Getting Bit by COBRA

Forgive me, but this may seem a bit random at first and then a bit wonky.  But there’s a point.  So, bear with me and I’ll try to be as brief as possible.

I recently attended the Annual American Political Science Association Conference in Seattle.  One of the virtues of the Conference is that I bump into interesting people that I don’t see otherwise and sure enough I ran into Professor Jim Morone from Brown University.  Professor Morone is an expert on American health care politics and he asked me whether I had heard about the recent expiration of the subsidy for the federal COBRA (Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act) Program.

I greeted this news with a blank stare.  Then I started to wonder, what is this program?  When did it pass?  Why haven’t I heard of it?

The answers to the first two questions are pretty straight forward.  COBRA is designed to allow people who lose their jobs with group health plans to continue to buy insurance at the group rate.  The subsidy program was part of the much-maligned stimulus bill, known as the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, and it covered 65% of the costs of monthly premiums.

The answer to the last question is harder to get a handle on.  I’m not a full-blown policy geek, but I’m geekier than the average Joe.  I spent two years on a fellowship at a school of public health.  I was a lawyer and already knew about COBRA.  But I had never heard of this subsidy program and only stumbled on its demise.

Why?  Why didn’t the Obama Administration tout this part of the stimulus package that is clearly directed at Main Street and not Wall Street?  Why hasn’t the lapsing of this program been raised by the Administration as part of a broader debate about spending priorities?

This oversight is not just a matter of abstract political strategy.  Unemployed Americans are struggling to make ends meet.  These folks are going to be bit by the soaring costs of their COBRA payments and their venom will surely be directed at Washington.  If we’re going to fight in Washington over just about everything, isn’t this something worth fighting about?

Just a thought…

– Jeb

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