smart spending

Newly unemployed get stimulus help

  • Employers to pay 65 percent of COBRA premiums.
  • Weekly unemployment benefit increases by $25.
  • Incentives offered to help businesses create new jobs.

People who have lost jobs in the souring economy may find help in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009.

Those who recently have joined the ranks of the almost 12 million unemployed may qualify for provisions such as COBRA health insurance subsidies, an extension of unemployment benefits and favorable tax treatment.

Job-seekers may benefit indirectly from tax incentives given to businesses to hire workers, says Bill Smith, director of the national tax office for CBIZ MHM in Bethesda, Md.

"The goal is to stop the layoffs and reverse the process," Smith says.

Following is information about what's in the law, who qualifies and how to take advantage.

COBRA health care subsidy

Terminated employees who are eligible for COBRA health insurance under their former employer's plan no longer have to pay the full premium for the first nine months of coverage.

As part of the stimulus legislation, employers will pay 65 percent of the premium, for which they will receive a tax credit or government reimbursement. The terminated employee will be responsible for paying the remaining 35 percent of the premium.

Traditionally, terminated employees who wanted to continue with their employer's group health insurance plan could do so with COBRA, but they had to pay 100 percent of the premium, plus a 2 percent administrative fee. This legislation aims to make the insurance more affordable by subsidizing the premium portion of the payment.

"Health insurance premiums can easily exceed $1,000 a month for one family," says Michelle Oliver, owner of the Oliver Financial Group in Richmond, Va. "Unfortunately, a lot of people can't afford that cost, especially when they're unemployed, so they opt to decline health care coverage."

The first reduced payments begin in March 2009.

How to take advantage: If you were recently laid off and opted out of COBRA, you now have the opportunity to reconsider and enroll. A new 60-day enrollment window began with enactment of the law on Feb. 17.

The stimulus package has a provision that subsidizes 65 percent of a laid-off worker's COBRA health insurance premium.

COBRA plan facts
  • Plan applies to workers laid off between Sept. 1, 2008, and Dec. 31, 2009.
  • Coverage lasts for nine months.
  • Subsidy starts to phase out at annual income levels of $125,000 for individuals and $250,000 for couples.

The COBRA legislation extends to people laid off between Sept. 1, 2008, and Dec. 31, 2009. If you began participating in COBRA sometime after last Sept. 1, you may be granted a refund or a credit against future premiums.

Not everyone will be able to receive the benefit. If you've never participated in an employer health insurance plan, you won't be eligible.

Companies with fewer than 20 employees don't have to offer COBRA coverage under federal law. So, workers who've been laid off from small companies may not be eligible, either.


However, most states require that small businesses (typically between two and 19 employees) offer state continuation coverage to their eligible former employees, and this coverage may qualify for a subsidy.

The length of continuation under these "mini-COBRA" plans varies in each state, and their requirements don't always mirror COBRA requirements. You can visit to find out if your state has a similar program.

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