Local News

COBRA subsidy running out for many

Posted November 30, 2009 6:22 p.m. EST
Updated November 30, 2009 7:13 p.m. EST

— Thousands of unemployed North Carolinians might soon have to dole out hundreds of dollars more each month for health insurance as a federal subsidy expires.

As part of the economic stimulus package, the federal government picked up 65 percent of the cost of monthly COBRA premiums for up to nine months for people who were laid off and lost health benefits between September 2008 and the end of this year.

The subsidy began in March for the first group of people to receive it, meaning that they will have to start paying all of their COBRA premiums Tuesday.

"We've already started getting calls in our Consumer Services Division, and it's heartbreaking," said Kristin Milam, spokeswoman for the state Department of Insurance.

Statistics show that COBRA averages more than $1,000 a month for North Carolina families.

"I couldn't even come close to affording it," said Theresa Gibson, a mother of two whose job as a tutor doesn't provide health benefits. Her husband lost his job and benefits in August.

"(A COBRA premium) would have been close to my mortgage payment. It was out of our range, for sure," she said.

The Gibsons qualified for the federal subsidy, which she said saves the family about $450 a month. Their subsidy will run out next spring.

"I'm trying very hard not to look at that day. I'm hoping, by that time, we'll have something figured out," she said.

Negotiations are taking place in Congress to extend the nine-month subsidy to 15 months, but it's unclear whether that will pass.

Milam suggested that healthy people shop around for a private insurance plan. For anyone with health problems, however, COBRA is likely the best bet, she said.

People with questions about their COBRA coverage can call the Department of Insurance toll-free at 800-546-5664 or visit the department's Web site at www.ncdoi.com.