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Archive for Monday, March 2, 2009

New safety net brings uncertainty

March 2, 2009

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— The Obama administration rushed to include a health care safety net for laid-off workers in the recently signed stimulus bill, but has not told employers exactly how to make it work.

As a result, tens of thousands of jobless people could wait months before getting help paying for health insurance that their employers previously had covered.

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

At issue is the program called COBRA, the acronym for the law 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, 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 aimed 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 apply for the new benefit. Many probably will not know it exists.

The stimulus bill contemplated that workers might not get the reduced premium immediately, and contains a provision that would allow them to be reimbursed later on.

An IRS spokesman said the agency is moving as fast as it can. One question that employers are struggling with is how to go back and find employees who were laid off as far back as September.

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