A Pennsylvania state legislator yesterday introduced a proposal that, for the first time, would make a state's unemployed population eligible as a group for basic health insurance, to be paid for out of their unemployment checks at their option.
The action in Harrisburg comes as officials nationwide are seeking ways to deal with the growing problem of health care coverage for the unemployed.
The Congressional Budget Office reported Monday that about 10.7 million men, women and children have no health insurance coverage because family breadwinners have lost their jobs. There is general agreement that there are no painless solutions to the problem.
Pennsylvania, reeling from layoffs in steel and related industries, is among the states hardest hit by the recession. A half-million Pennsylvanians are collecting unemployment checks. Nearly 400,000 of them have dependents, state officials said.
The Pennsylvania bill, offered by Rep. Joseph R. Pitts (R-Chester County), drew wide bipartisan support, a Pitts spokesman said. The plan, described as "self-sustaining," would not use public money.
Called Medic-Un, the proposal would allow the unemployed to elect to have health insurance premiums deducted automatically from their unemployment checks by the state's department of labor and industry.
The premiums would be kept low and the benefits limited to those defined as "basic" by federal standards, according to legislative research analyst Barbara Gleim, who worked on the bill for Pitts.
The plan would extend health coverage for 60 days to those who have exhausted all their unemployment insurance; it would pay for only those benefits not covered under other policies the beneficiaries might have.
It is unclear what the coverage would cost, Gleim said. "A major insurer has given us a cost estimate indicating it's more affordable to the unemployed than anything else available," she added.
Individual health policies are out of the reach of most unemployed because they not only cost more than group policies but must be paid for totally by the beneficiary. Group policies available through work usually cost employes about 20 percent, with the employer paying the rest.
A spokesman for Blue Cross said the main problem with any such plan "appears to be whether people could afford it. And if there's a deductible amount, they can't pay it."
The unemployed are considered a high-risk group, she said, not only because of the extra stress and sickness associated with losing a job but because those who opt for the health coverage tend to be those who know they're going to need it.
Nine states have programs for other high-risk groups, but this would be the first for unemployed people, she said.
Under Pitts' plan, carriers would be invited to bid on the contract and a committee of legislators and other state officials would select "the most equitable program."