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Lawmakers pull off COBRA help

Published: Friday, Aug. 28 2015 11:42 a.m. MDT

It's too little and probably too late, but Utah lawmakers pulled off a health-care Hail Mary in the closing hour of this year's legislative session by passing a bill that attempts to slow the number of Utahns losing their medical insurance when they lose their job.

HB178 adds new, local provisions for Utah workers to enroll in the Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act, the federal regulation that allows laid-off workers to keep their workplace-based medical insurance coverage going by paying the entire premium.

The bill intends to help working families avoid having the crisis of a job loss turn into financial ruin through medical expenses they're suddenly not insured for and can't afford.

Insurance premiums aren't being reduced, but the 65 percent that had been paid by the employer is being covered by funds from the federal economic stimulus package.

The majority of laid-off workers in Utah and around the country are almost automatically destined to join the ranks of the uninsured. According to a state-by-state assessment of unemployment payments and the cost of COBRA premiums released in January, most people simply can't afford COBRA on their own.

"COBRA health coverage is great in theory and lousy in reality," said Ron Pollack, the executive director of Families USA, a national health-care policy research nonprofit group. Pollack has consulted with Utah officials trying to reform the health-care system here.

If a laid-off worker with children is lucky enough to receive unemployment, 77 percent of the $1,341 check would be spent maintaining medical coverage. Single Utahns have it easier, but they would still pay 27 percent of their unemployment check to keep coverage.

The bill intends to lessen the double-whammy created by the combination of having the highest national unemployment rate since 1945 and the fact that 80 percent of insured workers — Utahns included — are covered through a workplace medical plan. Utah employers have been at or near the top in the percentage of employers nationwide dropping coverage because they can no longer afford it.

For lawmakers, most of whom had an "it's about the deficit, stupid" approach this session, the bill was about dollars and cents. And it also makes sense, given the widening economic strains, Rep. James Dunnigan, R-Taylorsville, said prior to the vote. Dunnigan, who has been heavily involved the planning and initial engineering phase of Utah's health-care system reform project, could see the need increasing with the number of people losing their jobs and the necessity of legislation to address COBRA. He filed a no-text, title-only bill in early February.

In that short meantime, the economy got worse and Congress approved the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, and suddenly on the session's final day, Dunnigan's bill became a top priority.

Within a couple hours, HB178 was introduced with text, spared the usual review and debate process, immediately put at the top of the remaining bill's queue in the House, substituted, approved 62-6 and sent to the Senate. It went to the sifting committee, which sent it to the Senate floor, where it was approved 29-0 with an amendment to the section dealing with the state children's health-insurance plan that set up the last-minute concurrence back in the House.

As loath as some lawmakers are to associate the state with anything federal, the bill's strings weren't enough to excuse them from not doing something to help keep the crisis of a family's job loss from turning to a financial catastrophe through medical expenses.

The bill addresses overlooked Utah workers at companies with 19 or fewer employees laid off between Sept. 1, 2008, and Feb. 17 and who didn't sign up for a COBRA plan.

Qualifications and admission requirements have been extended, but they still must be met. According to the Utah Health Policy Project, a health-care research and education group, any person interested in taking advantage of the new enrollment period must contact their employer or insurer to enroll in mini-COBRA or COBRA plans by April 18. All enrollment forms for coverage must be submitted to the insurer by May 1.

Gross-annual income cannot exceed $125,000 for an individual or $250,000 for a family. People eligible for other group health coverage, such as a spouse's plan or Medicare, are not eligible for premium assistance.

E-mail: jthalman@desnews.com

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