Getting stung by COBRA

Americans who lose their jobs are often able to keep their health insurance through a program called COBRA. The problem, as anyone who’s been involved with the program can tell you, is that monthly COBRA payments can be very expensive, especially for those who suddenly find themselves out of work.

For the last two years, the federal government has softened the blow by subsidizing COBRA premiums, helping millions of struggling Americans in the process. As Jonathan Cohn explained today, those subsidies are about to end.

Offering COBRA subsidies, like extending unemployment insurance, is the kind of anti-recessionary action lawmakers once undertook without hesitation. And when the initial subsidy program was set to expire, Congress renewed it through the middle of 2010. But while yet another renewal had support from both President Obama and key Democratic leaders, including then-Speaker Pelosi, Republicans and some conservative Democrats opposed it because it would increase the deficit.

And that’s true: It would have increased the deficit by several billion dollars, depending on the length of the extension, although centrists and conservatives showed no enthusiasm for proposals that would have offset the cost with other spending cuts or tax increases. But even if extending COBRA would have increased the deficit, it would have been money well spent — providing a (very very) mild boost to the economy while making it easier for people to get health care.

After the Affordable Care Act is fully implemented — if it’s fully implemented — this will be far less of an issue. Those who lose their jobs, or want to change jobs, won’t have to panic about the loss of health care coverage.

But that’s not until 2014. In the meantime, struggling families who’ve gotten a break on their COBRA premiums are about to find the cost of coverage soaring as the federal subsidies end. The vast majority of Democrats are still eager to help these folks out, but conservatives have decided now is a good time to put deficit concerns over these Americans’ access to health insurance.

I often wonder how many votes Republican candidates would get from the middle class if the country knew what the congressional GOP prioritized and fought for.