As previously suggested by earlier Dark Daily e-briefings, studies of the 46 million uninsured Americans suggest there’s more to this statistic than a big number implies. Up to two-thirds of the uninsured either qualify for government-sponsored insurance or could afford to buy coverage.

But no one disagrees that widespread layoffs and elimination of employer-sponsored health coverage are causing the ranks of the uninsured to swell. For every worker who loses health benefits, the multiplier is 3.14-the average size of the U.S. family. Thus, the loss of 3 mllion jobs over the last year translates to about 9.4 million people losing health coverage.

To mitigate this problem, President Obama’s Economic Stimulus program includes funding to help laid-off workers pay for COBRA (Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act) coverage. It also gives them a second chance to sign up.

The impact of job losses on health coverage is evidenced by traffic at the Foundation for Health Coverage Education (FHCE) Website. It saw the number of visitors soar from 41,000 in September to 65,000 in January, notes FHCE President Ankey Minoux.

FHCE is a California-based nonprofit organization. It offers services designed to educate individuals about their health insurance options and get them enrolled. Callers can obtain free personal help by phone or use interactive screening tools to pre-qualify for plans and enroll online.

To raise awareness about the government-sponsored COBRA benefit, the organization has launched tools to identify eligible individuals when they make contact with FHCE to ensure they know about the opportunity and understand the rules.

The big challenge is ensuring eligible workers are informed about the subsidy in a timely manner, Minoux stresses. This is particularly important for workers laid off since September, because they will have 60 days from the date of employer notification to enroll in a COBRA plan or lose the chance for health coverage from that source.

Under the new law, the government will subsidize 65% of the COBRA premium. That will bring the average cost down from $1,069 to $374 a month for a family and $136 for an individual.

The new law is retroactive, covering COBRA premiums for workers involuntarily terminated between September 2008 and December 2009, Minoux explains. The law provides an open enrollment period so eligible enrollees can choose between alls plans offered by the employer or reconfigure coverage.

A Congressional committee is now working on the logistics and notification requirements, then employers will have 60 days to notify workers. The COBRA portal on FCHE’s Website will update details as they become available. The fact that the health stimulus bill includes a federal subsidy program for individuals who can continue existing coverage under COBRA shows how the new Congress is paying attention to healthcare policy issues. – P. Kirk

Related Information:

Overview of the Uninsured in the United States: An analysis of the 2005 Current Population Survey

Characteristics of the Uninsured: Who Is Eligible for Public Coverage and Who Needs Help Affording Coverage?

New Insights on America’s 46 Million Uninsured People