Our View: Expanding Cobra will ease burdens

It was perversely appropriate that the Senate began debate on its health care reform bill Monday.

As the senators started talking, thousands of Americans were scrambling to find a way to pay for their health insurance after losing the federal subsidies that made that coverage affordable.

The subsidies are targeted at people who have been laid off from their jobs during the recession but want to keep the coverage they receive at work, an option mandated by the federal Cobra law.

February's federal stimulus bill authorized the payment of subsidies equal to two-thirds of the health care premiums these jobless folks suddenly face.

Since a typical premium for a family of four runs about $1,200 a month, that is a big help. But families or individuals can only tap it for nine months.

And funding ran out Monday for those who started receiving the funds immediately after the program began.

Nobody in Washington knows how many people this represents.

But with the unemployed up by 6 million in the period the program covers, the need is huge. Neither the House nor Senate health care reform plans have Cobra subsidies that address that need.

And even if reform passes, the premium aid it will offer to low- and middle-income families won't kick in until 2013.

Recognizing this, several lawmakers want to extend the Cobra aid program.

Bills by Rep. Joe Sestak, D-Pa., and Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, would increase the subsidy's maximum duration to 15 months, allow people who lose their jobs in the first six months of 2010 to tap into the funding and conclude the program at the end of next year.

Clearly, these changes should become law.

But it's important to remember why they're even needed: the cost of American health care. This country spends 50 percent more per person on health care than any other advanced nation, without producing better outcomes.

Extending Cobra subsidies will ease some of the burden this troubled system creates. It's a small but valuable step in a journey that still has a long way to go.

Editorials are the opinion of the Merced Sun-Star editorial board. Members of the editorial board include Interim Publisher Debra Kuykendall, Executive Editor Mike Tharp, Editorial Page Editor Keith Jones, Copy Desk Chief Jesse Chenault and Online Editor Brandon Bowers.