Employees laid off by small companies will soon be eligible for COBRA health benefits under a bill given final approval by the state Senate yesterday.

Currently, only those who worked for companies employing more than 20 people are eligible for COBRA, the federal benefit that extends health coverage under the employer's insurance plan for up to 18 months.

The bill "could provide an important safety net to thousands of individuals who work for small businesses and find themselves to be between jobs," said Sen. Don White (R., Indiana), chairman of the Senate Insurance Committee. "This benefit is already in place for larger companies. It is time we make it part of the health-insurance network for small businesses as well."

Gov. Rendell said he would sign the bill, making Pennsylvania the 41st state with a so-called mini-COBRA program.

According to state Labor Department figures, 25 percent of Pennsylvanians employed in the private sector work for companies with two to 19 employees.

The mini-COBRA policy will become effective as soon as Rendell signs the bill. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, also known as the federal stimulus act, provides a 65 percent federal subsidy for COBRA premiums.

The benefit will not apply to workers who left their jobs before the bill's enactment. Under an earlier version of the bill, employees who lost their jobs after Sept. 1, 2008, were eligible.

Meanwhile, Rendell said he would also sign legislation reauthorizing the Pennsylvania Health Care Cost Containment Council (PHC4) until 2014. The legislation received final approval in the Senate yesterday.

The council collects data from hospitals, freestanding ambulatory surgery centers, and some managed-care plans. The data are made public to help consumers make educated health-care decisions, and providers can evaluate the quality of their services.

Contact staff writer Amy Worden at 717-783-2584 or aworden@phillynews.com.