Covering COBRA costs would protect workers’ health and finances during pandemic

With no end in sight to coronavirus crisis, Congress must act quickly

For workers furloughed by the coronavirus pandemic, federal funding of their COBRA health insurance premiums would protect them from financial ruin and safeguard their health care, Horsford and Taylor write.  (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
For workers furloughed by the coronavirus pandemic, federal funding of their COBRA health insurance premiums would protect them from financial ruin and safeguard their health care, Horsford and Taylor write. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted April 22, 2020 at 4:27pm

In the last month, more than 22 million people have lost their jobs, and likely, their health care.

As we continue to grapple with the coronavirus pandemic, we need legislation to give laid-off or furloughed workers a way to stay on their health insurance plan at no extra cost to them — by covering the sometimes prohibitive costs of COBRA health insurance premiums.

A bill introduced by Rep. Steven Horsford, House Education and Labor Chairman Bobby Scott and Rep. Debbie Dingell and supported by those fighting for unionized labor workers across the country would do just that.

Importantly, the Workers Health Coverage Protection Act would also cover 100 percent of COBRA premiums for furloughed workers — temporarily laid-off workers whose employers have promised they will return to work when the COVID-19 pandemic eventually comes to an end, and who still get health insurance through their employer.

Getting unemployed workers onto COBRA is far easier than ordering unemployed workers to navigate the eligibility process involved in enrolling in Medicaid and the Affordable Care Act marketplace, which President Donald Trump still refuses to reopen for special enrollment and which workers receiving unemployment insurance may still find too costly. Covering 100 percent of COBRA costs would also allow people who lose their jobs to maintain their insurance and doctors, which is vital in the middle of a public health emergency when Americans are being told to reach out to their primary care physicians at the outset of COVID-19 symptoms.

We’re now seeing historically large numbers of those workers file initial claims for unemployment insurance benefits due to layoffs, furloughs or hours reductions connected to the pandemic and associated social distancing      measures. The 22 million new unemployment claims over the past month are more than double the claims from two years of job losses during the recession of 2008 and 2009. One organization, Health Management Associates, predicts that anywhere between 12 million to 35 million people will lose job-based insurance because of the novel coronavirus. 

In Nevada, the tourism and hospitality industry supports more than 450,000 jobs and $19 billion in wages on average every year. The state’s UNITE HERE chapter, Culinary Union 226, represents 60,000 members who work in currently shuttered casinos and hotels, with nearly 100 percent of their membership now facing coronavirus-related job loss. In total, more than 300,000 people have filed for unemployment in Nevada since casinos and other businesses closed in mid-March.

Those numbers are all the more horrific when one considers that roughly half of all workers in the United States receive health insurance through their employers. Now, with many businesses furloughing and laying off workers, or closing their doors altogether, many of the newly unemployed will suddenly face either being uninsured, tasked with enrolling in costly insurance options or enduring prohibitively expensive COBRA insurance that puts them on the hook for both their and their employer’s part of the premium. The Workers Health Coverage Protection Act would cover 100 percent of the cost of COBRA’s sky-high health insurance premiums.

Lacking health care coverage during the coronavirus pandemic could impose an unprecedented financial constraint on American families that could prevent millions from seeing doctors to get tested or treated. Having their COBRA costs completely covered would be one less stress for workers facing job loss. 

With no end in sight to the current social distancing measures or the subsiding of the coronavirus crisis, Congress must pass this legislation with the utmost haste — both for Americans’ health outcomes and for their financial security. By extending COBRA benefits with 100 percent federal financing, the Workers Health Coverage Protection Act will protect families across the nation from financial ruin and safeguard their access to the health care that is so vital during this pandemic.

Rep. Steven Horsford is a Democrat representing Nevada’s 4th District. He serves on the Ways and Means, Budget and Natural Resources committees and previously worked with Culinary Union 226 and UNITE HERE.

D. Taylor is the president of UNITE HERE, a labor union with a diverse membership of some 300,000 workers in the hotel, gaming and food service industries, among others.  

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