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Health insurance subsidies for jobless running out

The clock is starting to run out on unemployed workers who receive health insurance through subsidies that help them maintain coverage from their former employers.

As of Tuesday, the first wave of jobless people covered under the program, part of the federal stimulus package, are seeing the temporary coverage expire.

Because health insurance premiums for a family consume most of the average unemployment check - more than 70 percent in North Dakota and Minnesota - many will go without coverage, an advocate said Tuesday.

"This is simply unaffordable," said Ron Pollack, executive director of Families USA, a health advocacy group for consumers.

In North Dakota, subsidies reduce monthly insurance premiums for family coverage to an average of $353, compared to the full cost of $1,010. Without the subsidy, monthly health insurance to cover a family would consume 75 percent of the average monthly unemployment check in North Dakota.

In Minnesota, subsidized monthly coverage for a family averages $431, compared to the full cost of $1,232. Without the subsidy, monthly health insurance is 73 percent of the average monthly unemployment check in Minnesota.

No estimates are available for the number of people at risk of losing the subsidies, Pollack said, but federal officials once estimated 7 million unemployed workers and dependents would benefit nationally.

"We believe this will affect several million people right away and will continue to affect people as the subsidies go away," he said, noting they expire after nine months under current law.

In North Dakota, where the unemployment rate is 4.2 percent, 15,146 are jobless, according to Job Service North Dakota. Minnesota, with an unemployment rate of 7.6 percent, Minnesota has 223,528 out of work, according to the state Department of Employment and Economic Development.

Bills are pending in both the U.S. House and Senate to extend the coverage from nine months to 15 months.

But even if legislation passes before the upcoming holiday recess, workers will be at risk of losing health coverage tied to employment without passage of health reform, Pollack said.

Still, he added, even if health reform passes and succeeds in expanding coverage, the legislation would not take effect for several years. That's no help for those without jobs - and health insurance - now, he said.

"Health reform is not going to be immediately relevant to their circumstances," he said, adding that extending the subsidies is an important "lifeline."