Cantwell Says GOP Stall Tactics Harm Struggling Families

Republican filibuster holds up extension of unemployment benefits, leads to increase in COBRA health costs

WASHINGTON, DC – Today U.S. Senator Maria Cantwell (D-WA) said Republican stall tactics are to blame for an immediate cut-off of unemployment benefits and a sharp increase in COBRA health costs for hundreds of thousands of American families in need. As a result of a tactical maneuver, the Department of Labor anticipates 400,000 Americans could lose their benefits during the next two weeks. Unemployment insurance benefits expired at midnight Sunday night. The same legislative maneuver also leaves many Americans exposed to the risk of major rate increases in their COBRA health insurance premiums.

“So many struggling families depend on these crucial benefits to put food on the table, afford their prescription medications, pay their bills, and see a doctor,” said Cantwell. “These benefits will expire, but our basic needs will not. Americans struggling in this difficult economy need to focus on job opportunities, not the basic necessities of life. We will not allow out-of-work Americans to be used as pawns in a partisan political game. These stall tactics must end now.”

The filibuster is aimed at the Temporary Extension Act of 2010, which would extend a host of unemployment benefit programs to Americans through the end of March while the Senate debates a long-term solution. Programs affected by the delay include unemployment insurance and federal assistance to cover the cost of COBRA insurance. The legislation also includes a provision that would forestall a planned 21 percent cut in physician Medicare payments.

COBRA Subsidy at Risk

The delayed legislation would also preserve a 65 percent subsidy of COBRA coverage that was passed as a temporary benefit under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA). COBRA provides those who leave or lose their jobs the ability to maintain their employer-sponsored health insurance, provided they pay the full cost of coverage. Under ARRA, those who lost their jobs between September 1, 2009 and February 28, 2010, were eligible for a 65 percent subsidy to help cover the cost of their COBRA premiums. Families who currently rely on the COBRA subsidy to help cover the cost of health insurance could see this subsidy evaporate unless the Senate can take immediate corrective action. The average monthly COBRA premium for a family in Washington state could skyrocket from $412 to $1,178 per month. This increase would take up, on average, 65 percent of a family’s total unemployment benefits. Such a massive burden will force many families to completely forgo health insurance. Additionally, the expiration of COBRA subsidies will directly affect workers who face layoffs starting today, imposing and enormous cost increase on families in Washington state, or forcing families to go without coverage altogether.

Unemployment Insurance at Risk

Washingtonians will not be immediately kicked off unemployment insurance because of a delay built into the state system, a protection not available to unemployed in many states. However, if unemployment is not extended, up to 277,000 Washington state residents may not be able to take advantage of the full Emergency Unemployment Compensation program, and will exhaust all benefits by the end of the year. ARRA contained a special Emergency Unemployment Compensation Program that allowed for extended unemployment benefits in particularly hard-hit states such as Washington.

Medicare Reimbursement at Risk

The delaying tactics mean that a 21 percent cut in physician reimbursement under Medicare takes effect as of today, a development that could severely curtail access to health care by Medicare recipients. Particularly for health care providers in rural and under-served areas, these payment cuts make it financially impossible to treat Medicare beneficiaries. As many as 1 million Washington seniors could be affected. This also will impact all veterans with insurance under TRICARE, as reimbursement rates are tied to the Medicare formula.
“I urge my republican colleagues to consider the needs of Americans and end this partisan filibuster. I remain committed to supporting Americans struggling to find work in this tough economic time,” said Cantwell. “We will get this legislation passed to support those Americans who need it the most.”