Health Reform WK-EDGE Lawmakers reintroduce bills to provide paid family leave, COBRA subsidy
Tuesday, February 23, 2021

Lawmakers reintroduce bills to provide paid family leave, COBRA subsidy

By Lauren Bikoff, MLS

Bills would provide COVID-19-related assistance for family and medical leave.

Lawmakers in the House and Senate have reintroduced several bills designed to help Americans through the COVID-19 pandemic. The Family and Medical Insurance Leave (FAMILY) Act would create a permanent, national paid family and medical leave program. The Worker Health Coverage Protection Act would provide a 100 percent subsidy for laid off or furloughed workers to remain on their employer-sponsored health plan through COBRA, at no cost.

FAMILY Act. Representative Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn) and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) have re-introduced the Family and Medical Insurance Leave (FAMILY) Act to create a permanent, national paid family and medical leave program. The legislation, introduced in Congress several times before, would ensure that every worker, no matter the size of their employer, or if they are self-employed or part-time, has access to paid leave for every serious medical event, every time it’s needed.

FFCRA paid leave not enough. The emergency paid leave provision that partially expired at the end of last year helped to prevent covered workers from having to choose between their paycheck or their health when they needed to stay home, and it helped slow the spread of COVID-19. But this provision is too narrow because the need for a national paid leave program extends far beyond the pandemic—it’s a critical tool for long-term economic recovery, according to DeLauro and Gillibrand.

While the FFCRA required some employers to provide workers with two weeks of coronavirus-related sick leave at full pay, and up to 12 weeks of family and medical leave to care for family members at two-thirds pay, it is estimated that up to three-quarters of all workers were excluded from receiving these benefits. Further, the most recent relief package failed to extend the requirement that certain employers must provide this leave.

Permanent program. The FAMILY Act is modeled on successful state programs. It would create a permanent paid family and medical leave program for all workers that provides up to 66 percent of wage replacement for 12 weeks, anytime they need it. As introduced in the last Congress, the bicameral legislation would also:

  • establish the Office of Paid Family and Medical Leave within the Social Security Administration;
  • entitle every individual to a family and medical leave insurance (FMLI) benefit payment for a specified benefit period with a prescribed formula for determining the individual's monthly benefit amount;
  • provide an FMLI benefit payment that would be coordinated with any periodic benefits received under a state or local temporary disability insurance or family leave program;
  • amend the Internal Revenue Code to impose a tax on employers, employees, and self-employed individuals to fund FMLI benefits; and
  • establish the FMLI Trust Fund to hold tax revenues.

COBRA subsidy. A group of senators, including Sens. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), Dick Durbin (D-Ill), and Catherine Cortez Masto (D-Nev), have reintroduced the Worker Health Coverage Protection Act, which would protect unemployed or furloughed workers from losing their health insurance in the midst of the global COVID-19 pandemic. The bill would allow laid off workers to remain on their employer health plans, through the COBRA program, at no cost.

Since the middle of March, millions of Americans have filed for unemployment benefits, with an estimated 10 to 15 million having also lost their employer-sponsored health insurance. Many unemployed Americans would prefer to remain on their employer health plan, known as COBRA, but it is often prohibitively expensive—on average, more than $1,750 per month for a family.

The bill would allow workers who have been involuntarily terminated in nearly all employment-based health plans, including private sector plans covered by ERISA, multiemployer plans, state and local government plans, and the federal health benefits program, to access subsidized COBRA coverage. Specifically, it would provide a 100 percent subsidy of COBRA health insurance premiums owed by unemployed workers to ensure that they do not lose coverage due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Furloughed workers whose health benefits continue while pay is suspended would also have their employee contributions 100 percent subsidized. These subsidies would not impact workers’ eligibility for unemployment benefits or other types of state or federal assistance.

This bill would also extend the period during which workers could elect COBRA coverage, and enable workers to access coverage even if they declined it before the subsidy was made available, thereby ensuring continuity of care amid the health and economic challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic. Employers and federal agencies would be required to conduct new notice and outreach activities to ensure workers are aware of the availability of the credit.

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