How we can help the unemployed keep their health insurance

How we can help the unemployed keep their health insurance

Keith Prisco is a stagehand at the United Center in Chicago and a proud union member of IATSE Local 2. Like tens of millions of Americans, he receives health insurance through his employer for himself and his family. The security of this coverage is even more important for Keith after he was diagnosed with leukemia four years ago. But when COVID-19 put a screeching halt on live events, that meant Keith was out of work — jeopardizing his health care coverage in the middle of a pandemic.

As COVID-19 continues to threaten the health and safety of Americans, millions of workers have found themselves under threat of losing their jobs, their health coverage, and their financial savings — all through no fault of their own.

It is unconscionable that unemployed or furloughed workers could also lose health coverage during a public health crisis, yet there are an estimated 10 to 15 million Americans who have lost their employer-sponsored health insurance since the pandemic began. Many unemployed Americans would prefer to remain on their employer health plan, known as COBRA, but it is often prohibitively expensive — on average, $1,700 per month for a family.

From the earliest days of this crisis, the Chicago labor movement and Sen. Durbin identified continuing health coverage for working people as a critical issue.

That’s why labor unions, health care providers, and consumer organizations are joining with Congress to call for the passage of the Worker Health Coverage Protection Act, a bill introduced by Sen. Durbin that would protect millions of unemployed or furloughed workers from losing their health insurance by enabling them to access subsidized COBRA coverage and keep their insurance. The bill would provide a 100 percent subsidy of COBRA health insurance premiums owed by unemployed workers, in nearly all employment-based health plans, to ensure that they do not lose coverage due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

This is an emergency measure Congress must take to protect the health and safety of American workers as we all battle the ongoing crisis. In fact, similar federal support for COBRA was provided following the 2008 financial crisis.

The Worker Health Coverage Protection Act would allow workers who have been involuntarily terminated in nearly all employment-based health plans, including private sector plans, multiemployer plans, state and local government plans, and the Federal Health Benefits Program, to access subsidized COBRA coverage.

As we work to safeguard the coverage gains and patient protections of the Affordable Care Act, and expand its reach to help lower costs for consumers, this important legislation is an immediate way to prevent Americans from losing coverage.

If you lost your job because of the pandemic, you should not also lose your health coverage. Not only is that common sense, but it is sound economic policy that will help working people bounce back stronger.

The House of Representatives has already passed the Worker Health Coverage Protection Act as part of the HEROES Act in May, and Senate Democrats introduced the bill last week. We cannot wait longer to provide support for American workers.

Workers like Keith show up every day to their job, doing what is right in return for a decent wage and health care coverage. Now it’s time for Congress to show up for them. Please, join us in supporting the Worker Health Coverage Protection Act. Let’s protect American workers when they need it most.

Durbin is Senate minority whip and Bob Reiter is Chicago Federation of Labor (CFL) president.

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