Countless Americans have known it since 1985, when the federal government approved the Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act (COBRA) but either suffered in silence or their cries of foul play were ignored. Now, however, with the current economic meltdown hitting millions of Americans and commanding headlines around the globe, COBRA’s nasty bite finally is being revealed. Lately, it’s even made headlines, too.
The COBRA concept is that a worker who loses his or her job doesn’t have to go without the employee-provided health insurance coverage that came with that lost job. COBRA says the worker can keep coverage for as long as 18 months after employment is terminated but the worker must foot the complete bill. When employed, the worker paid the worker’s share of the health coverage bill and the employer paid the rest. Under COBRA, the now-jobless worker pays both the employer and employee shares of the coverage.
While the concept appears sound, the reality is pretty grim, so grim that Ron Pollack describes it as a “ruse.” Pollack is executive director of Families USA, an advocacy group devoted to improved health care to all Americans, regardless of employment status.
Families USA says the average worker must devote as much as 30% of the average unemployment compensation check to enjoy healthcare privileges under the COBRA plan. When families are affected, COBRA eats up as much as 84% of that average unemployment check.
In one case cited by Families USA, a Minnesota woman pays $1,200 each month for COBRA coverage for herself and her self-employed husband. Her monthly unemployment check is $1,612.
Health care for the recently unemployed in Arizona doesn’t come so easily. The average unemployment check in Arizona is $937 per month and the monthly COBRA premium for family coverage is $1,084.
Not every American who loses a job is eligible for unemployment benefits nor does he or she have another job to turn to in the immediate future. COBRA coverage is still available to these hapless individuals but it is often seen by them more as an impossibility than a staggering financial burden.
The Kaiser Family Foundation and Health Research and Educational Trust says 80% of America’s workforce eligible for COBRA coverage doesn’t take advantage of the program. Kaiser, Family USA, America’s Health Insurance Plans, and other industry trade and consumer advocacy groups are urging President-elect Barack Obama’s transition team to take into consideration the inadequacies of the COBRA plan but relief can’t come fast enough for the millions of Americans discovering the precarious nature of life without ready access to medical care when it’s needed. In the meantime, more and more Americans are left with no alternatives but to be careful, stay well, and hope for the best.
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