Sen. Robert Casey Jr. (D-Pa.) and four other lawmakers are pushing legislation that would extend by several months newly created benefits under the nation's unemployed health insurance program while also lowering the premiums costs.
As is, the COBRA Premium Assistance Program provides a 65% subsidy on premiums for nine months to those involuntarily terminated between Sept. 1, 2008 and Dec. 31, 2009.
Casey's bill, however, would increase the subsidy amount to 75%, extend the duration of the subsidy to 15 months and extend the termination deadline until June 2010.
Casey said that in 41 states, the average cost of COBRA family coverage is 75% of what unemployment pays monthly—and even more in some cases.
“The need for this is great,” Casey said on a conference call with reporters. The bill would also extend the premium-assistance program to those workers who lost their healthcare coverage because of a reduction in the number of hours that they worked and also to those who were offered retiree coverage when they lost their jobs.
Casey said he would introduce the legislation separate from the broader health reform bill currently winding its way through Congress. It's uncertain how much it would cost, but a similar effort in the House was scored at $7 billion. Part of the bill would be offset by some of the unspent dollars that were part of the $25 billion earmarked for COBRA assistance in the stimulus bill.
Democratic Sens. Sherrod Brown of Ohio, Al Franken of Minnesota, Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island and Robert Menendez of New Jersey said they also back the bill.