Congress and the incoming Obama administration are contemplating profound shifts in the government's role in health insurance to try to alleviate a significant ripple effect of the damaged economy: Americans losing health coverage as they lose jobs.
As part of a sprawling $825 billion strategy to heal the economy that House Democrats laid out this week, lawmakers and transition officials envision a two-prong approach to help unemployed people retrieve health benefits. One would reshape a basic entitlement program, allowing states temporarily to sign up jobless residents for Medicaid, with the federal government for the first time paying the entire cost. The other proposal would provide unprecedented federal subsidies to help people afford coverage under COBRA, a law that allows some laid-off workers to buy health benefits that they used to get through their jobs.
The twin ideas, preliminarily estimated to cost $39 billion through the end of next year, would represent sharp departures in two long-standing programs and already are sparking debate along the ideological continuum on Capitol Hill and beyond. In Congress, several key Democratic House members and senators have endorsed the broad contours, while a few Republicans, including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) have signaled that they are wary. Debate, however, will not solidify until lawmakers learn more precisely how much the proposals would cost and how many people they might help.