Congress has not yet seen fit to give Americans health care. But there’s a new health care battle heating up right in the middle of the jobs bills that will be the next focus of Congress.

The jobs bill the House passed in December extended subsidies to help laid off workers pay for COBRA that were originally enacted as part of the Stimulus bill. The subsidy pays 65% of COBRA for those laid off, ensuring that families don’t have to spend the bulk of their unemployment insurance check to pay for health coverage. At a cost of $12.3 billion, the bill extended the subsidy from 9 to 15 months, and made it available for those laid off through June 30, 2010.

Obama has said he supports such a measure. And, a bunch of Democrats in the Senate have written to Harry Reid and Max Baucus urging that he pass the same legislation through the Senate. They write:

… recent employment numbers are an indication that we must immediately extend jobless benefits and health assistance for individuals and families squeezed in this tighter economy. Nearly 40 percent of the unemployed – more than 6.1 million people – have been out of work for six months or longer. The average duration of unemployment is now at 29.1 weeks.What is more, many of those individuals and their families lost their health coverage when they lost their jobs. On average, a monthly healthcare premium payment to cover a family costs $1,111, which represents 83.4% of the average unemployment check. In some states, the average unemployment check is less than the cost of a monthly healthcare plan premium.

Based on these figures, Congress must extend unemployment benefits and eligibility for the COBRA Premium Assistance Program through the end of the year. Short term extensions, while still helpful to families, only add strain to state agencies that must constantly re-tool their computer systems, and at the same time, continue to assist the millions still searching for work. As our economy continues on a path to recovery, we need a robust extension of safety net programs that have provided a lifeline to families since the recession began.

We urge quick action on the extension of the unemployment insurance provisions in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act through December 31, 2010, including the Emergency Unemployment Compensation Program, full federal funding of the Extended Benefit program, an increase of $25 per week in state and federal benefits, and the suspension of the federal income tax on an individual’s first $2,400 of unemployment benefits. In addition, we must also extend the eligibility period of the COBRA Premium Assistance Program through December 31, 2010.

Due to the importance of these issues, we respectfully request a meeting with you to discuss how we can provide for an extension of both programs. We thank you for your consideration of our request. All of our offices are committed to ensuring our constituents are able to properly provide for their families during this difficult time. [my emphasis]

The list of signers is interesting for those it includes–as well as those missing.

Barbara Boxer (D-CA)
Dianne Feinstein (D-CA)
Michael Bennet (D-CO)
Christopher J. Dodd (D-CT)
Edward E. Kaufman (D-DE)
Daniel Akaka (D-HI)
Tom Harkin (D-IA)
Roland W. Burris (D-IL)
John F. Kerry (D-MA)
Benjamin L. Cardin (D-MD)
Barbara Mikulski (D-MD)
Carl Levin (D-MI)
Debbie Stabenow (D-MI)
Al Franken (D-MN)
Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH)
Frank R. Lautenberg (D-NJ)
Robert Menendez (D-NJ)
Tom Udall (D-NM)
Kirsten E. Gillibrand (D-NY)
Sherrod Brown (D-OH)
Jeff Merkley (D-OR)
Ron Wyden (D-OR)
Bob Casey (D-PA)
Arlen Specter (D-PA)
Jack Reed (D-RI)
Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI)
Bernard Sanders (I-VT)
Patrick J. Leahy (D-VT)
Herb Kohl (D-WI)
Robert C. Byrd (D-WV)
Jay Rockefeller (D-WV)

Aside from the usual ConservaDems (and Harry Reid himself) and a number of western Senators, even Chuck Schumer appears not to have signed the letter yet.

Granted, I live in the Clusterfuck state. But I know a ton of people for whom the COBRA subsidy has been the single thing that has kept them from panicking as they face long months with no job. Let’s make sure the Democrats come together–with at least one Republican–to include this COBRA subsidy extension in the jobs bill.