Congress, Administration Propose Measures to Help Uninsured
Lawmakers are proposing "several approaches" to help provide health insurance benefits to "hundreds of thousands" of workers laid off in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the New York Times reports. Under one proposal, Sens. Max Baucus (D-Mont.) and Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) are offering a bill that would pay 50% of COBRA premiums for workers laid off since Sept. 11 for the next 12 months (Pear, New York Times, 10/14). COBRA, a provision of a 1986 budget reconciliation law, allows employees who "have been laid off or otherwise left their jobs" to retain health coverage under their former employers' insurance plans by paying 102% of the premiums (California Healthline, 9/27). The Times reports, however, that few eligible workers take this option as many "cannot afford the full premiums," which average upward of $7,000 annually for families. Since COBRA provides "no assistance" to small business employees, or those with self-funded plans, the Baucus-Kennedy bill -- expected to cost between $16 billion and $17 billion -- would "authorize coverage" through Medicaid through March 2003.
Another bill, proposed by Sen. James Jeffords (I-Vt.), offers laid-off workers a tax credit "equal to half the cost of any health insurance premiums they pay" under COBRA. The maximum credit would be $110 monthly for an individual or $290 a month for families. Payments, made to employers or health plans, would be for up to nine months. The credit would also be available to those who did not earn enough to owe any income tax.
The Times reports that many Congress members want to include health insurance subsidies as part of a "stimulus package" (New York Times, 10/14). On Friday, the House Ways and Means Committee passed a bill proposed by Rep. Bill Thomas (R-Calif.) that would include approximately $99.5 billion in "immediate tax relief" and an added $12 billion for "health and unemployment benefits." Opponents of the Thomas bill claim that it "provides a new flurry of tax cuts to corporate America and inadequate health and unemployment benefits for laid off workers" (CongressDaily/AM, 10/15). Separately, President Bush proposed $3 billion in grants to states to assist "jobless workers," which could be used to pay as much as three-quarters of health insurance premiums. Bush also suggested states use unspent funds from CHIP, approximately $11 billion, to provide health benefits to the unemployed. The proposal met with a "storm of criticism" in the Congress; Kennedy said, "This is robbing Peter to pay Paul. During the economic downturn, more children will need health insurance and will be relying on the CHIP program" (New York Times, 10/14).This is part of the California Healthline Daily Edition, a summary of health policy coverage from major news organizations. Sign up for an email subscription.