Iowans split on party lines as Congress extends unemployment benefits

The Senate approved another short-term extension of unemployment benefits yesterday by a vote of 59 to 39 (roll call). The bill also extends COBRA benefits (related to keeping your health insurance after leaving your job) and delays a planned cut in Medicare reimbursement rates for doctors. (Click here for the text of the bill. Iowa’s senators split, with Tom Harkin voting yes and Chuck Grassley voting no, as did all but three Republican senators.

The House of Representatives quickly passed the bill as amended by the Senate. The bill had more bipartisan support in the House, with 49 Republicans joining 240 Democrats (roll call). However, Republicans Tom Latham (IA-04) and Steve King (IA-05) voted with the majority of the GOP caucus against the extension. I guess they don’t think the thousands of long-term unemployed in their districts need the extra help. King has previously spoken out against extending jobless benefits, which in his view are becoming a “hammock” instead of a safety net. Iowa Democrats Bruce Braley (IA-01), Dave Loebsack (IA-02) and Leonard Boswell (IA-03) all voted for the bill. After the jump I’ve posted a statement from Loebsack’s office about this legislation.

President Barack Obama signed the bill last night, but Congress will revisit this issue soon, because the new law extends unemployment benefits only until June 2 and other measures through the end of May.

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Grassley votes against expanding children's health care

The U.S. Senate voted 66-32 yesterday to expand the State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP). All of the no votes were Republicans, including Iowa’s own Chuck Grassley. He was ready to sign every blank check for George W. Bush, but when it comes to expanding the safety net for families lacking health insurance, he’s Mr. Deficit Hawk.

Senator Tom Harkin issued this statement about the bill:

Renewal of the program will allow Iowa’s HAWK-I program to enroll 11,000 more Iowa kids

Washington, D.C. – U.S. Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA) today released the following statement after the Senate passed legislation that will allow states to continue to provide basic health insurance to kids whose parents cannot afford private insurance, but who do not qualify for Medicaid. The State’s Children’s Health Insurance (SCHIP) Act, known as HAWK-I in Iowa, passed the Senate by a vote of 66-32.

“Hundreds of thousands of Americans are losing their jobs each month, which means more working-family kids are at risk of losing health care coverage. The passage of this bill means more of those parents won’t have to worry about whether they will be able to afford their son or daughter’s next doctor’s appointment,” said Harkin. “Extending health insurance to 11 million children from working families is not about ideology, and it is not about left or right. In a humane society, no child should go uninsured. I am proud that this is one of the first bills that we will pass in the new Congress because it is a great example of what we can do when we work together.”

Talk to anyone who works in the office of a pediatrician or family doctor. During a recession, families cut back even on checkups and other doctors’ visits for their kids.

Thousands of people are losing jobs (and in many cases health insurance) every month. Unemployed people rarely can afford to pay into COBRA plans:

The cost of buying health insurance for unemployed Americans who try to purchase coverage through a former employer consumes 30 percent to 84 percent of standard unemployment benefits, according to a report released yesterday.

Because few people can afford that, the authors say, the result is a growing number of people being hit with the double whammy of no job and no health coverage.

In 1985, Congress passed legislation enabling newly unemployed Americans to extend their employer-based health insurance for up to 18 months. But under the program, known as COBRA, the individual must pay 102 percent of the policy’s full cost.

“COBRA health coverage is great in theory and lousy in reality,” said Ron Pollack, whose liberal advocacy group, Families USA, published the analysis. “For the vast majority of workers who are laid off, they and their families are likely to join the ranks of the uninsured.”

The good news is that despite the misguided ideology of Republicans like Chuck Grassley (and Tom Latham and Steve King), thousands more Iowa families will be able to gain coverage for their kids through HAWK-I. We’re a long way from the universal health care reform we need, but this is a step in the right direction.

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