Involuntarily Screwed

The law is so tailor-made to my situation, it could’ve been named after me. It’s not—it’s actually one portion of the American Rescue Plan Act, and for the purposes of this essay, I’ll be referring to it simply as ARPA—but it might as well be called the Mark Anderson COBRA Subsidy Act of 2021.

 

That right there will give you an idea why it’s so infuriating to me that this law, designed to ease the distress of Americans like me who’ve lost work, income, and health benefits due to the pandemic, is not, in fact, doing what it’s supposed to, and paying my COBRA for the five months I’m between employer-provided insurance plans.

 

I’m an elementary school music teacher. That means that, throughout my career, I’ve always been on the brink of losing my job. As a “specials” teacher, I’ve always been among the last to be hired and the first to be laid off in a budget cut. When this happened in 2009, during the recession that was triggered by mortgage profiteering, it took me two years to get back to even a half-time job, another two before I was full-time again. When the COVID-19 pandemic began in the winter of 2020, I had just been offered another year’s employment at a school I enjoyed working at, to my great relief as I read about other school districts laying off music teachers. That relief ended in August, when the district informed me they’d changed their mind and cut my position. I scrambled and found a half-time temporary job for the fall, which meant paying 50% of my health benefit out of my 50% salary through November, with insurance continuing until December 31. I kept looking as I worked this job, and with a few weeks to spare, found a full-time temporary job in another part of the state that would get me through March, with insurance ending April 30. I was able to work remotely for most of this job, just needing to be onsite for the two weeks before spring break.

 

The anxiety now was about how I’d pay for insurance for me and my wife after April 30. I’m 60, with a history of high blood pressure, and a family history of heart disease; I’ve also needed dental surgery more times than I care to remember. My wife is 56, and has multiple sclerosis, which she manages with medications. We can’t afford to scale back our insurance to a high deductible plan, let alone go without it. The good news is that I’ve been able to get my old job back for this fall, though scaled down slightly to 90% of full time. The bad news is that, as of May 1, I’ve been on COBRA, and while I haven’t yet received a bill, I’m expecting it to be in excess of $9500 for the five months I will have been on it before my new/old job’s insurance kicks back in on October 1.

 

COBRA is continuing coverage for Americans who’ve lost work—or, rather, it’s the right of recently unemployed to keep their employer-provided plan if they’re willing to pay for it themselves. It’s a right that is rarely utilized—in 2009, it was reported that only one in ten Americans actually took “advantage” of it. The reason is simple financial logic: when you’ve just lost your job, and unemployment insurance provides only a small fraction of what you’d been making (assuming you can qualify for it—there are plenty of obstacles to this benefit), it can be a challenge to make your mortgage payment, let alone come up with the thousands necessary to pay for your pre-layoff health plan. The Congressional recession relief plan of 2009 covered my COBRA for a year; for the next year, I went without. I was younger, healthier, and unmarried then, but it was still frightening: one abscessed tooth could’ve rendered me completely insolvent.

 

I’m in much better shape financially now. My wife and I both have savings to cover COBRA—though that’s retirement money we won’t have in a few years. Remembering what a relief it was to have my COBRA covered in 2009-10, I was thrilled when I heard that ARPA would include unemployment extensions and a COBRA subsidy.

 

I read extensively about the ARPA benefit, besieged the HR department of the last district I temporarily worked for with questions about how to qualify for it, and received many blank stares (virtually—this was all done via email and phone calls) because they hadn’t heard about it. I was referred to the Oregon Educators Benefit Board, which manages health insurance for teachers in my state; they also were just beginning to look into it. I called Benefit Help Solutions (BHS), a private company contracted by many employers to manage COBRA for their former employees, and was told I’d receive something in the mail. I finally got a letter telling me to go ahead and sign up for COBRA, and the paperwork to qualify for the ARPA benefit would follow. It did, I submitted it, and all seemed copacetic—and then came the letter from Benefit Help Solutions telling me I didn’t qualify, after all. The reason: that last temporary job had a clear end date, which meant I was voluntarily, rather than involuntarily, terminated.

 

The situation gets incredibly Kafkaesque here. I appealed the decision to OEBB, who explained to me that they were taking their lead from BHS, which was taking its lead from that last school district. I wrote all these entities, explaining I was very definitely involuntarily unemployed. I called the district that had originally laid me off, who assured me I was, in their eyes, involuntarily terminated, and they communicated that to OEBB. OEBB again said it was my status with my most recent employer that mattered, and had I considered looking for a plan in Oregon’s health insurance marketplace? By now I’d been on COBRA for two months. It was clear I was going to get nowhere with these agencies, so I took the next step: I contacted my congressperson and one of my senators, Jeff Merkley. An aide for Senator Merkley got back to me, listened to my story, and said she’d reach out to the Department of Labor. Clearly ARPA was designed for people like me, and she’d do what she could to explain it to that department.

 

August 2, a person from the Department of Labor called me, and explained why I would not be getting the benefit, no matter how many politicians and bureaucrats I contacted: the Internal Revenue Service had analyzed the language of ARPA, particularly the words “involuntarily terminated,” and rendered their judgment that this must apply to the most recent position a potential beneficiary had held. By definition, a temporary contract has an end date, without prospect of continued employment, therefore its end constitutes a voluntary termination. I told her I’d signed up for COBRA in good faith, with the expectation ARPA would cover it, and had been on it for three months. She apologized, telling me Congress had thrown ARPA together in a hurry, without necessarily considering the implications of the language used, that the IRS had taken its time rendering this ruling, and had I considered looking for insurance in the marketplace?

 

I have to add that the Oregon Employment Department has not been paying unemployment benefits to me since early June because, as an educator who held teaching jobs (albeit temporary ones) during the 2020-21 school year, it’s understood I don’t work during the summer. If, instead of finding temporary work, I’d just stayed on unemployment all year—WITHOUT HEALTH INSURANCE—I would probably still qualify for the UI extension—and for the ARPA subsidy of COBRA for the last few months before my job comes back.

 

I’m going to return to the qualification to all this that my wife and I were, actually, able to put away a lot of money in the last couple of years, enough to pay COBRA if we have to and, on top of that, to have been able to take a vacation in Iceland that ended this week. While we were there, we had fish and chips at a dockside restaurant in Husavik. We had that meal close to closing time, and as we were lingering on the deck of the restaurant, enjoying the view, the cook began cleaning up the tables around us. He engaged us in conversation, told us he’d been itinerant for a number of years, then finally settled in this small town on the north coast of Iceland, where he worked well for the tourist season, then lived off unemployment during the long winter. After we left, my wife said what was on her mind—and had been on both our minds, due to the vicious COBRA cycle we’ve been caught up in—was how did he and his wife manage to go for so long with without health insurance—but then she stopped herself, because, of course, like all of Europe, Iceland provides all its citizens with medical benefits. I suspect it’s also much simpler to qualify for unemployment benefits there. These are things that are just part of the government taking care of its citizens, rather than standing in the way of benefits they’re supposed to be entitled to—which is, sadly, the American way.


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