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How we can help the unemployed keep their health insurance

Keith Prisco is a stagehand at the United Center in Chicago and a proud union member of IATSE Local 2. Like tens of millions of Americans, he receives health insurance through his employer for himself and his family. The security of this coverage is even more important for Keith after he was diagnosed with leukemia four years ago. But when COVID-19 put a screeching halt on live events, that meant Keith was out of work — jeopardizing his health care coverage in the middle of a pandemic.

As COVID-19 continues to threaten the health and safety of Americans, millions of workers have found themselves under threat of losing their jobs, their health coverage, and their financial savings — all through no fault of their own.

It is unconscionable that unemployed or furloughed workers could also lose health coverage during a public health crisis, yet there are an estimated 10 to 15 million Americans who have lost their employer-sponsored health insurance since the pandemic began. Many unemployed Americans would prefer to remain on their employer health plan, known as COBRA, but it is often prohibitively expensive — on average, $1,700 per month for a family.

From the earliest days of this crisis, the Chicago labor movement and Sen. Durbin identified continuing health coverage for working people as a critical issue.

That’s why labor unions, health care providers, and consumer organizations are joining with Congress to call for the passage of the Worker Health Coverage Protection Act, a bill introduced by Sen. Durbin that would protect millions of unemployed or furloughed workers from losing their health insurance by enabling them to access subsidized COBRA coverage and keep their insurance. The bill would provide a 100 percent subsidy of COBRA health insurance premiums owed by unemployed workers, in nearly all employment-based health plans, to ensure that they do not lose coverage due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

This is an emergency measure Congress must take to protect the health and safety of American workers as we all battle the ongoing crisis. In fact, similar federal support for COBRA was provided following the 2008 financial crisis.

The Worker Health Coverage Protection Act would allow workers who have been involuntarily terminated in nearly all employment-based health plans, including private sector plans, multiemployer plans, state and local government plans, and the Federal Health Benefits Program, to access subsidized COBRA coverage.

As we work to safeguard the coverage gains and patient protections of the Affordable Care Act, and expand its reach to help lower costs for consumers, this important legislation is an immediate way to prevent Americans from losing coverage.

If you lost your job because of the pandemic, you should not also lose your health coverage. Not only is that common sense, but it is sound economic policy that will help working people bounce back stronger.

The House of Representatives has already passed the Worker Health Coverage Protection Act as part of the HEROES Act in May, and Senate Democrats introduced the bill last week. We cannot

Unemployed Stage Actors to Face New Health Insurance Hurdle

Facing enormous financial strain because of the shutdown of the theater industry, the health insurance fund that covers thousands of stage actors is making it more difficult for them to qualify for coverage.

Currently, professional actors and stage managers have to work 11 weeks to qualify for six months of coverage. But starting Jan. 1, they will have to work 16 weeks to qualify for a similar level of coverage.

Nonprofit and commercial theater producers contribute to the health fund when they employ unionized actors and stage managers, but because theaters have been closed since March, those contributions — which make up 88 percent of the fund’s revenue — have largely ceased.

“The fact that we have no contributed income is something no one could have foreseen,” said Christopher Brockmeyer, a Broadway League executive who co-chairs the fund’s board of trustees, which is evenly divided between representatives of the Actors’ Equity union and producers. “We really put together the only viable option to cover as many people as possible with meaningful benefits under these totally unprecedented circumstances.”

Brockmeyer and his co-chair, Madeleine Fallon, said the fund, which currently provides insurance coverage for about 6,700 Equity members, is facing its biggest financial challenge since the height of the AIDS crisis. At that time, the challenge was high expenses for the fund; this time, it is low revenues.

“Everybody is out of work, everybody is panicked, everybody has lost income and can’t make their art, and on top of that their health fund is in crisis,” said Fallon, who leads the union bloc on the board. “It’s been an emotionally difficult journey, but we hope our members will understand that we did find the plan that gives us our best chance to rebuild.”

Under the new system, those who work at least 12 weeks can qualify for lower-tiered plans with higher co-payments and more restrictions.

Actors’ Equity, which appoints half of the fund’s trustees, but is otherwise an independent organization, opposes the changes.

“We all understand that there is no escaping the devastating loss of months of employer contributions nationwide, and no alternative aside from making adjustments to the plan,” the union’s president, Kate Shindle, said in a statement. “But I believe that the fund had both the obligation and the financial reserves to take the time to make better choices.”

Shindle said the union had asked its members on the fund’s board of trustees not to support the changes until they conducted a study about the potential impact on union members of color, on pregnant union members, and on union members who live outside New York, Chicago and Los Angeles.

A similar battle is unfolding in the film and television industry. Members of SAG-AFTRA, a union representing actors in those media, have loudly objected to changes in their health plan.

Stage actors are accustomed to working to earn health care benefits — some take jobs for the express purpose of getting weeks that will help qualify them for insurance. But many