Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

Could COBRA slip away?

W ASN'T IT ONE OF the big goals of health-care-reform legislation to allow workers to hold on to their benefits even if they lost their jobs?

W ASN'T IT ONE OF the big goals of

health-care-reform legislation to allow workers to hold on to their benefits even if they lost their jobs?

So why was a Democratic-led House of Representatives making it more likely that hundreds of thousands of unemployed workers will be forced off medical insurance?

That would be the practical effect of stripping COBRA subsidies from the already-inadequate jobs bill the House passed on May 28 - and that the Senate is now debating.

Last year, about 4 million Americans - including 98,500 in Pennsylvania - lost their health- care coverage when they lost their jobs. COBRA allows unemployed workers to continue their health insurance for 18 months after being laid off. It isn't cheap, costing about three-quarters of most states' total unemployment benefit.

As part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (the stimulus), the government picked up 65 percent of COBRA payments for 15 months. Then last month, intimidated by Republican warnings about increasing the deficit (warnings that were never heard when Congress appropriated hundreds of billions of dollars for two wars), the House removed the COBRA subsidies. As we pointed out yesterday, it also removed $24 billion in Medicaid payments to the states, a move that threatened to upend most state budgets.

Yesterday, the Medicaid assistance was added back into the jobs bill in the Senate, and Pennsylvania's Sen. Robert Casey - with Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown - introduced an amendment to restore the COBRA subsidy, which would affect an estimated 150,000 unemployed workers each month. The amendment was expected to be voted on - and likely approved - either tonight or tomorrow.

If the Senate actions remain in the legislation (the bill now must be reconciled with the House bill), they will head off a few of the crises faced by ordinary Americans who have lost their jobs through no fault of their own. But that's nowhere near enough help for people who are hurting. And this is exactly the wrong time to start winding down supports for the unemployed.

A new poll sponsored by the National Employment Law Project says that three-quarters of registered voters want Congress to help laid-off workers - even if it means adding to the deficit.

But unemployment benefits and health-care subsidies are no substitute for a bold program of job creation led by the government until the private sector can take over. And time is getting short: Nearly half of the 15 million unemployed - seven million people - have been out of work for more than six months, more than at any time since the Department of Labor began collecting statistics. Of those, 4.7 million have been out of work for a year or more. Right now, there are six unemployed workers for every available job. It doesn't matter what the economists' charts show: This is no real recovery.

A compilation of New York Times clippings from 1930 provides a fascinating look at what people thought about the economy in the year following the 1929 stock market crash. "Yessiree, the economy's recovering!" is the message that accompanies charts from Feb. 14, 1930. Similar upbeat messages were repeated during the year.

You can see the clips, collected by Dan Alpert of Westwood Capital, at with this title: "REMEMBER: In 1930, They Didn't Know They Were in the Great Depression Yet." Today's cautious analyses of an economic recovery could be no less of a fantasy. Ordinary American workers - and their kids - don't have the luxury of waiting to find out. *