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Report: Most Unemployed Floridians Will Also Become Uninsured

January 12, 2009

The number of unemployed Americans rose to 7.2 percent on Jan. 9, while in Florida, the number is even higher, at 7.3 percent. But losing a job can mean more than losing a paycheck. Most unemployed Floridians also are becoming uninsured, because they can't afford to maintain their health insurance through the COBRA coverage offered, according to a report just released by the national health care advocacy group, Families USA.

When people lose or leave their jobs, they are entitled to continue their health insurance coverage for up to 18 months through the federal program, COBRA, if they can afford to pay the premiums. The Families USA report finds that, nationwide, family coverage premium payments eat up about 84 per cent of the average unemployment benefit. In Florida and eight other states, however, COBRA premiums are equal to or greater than the average unemployment check.

Ron Pollack, president of Families USA, calls the COBRA program a ruse for millions of families whose breadwinner has been laid off.

"COBRA health coverage is great in theory and lousy in reality. For the vast majority of workers who are laid off, they and their families are likely to join the ranks of the uninsured."

The average cost in Florida of a monthly family premium for COBRA is $1,037; the average unemployment benefit is $1,013.

Doug Martin is Legislative and Communications director for AFSCME Council 79, representing about 110,000 Florida workers. He admits he's not surprised by the study findings.

"Florida's unemployment benefits are some of the most meager in the nation. They barely cover costs of food and shelter, so there is no way they could cover health costs, as well."

He believes the lack of affordable health coverage is one of the reasons why nearly 97,000 people recently joined the Medicaid rolls, at a time when the program is struggling to provide services in the face of nearly $200 million in proposed budget cuts.

"When the private sector falls down, the public sector must pick it up, but in bad times we see how threadbare Florida's social safety net really is."

The Families USA report hopes help may be on the way. The Obama administration is considering offering subsidies to the newly unemployed to help them pay for COBRA benefits or temporary coverage provided through Medicaid.

The full study is available at www.familiesusa.org.

Gina Presson , Public News Service - FL