Merkley, Colleagues Introduce Bill to Protect Unemployed Workers’ Health Insurance During Coronavirus Crisis

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Oregon’s U.S. Senator Jeff Merkley, along with 14 Senate Democrats, has introduced the Worker Health Coverage Protection Act, a bill 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.

“The last thing anyone should be worried about during this global pandemic is losing their health coverage. Yet millions of Americans who relied on employer-sponsored health insurance and lost their jobs are facing that reality,” said Merkley. “This bill is critical to our efforts to ensure that everyone—regardless of their employment status—has access to coronavirus care should they need it. In the richest country in the history of the world, access to care shouldn’t be available only to the privileged and powerful.”

Since the middle of March, approximately 57 million Americans have filed for unemployment benefits, with an estimated 10 to 15 million having also lost their employer-sponsored health insurance. 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.

“Working people continue to bear the brunt of a global pandemic, an economic collapse, and a healthcare crisis all at the same time.  As 12 million workers have lost their job-based healthcare coverage, including tens of thousands of Oregonians, we need champions in Congress to fight for us.  We continue to be thankful for Senator Merkley’s leadership and advocacy on behalf of working Americans, and we appreciate him co-sponsoring this important piece of legislation to support workers’ healthcare coverage as a critical component to the federal response needed during this emergency,” said President Graham Trainor, Oregon AFL-CIO.

The following organizations have endorsed the Worker Health Coverage Protection Act: AFL-CIO, UNITE HERE, UNITE HERE Local 1, National Coordinating Committee for Multiemployer Plans, Families USA, American Hospital Association, and Alliance to Fight for Health Care, Actors’ Equity Association, Air Line Pilots Association, International (ALPA), Alliance for Retired Americans (ARA), American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), American Federation of Teachers (AFT), Communications Workers of America (CWA), Guild of Italian American Actors (GIAA), International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE), International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers (SMART). International Brotherhood of Boilermakers, Iron Ship Builders, Blacksmiths, Forgers and Helpers (IBB), International Brotherhood of Teamsters (IBT), International Union, United Automobile, Aerospace and Agricultural Implement Workers of America (UAW), United Steel, Paper and Forestry, Rubber, Manufacturing, Energy, Allied Industrial & Service Workers International Union (USW).

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 covered by the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA), multiemployer plans, state and local government plans, and the Federal Health Benefits Program, to access subsidized COBRA coverage.  Specifically, it would provide a 100 percent subsidy of COBRA health insurance premiums owed by unemployed workers to ensure that they do not lose coverage due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Furloughed workers whose health benefits continue while pay is suspended would also have their employee contributions 100 percent subsidized. These subsidies would not impact workers’ eligibility for unemployment benefits or other types of state or federal assistance.

This bill would also extend the period during which workers could elect COBRA coverage, and enable workers to access coverage even if they declined it before the subsidy was made available, thereby ensuring continuity of care amid the health and economic challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic. Employers and federal agencies would be required to conduct new notice and outreach activities to ensure workers are aware of the availability of the credit.

Merkley joined U.S. Senators Richard Durbin (D-IL), Catherine Cortez Masto (D-NV), Sherrod Brown (D-OH), Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH), Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), Michael Bennet (D-CO), Jack Reed (D-RI), Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), Tina Smith (D-MN), Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), Tammy Duckworth (D-IL), Debbie Stabenow (D-MI), Jacky Rosen (D-NV), and Bob Menendez (D-NJ) for the introduction.