Uncertainty Over New Health Safety Net For Jobless

By: By ERICA WERNER
By: By ERICA WERNER

WASHINGTON (AP) - Cassandra J. Kelsey has tried to cut back on
all her expenses since losing her job in January. But suffering
from degenerative arthritis, she can't do without health care.

That's why the 55-year-old District of Columbia resident was
excited when President Barack Obama's economic stimulus bill
included a provision to slash costs for laid-off workers' health
insurance.

And that's why she was distressed to learn that, because the
Obama administration has yet to tell employers exactly how to make
the benefit work, it'll be weeks or months before she can claim it.

"I don't know how I'm going to make it," Kelsey said.

At issue is a program known as COBRA that allows workers to keep
their company's health insurance plan for 18 months after they
leave their job, if they pay the premiums.

The policies are so expensive that only a minority of eligible
workers sign up, and they are often those with medical conditions
that demand attention. Costs for a family of four can top $1,000
per month.

A $25 billion provision in the stimulus bill aims to cut COBRA's
price tag, reducing its cost by 65 percent for workers laid off as
far back as Sept. 1.

The bill gives eligible workers 60 days to apply. Then they get
the reduced-cost premium for nine months.

But it's not going to happen right away.

Employers are waiting for instructions from the Labor Department
and the Internal Revenue Service on how to put the program into
place. Both agencies posted some information online Thursday.

Until employers get the guidance they need and notify
potentially eligible ex-employees, most workers will not be able to
apply for the new benefit. Many probably will not know it exists.

"Too many people are still trying to figure this out," said
Heath Weems, director of human resources policy at the National
Association of Manufacturers, an industrial trade association.
"There is a lot of confusion."

Left waiting are people like Kelsey, who is now unemployed after
spending nine years working for Verizon.

On a recent morning Kelsey stood leaning on her cane outside a
Washington career center, clutching copies of her COBRA invoice,
clippings from a local newspaper about the stimulus bill and a form
letter she received from the White House after writing to Obama
about her troubles.

Kelsey knew about the reduced premium and said it would bring
her COBRA costs from a nearly unreachable $550 a month to below
$200. But when she called her benefits department, she learned that
she probably wouldn't get the reduced cost until May.

"I can't take advantage of it now, which I think is totally
unfair," Kelsey said.

Under the stimulus bill, workers unable to get the reduced
premium immediately may be reimbursed later.

That would be little help to Kelsey and others who need the
benefit now.

An IRS spokesman said the agency is moving as fast as it can. A
Labor Department spokeswoman responded to questions by e-mailing a
link to a short agency fact sheet.

One question that employers are struggling with is how to find
employees laid off as far back as September.

Also, the legislation says only workers who were "involuntarily
terminated" are eligible, but never defines that term. Does it
include only people who are laid off? Or those who take buyouts
offered by their employers?

No one knows how many people will actually seek a share of the
stimulus money to pay their COBRA premiums. Congressional experts
estimated 7 million, but that may be too high.

Advocates fear that even cut-rate COBRA could prove too little,
too late for some jobless Americans.

"For many people it will remain unaffordable," said Ron
Pollack, executive director of Families USA, a liberal advocacy
group that has worked for years to expand health care coverage.
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On the Net:
White House: http://www.whitehouse.gov/
COBRA: http://www.dol.gov/ebsa/COBRA.html
IRS: http://tinyurl.com/cozxx6


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