was 20 days short of the COBRA extension. That 20 days cost us 15K +! We have Company Health Ins. now but we’ve had to buy it on our own in the past as well and its ruinous and its lousy coverage as well.

  2. joanneleon says:

    One more thing:
    mcjoan has a new post talking about how Max Baucus is meddling with the jobs bill. Apparently Durbin and Dorgan were working on a bill for about a month, and Baucus has now stepped in and said that he wants his committee to mark it up.

    Jobs: Baucus at it Again

    Is this Baucus, or is this the White House undermining working through Baucus again?

    Why can’t they pass the House bill? There’s a perfectly good bill sitting there, ready to go, passed more than a month ago while people out here are suffering and really need what’s in that bill.

    Why can’t they break this up and pass more than one bill, rather than letting people hang?

    Are we dealing with extreme control freaks here, or people who just want to commit political suicide, or political homicide on the House?

  3. quanto says:

    If I understand COBRA subsidy correctly doesn’t it give 65% of the premium to the insurance company in the form of tax credit? This just seems like a back door payday to the insurance co. without rates being set.

    It would seem a better way of handling it would be an automatic enrollment into Medicaid with the same 35% copay.

    On another note I think I know how Michigan can reduce some of its deficit, just sell some of our road salt (that we have mountains of) to the southern states, looks like they could use it right about now. Then maybe a vehicle would last more then two years here.

    • bmaz says:

      If Colorado, with the extreme altitude, shitloads of snow, mountain roads, etc. can get by just fine without salt on the roads, why does Michigan need it?

      • quanto says:

        Auto Industry , Job security ( like I said vehicles last 2 years) plus everyone needs to drive 70 miles and hour no matter what the weather.

      • behindthefall says:

        My first question upon seeing winter in New York. I drove around taking pictures of drifts of salt, salt corroding bridges, salt eating out foundations, you name it. Asked around to try to find out why it was found necessary, and all the answer I can get is that the salt usage has a profit motive rolled into it somehow — somebody gets paid by the amount used — and a fear of lawsuits — if there’s less than some concentration of salt in the moisture at the scene of an accident, the government responsible for maintaining that particular road gets sued.

        Meanwhile, trees along the roadside are dying and it has been said, not jokingly, that the streams are no longer fresh water, year ’round. I calculated that the amount of salt used in a typical application would take the entire yearly rainfall on the same surface to bring the resulting solution down to the salinity of sea water. And we know how much grows on beaches. It’s suicidal. It’s the next DDT.

        • michelle says:

          I read that soy sauce can be used in lieu of salt and it doesn’t harm the soil. Some small, progressive towns do this. We are the world’s biggest exporter of soybeans– seems like it could be a home-grown solution.

          The deleterious effects of salt on land is well-established. It’s even in the Bible.

          Will write my senators today about making sure COBRA extensions are in the jobs bill. And about using soy sauce over salt on the roads!

  4. qweryous says:

    “Granted, I live in the Clusterfuck state. But I know a ton of people for whom the COBRA subsidy has been the single thing that has kept them from panicking as they face long months with no job. Let’s make sure the Democrats come together–with at least one Republican–to include this COBRA subsidy extension in the jobs bill.”

    We will soon be the Clusterfuck nation.

    A few years ago Michigan was ahead on the road to Clusterfuckdom by at least a decade; today Michigan is just a few years ahead of the rest of our nation.

    Passing this COBRA subsidy extension would be a concrete accomplishment.

  5. BayStateLibrul says:

    Fucking “Pretty Boy” Brown better sign up.

    What will voters think, if he sides with the Repub…

    Being a fiscal conservative arshole, he might think the bill cost too


  6. andreams says:

    If a company closes, there is no COBRA; if a business has less than 20 employees, it’s not eligible for COBRA. This needs to be addressed.

  7. alan1tx says:

    I’m not sure that’s the best graphic to go along with a serious discussion of unemployment.

    I doubt if most employers would consider hiring someone in a bunny suit who’s resume is printed on a sandwich board, who’s skills are listed as unemployed artist, and who advertises that he will take any job, but doesn’t promise to do any work.

    I may be wrong, but that guy may be prolonging his own unemployment.

    • demi says:

      People are desperate for work. That person is at least being creative and not just sitting in the basement on the tubz. (ya know?) There might be an employer who is looking for someone who is trying to be proactive. Let’s lift that person and everyone else who’s out of work up instead of putting them down. okey-dokey?

    • msmolly says:

      I’m not sure that’s the best graphic to go along with a serious discussion of unemployment.

      Are my toobz broken? I don’t see any graphic.

  8. JamesJoyce says:

    The slave owners thought it would “cost to much” to emancipate the slaves, with no protection of law. This resulted in a civil war. Today the “fiscal conservative” ideology is a rouse to perpetuate and protect corporate cash cows. We the people have become food to be digested by a dysfunctional corrupt corporate system which eats our own in the lust for profit. Corporate Sodomy American style! Get it SJC!!!!

  9. BoxTurtle says:

    If we want a GOPer to sign on, we should work on Voinovitch (R-OH). Ohio is hurting, very high unemployment, and no real prospect for any new manufacturing jobs of the kind ohio is used to. And Voinovitch is NOT a teabagging nutcase, he’ll listen and make up his own mind.

    I just gave his office a call. No offical position yet, he might like hearing from other Ohioians. (202) 224-3353

    Boxturtle (Couldn’t afford COBRA once the company subsidy stopped)

  10. TalkingStick says:

    Yes. In the current situation it has to be renewed. But it’s a blip.

    This is the most expensive and inefficient way to deal with this crisis.

    Can’t any idiot see the only solution for the next many years (I think indefinitely) is to automatically put everyone on Medicare, adjusting payments to providers sufficient for them to survive.

    The country is bankrupt. We are on the precipice of inevitably losing many really essential services and infrastructure. It would seem at least there could be some leadership at the tiller as the boat slides down. Lord! even the Haitian government is is showing more leadership than these wusses we have now.

    Poverty the great equalizer.

  11. peterboy says:

    the entire COBRA extension was a screw job for hundreds of thousands who lost jobs early in the recession. The really long-term unemployed, those who lost jobs in the first three quarters of 2008 GOT NOTHING.
    To be eligible for COBRA subsidy, you had to lose your job after 9/1/2008.
    At the very least, the bill SHOULD have been written to cover those unemployed after 9/1/2008, not just those who first were out of work on that date.

    Hundreds of thousands of the truly long-term unemployed were victimized by a how the bill was phrased.

    • Blutodog says:

      I know I missed the deadline by 20 days in 2008 and it cost me and my family 15K it sucked took every dime of my UI plus. 20 fucking days.

  12. oregonnat says:

    I was recently laid off and because I am Medicare eligible, ARRA COBRA health care assistance does not apply and that’s fine. But being Medicare eligible also means I don’t qualify for ARRA COBRA dental care assistance and if I want dental insurance, I have to pay full price. That makes no sense as Medicare does not provide any dental benefits. Or perhaps Congress thinks senior don’t have teeth?

  13. Mesa Mick says:

    This whole issue of the COBRA rip-off is just another GLARING REASON why this country needs Health Care Reform and a Public Option. If the unemployed had some kind of affordable Public Option as a safety net this whole COBRA subsidy issue and its outragous costs to the taxpayers (that’s us of course) would be dead and buried.

    “We hold these truths to be self evident…”

    WTF don’t they get in DC? Rethuglicant obstructionists and spineless Dem pussies are morons all…

  14. fwdpost says:

    No teeth and no eyes, but deep pockets to pay 20% of doctor bills, thousands for drug co-pays and “gap”, more than $1,000 every time you enter the hospital.

  15. JohnLopresti says:

    Cobra is expensive, two to four times more expensive than a payroll deduction, and is *available* at a time when there is less cash to pay premiums, often cashflow is only half of the individual*s usual full employment income; however, Cobra admittedly provides essential continuity of coverage. One of the new formats for Cobra notification I have seen is the health maintenance organization sends what looks like the usual preventative medicine brochure or even a color postcard with no notification on the outside of the postcard that it is the legal notice of Cobra rights; and the content of the postcard mostly is couched in vague terms such as,…**if you are wondering what to do if you are in the group of people who are newly unemployed and have questions about how to keep health insurance**… Instead of saying, **we have received notice you are no longer employed; this notice is your sole chance to keep a bare minimum health insurance policy while you are looking for work…** My impression is that kind of deceptive mailing must be designed with the profit margin of the HMO as its foremost consideration, not the legally binding requirement that disemployed persons have continuity of health insurance. I hope the Obama consumer protection agency is part of the implementation process so the new Cobra will be straightforward as well as helpful at a time of need, especially for disemployed people who have family obligations or special health maintenance needs.

  16. misswildthing says:

    Yesterday I sent in my UI form for payment. After this check, I will get paid for a week more, then nothing. My insurance, non-Cobra, went up 85% on my birthday in October. I am so screwed and no one seems to care in DC. Of course, why should they? I only served on the DNC for 8 years, am the only Latina Lesbian to ever speak at a Presidential Convention, raised money, worked in the field, did everything I was asked to do for the Dems. Now, they poop on us and then are mystified why we are unhappy and impatient.

    I didn’t do all the work and spend an raise money for profit, I did it because it was the right thing to do. Apparently that concept is out of the mental grasp of folks who are supposed to be helping us. I’m looking at you Senator Baucus.

  17. MarkH says:

    COBRA extension sounds great. Isn’t the Jobs bill sort of a mini stimulus bill or does it have some very different skew to it?

    I do like the idea of carrying people over until the new HC (hopefully PO) can pick ’em up.

  18. SparklestheIguana says:

    EW, thanks for drawing attention to this. COBRA, though it’s a band-aid on our current utterly inadequate system, is a lot better than no insurance at all. And the subsidy makes it affordable. It’s shocking how expensive it is without the subsidy.