Stimulus Bill Talks Turn to Health Insurance
House and Senate lawmakers yesterday "made progress" in negotiations over an economic stimulus bill but "faced difficult discussions" on provisions to help unemployed workers purchase health insurance, the Washington Post reports (Washington Post, 12/14). Lawmakers agreed to extend unemployment benefits by 13 weeks and began to address the "critical" issue of health coverage for unemployed workers (AP/Baltimore Sun, 12/14). Negotiators called yesterday's one-hour session "productive," but said that "actual progress was minimal" (Rovner, CongressDaily/AM, 12/14).
Democrats have proposed a plan that would provide a 75% subsidy to help unemployed workers purchase health coverage through COBRA and additional funds to allow states to extend Medicaid coverage to unemployed workers who do not qualify for the program. COBRA, the 1986 Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act, allows unemployed workers to retain health coverage under their former employers' insurance plans by paying 102% of the premiums (AP/Baltimore Sun, 12/14). Senate Democrats had proposed a bill, which Republicans blocked last month, that would have provided $14.3 billion to extend benefits for unemployed workers by 13 weeks and $12.3 billion to help unemployed workers purchase health coverage through COBRA. The legislation also would have allowed states to extend Medicaid coverage to unemployed workers who do not qualify for COBRA and provided $1.4 billion to boost the federal match to states for Medicaid (California Healthline, 11/15). Republicans, however, support a proposal that would provide a 50% tax credit to help unemployed workers purchase health insurance or offer block grants that states could use to provide health coverage for unemployed workers (AP/Baltimore Sun, 12/14). The House in October passed a GOP-sponsored bill that would increase by $3 billion funding for the Social Services Block Grant program (California Healthline, 10/29).
Meanwhile, House GOP leaders met yesterday to discuss whether to move a new compromise economic stimulus bill that would likely include parts of the bill passed by the House in October and parts of a proposal that President Bush offered this week "if talks break down" (Earle/Mitchell, CongressDaily, 12/14). Bush's plan includes a $30 billion provision to extend unemployment benefits by 13 weeks and provide an "advanceable" 50% tax credit -- up to $294 a month for families -- to help unemployed workers purchase health insurance (California Healthline, 12/13). Although the Senate may not pass the compromise legislation, the AP/Washington Times reports that the bill would "give House members a politically important vote" on unemployment benefits and allow them to "blame Democrats for the failure" to pass economic stimulus legislation this year (AP/Washington Times, 12/14). Democrats also have made "contingency plans" in the event that negotiators do not reach an agreement. They may attach their proposed unemployment and health coverage provisions to a separate bill, CongressDaily reports (CongressDaily, 12/13). However, House Majority Leader Dick Armey (R-Texas) said that House leaders hoped negotiators would reach a compromise over the weekend (AP/Baltimore Sun, 12/14).