State board extends insurance subsidy for small businesses

Laid-off Oregonians who have lost health insurance provided by small employers will be able to receive an additional six-month subsidy for insurance premiums.

The state Insurance Division filed temporary rules Wednesday to implement the subsidy extension for health plans offered by small employers, which are defined as those that employ fewer than 20 workers. Large employer plans are covered by the federal COBRA law.

On Monday, President Obama signed a measure to extend the subsidy for insurance provided by large employers for six months.

The state measure will allow people who worked for employers with fewer than 20 workers to get 65 percent of their insurance premium paid by the state for an additional six months. Eligibility for the program is also extended for two months, through the end of February 2010.

Insurance companies or employers are required to notify people about the program extension and their opportunity for additional subsidies.

Federal law requires employers to offer continued health insurance to laid-off workers for as long as 18 months, though employees usually pay the full cost, which makes the insurance prohibitively expensive for many families. The average monthly COBRA premium for a family costs $1,137, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation, a nonprofit organization that studies health issues. That's more than 83 percent of the average unemployment check, according to a study by Families USA, a consumer advocacy organization.

The federal government has been paying 65 percent of the costs of extended health insurance for Americans laid off after September 2008, bringing the average cost for a family down to a more manageable $398 per month.

Reach reporter Bill Kettler at 776-4492 or e-mail

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