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Sen. Jon Erpenbach: COBRA rules changes can help
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Wisconsin's unemployment rate has surpassed 9 percent; in the 27th Senate District Green County is at 9.8 percent, Rock is at 13.5 percent, Dane is at 6.0 percent and Lafayette weighs in at 8.4 percent. With these numbers rising, many state and federal systems are focusing on providing assistance for those that have been laid off during the economic recession. Extension and increases of unemployment benefits and now a break on COBRA costs help provide pocketbook relief for working families struggling with unemployment.

As an advocate for health care for everyone, the changes to the COBRA plan are welcome news. Wisconsin cannot seem to achieve health care for everyone, but we now can offer a financial break to those who have lost their job and cannot afford to continue their health insurance with COBRA. New rules make that expense a little bit lighter. COBRA, the Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act, passed federally in 1985, when our economy also was in full recession. The plan lets people laid off from their job (not those fired for misconduct or those that quit) continue their current health insurance plan.

However, COBRA costs have risen significantly to the point that an individual plan can be around $400 a month and a family plan can be around $1,000 per month. It is estimated that in the U.S. COBRA premiums consume 84 percent of unemployment benefits. In Wisconsin we fare a bit better with COBRA benefits consuming on average an estimated three-fourths of unemployment benefits. This is really not a working system for those who have had a significant loss in income through unemployment.

New rules provide a 65 percent subsidy to those who lost their jobs between Sept. 1, 2008, and the end of this year. While the subsidy lowers the cost to 35 percent of the premium, that still is more than twice the national averages of 16 percent people typically pay while employed. This is a better option for people who need to continue their current health insurance because they are in the middle of treatment, have a family member with a pre-existing condition, or simply cannot lose their health insurance because they are a greater risk medically.

While the change is not the best answer for those who work hard and simply cannot afford health insurance, especially when they are unemployed, the change will offer a better alternative for those that need to continue their health insurance after unemployment.

For more information on COBRA or health insurance for everyone, please contact me at (888) 549-0027 or (608) 266-6670 or via e-mail at

- Sen. Jon Erpenbach, D-Waunakee, serves the 27th State Senate District.