After the Senate finally convinced Senator Jim Bunning to stand down his one-man protest (covered in my previous post), Congress passed -- and the President signed -- an extension of the COBRA subsidy last week. (You can find the bill, called "The Temporary Extension Act of 2010," here.) The extension is clearly a stopgap measure: It lasts only until the end of this month (March), by which time Congress hopes to have passed a more comprehensive jobs bill that will keep the subsidy in effect through the end of this year.
But the one-month extension of the subsidy wasn't the only COBRA news in the Temporary Extension Act: The bill also expands eligibility for the subsidy to those who initially lose their health insurance coverage due to a reduction in work hours, then are laid off. This is a small but vitally important change: Many businesses have tried to weather the current economic storm by cutting back on hours worked (and how much employees are paid for those hours). The most recent figures from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (for February 2010) show that more than six million people are involuntarily working part time due to business conditions or lack of work. Unfortunately, given the current economic climate, many of these businesses will ultimately have to make deeper cuts -- and many of these involuntary part-timers will eventually lose their jobs altogether.
The new law gives these employees another opportunity to elect COBRA coverage once they are terminated -- and, therefore, become eligible for the subsidy. A cut in hours that makes an employee ineligible for group health insurance through the employer's plan is already a COBRA qualifying event, and the new law doesn't change that. Nor does the law make employees who are still working at reduced hours eligible for the subsidy. What the law does is provide an additional election period to these employees if they subsequently lose their jobs and become eligible for the subsidy. If an employee initially declined coverage or elected coverage but let it lapse, the new law gives that employee another chance to elect coverage after a job loss.