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Congress May Take a Bite Out of COBRA – New Mexicans in Limbo

June 17, 2010

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. - A bill to extend federal funding for key assistance programs failed to pass a procedural vote in the Senate Wednesday, leaving many unemployed and low-income New Mexicans in limbo. Lawmakers will try again after revising the bill, HR 4213, which includes money for states to support Medicaid, unemployment insurance and COBRA.

COBRA helps people keep and pay for their health insurance after losing a job. Ron Pollack, who directs the national health care consumer group Families USA, fears that the COBRA subsidy might not make it into the final bill.

"Without the COBRA subsidy, people, when they lose their jobs, are probably going to lose their health care coverage."

He says that's because without the subsidy, the average COBRA premium consumes more than 84 percent of the average unemployment check, and in 11 states it's actually larger than the average unemployment payment. In New Mexico, the average COBRA premium, after the subsidy, is $380 a month. Without the subsidy, it's $1,086.

Opponents of the bill who want to see some of the spending reduced out of anxiety over the expanding national budget deficit are justified in their concerns, Pollack says, but he adds that stimulating the economy, creating jobs and taking care of those who have lost jobs should be the focus in a recession.

"That's gotta be priority number one at this point. Now, once the economy improves, then we need to really emphasize getting the budget in order, but this is not a period to be skimping on what people need to survive."

If Congress fails to extend the fiscal relief bill, New Mexico could face a state budget gap of more than $200 million, because Santa Fe lawmakers passed a budget relying on that much in extended federal relief. Without the federal funds, cuts might occur in emergency hospital services and personal care assistance for the disabled, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

Eric Mack, Public News Service - NM