Though the economy is showing some signs of stabilizing, Americans are still losing their jobs -- including more than a quarter-million last month -- and the unemployment rate is still expected to climb over 10%. In many communities all across the country, unemployment is already well beyond that figure.
We now know economic recovery is going to be a long process. Nearly 15 million Americans are looking for work and 5.4 million Americans are facing unemployment of longer than 27 weeks.
Some unemployment programs included in the Economic Stimulus Bill passed in February have proven insufficient to serve the urgent needs of so many working families, and threaten to run out when so many depend on them. Extended COBRA benefits -- assistance for unemployed workers to purchase health insurance -- that were included in the Stimulus will begin to run out as early as next month.
Losing one's job is difficult enough. But losing one's health care along with it -- and worrying about being able to get treatment for oneself and one's family, or fearing bankruptcy in the event of injury or illness -- is something Americans should not have to cope with in this difficult time.
To help ease that burden, I have introduced the Extended COBRA Continuation Protection Act of 2009, which extends by six months a provision from the Economic Stimulus Bill that provides 65 percent of health insurance premiums to individuals eligible for COBRA benefits who have been involuntarily terminated during the recession.
The original subsidy provided nine months of benefits for people who lost their jobs between Sept. 1, 2008 and Dec. 31, 2009. This legislation extends COBRA benefits in three main ways. First, it extends by 6 months -- to 15 months -- the total allowable time an unemployed worker can receive COBRA premium assistance. Second, it extends this assistance to individuals who are involuntarily terminated between January 1 and June 30, 2010. Third, it extends eligibility for traditional COBRA coverage an additional 6 months, to 24 months, for those terminated at the beginning of the economic recession in 2008.
The effect of this legislation will be especially important to older workers who lost their jobs or were forced to accept early retirement but are not yet eligible for Medicare.
During debate on the Economic Stimulus Bill, I argued, based on the economic modeling, for bolder action. Instead, the Senate weakened the measure for political reasons -- limiting the size of the package and replacing job-creating infrastructure investments with wasteful corporate tax cuts. The result has been nearly 1 million fewer saved or created jobs, and the associated strain on many of the assistance programs included in the legislation.
When the markets and Wall Street collapsed, we in Congress owed the American people the action necessary to meet and overcome the crisis. I think we came up a little short. This legislation is an important step to keeping our commitment to America's working families who were the engine of prosperity but are now, through no fault of their own, still bearing the brunt of this recession.