Blue Cross & Blue Shield of Rhode Island Opens Direct Pay Plans to COBRA-Eligible Rhode Islanders

(Providence, RI, 3.19.2009)

Striving to provide lower cost health insurance options for those who've lost their jobs as a result of the economic downturn, Blue Cross & Blue Shield of Rhode Island (BCBSRI) announced today that it has expanded eligibility guidelines for its Direct Pay plans. This will help those covered only under the Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act (COBRA) to enroll in BCBSRI plans.

"Given the current economic crisis, an increasing number of our fellow Rhode Islanders are having more difficulty than ever before accessing proper healthcare," said James E. Purcell, BCBSRI President and CEO.

Under the new BCBSRI guidelines, Rhode Islanders who are covered or eligible to be covered by COBRA, or who have exhausted their COBRA eligibility, can enroll in one of BCBSRI's Direct Pay plans. Persons seeking to switch may do so immediately without medical underwriting or waiting for the annual open enrollment period.

"I applaud BCBSRI's efforts to make access to health coverage more affordable for people who have lost their jobs," said Lt. Governor Elizabeth Roberts. "Any effort that makes it easier for out-of-work Rhode Islanders to access or extend their healthcare is one that I strongly support."

COBRA is a federal law enacted in 1986 that allows certain former employees, retirees, spouses, and dependent children the right to temporarily continue their health coverage at the group rates of their former employers. In February, as part of the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act (Stimulus Package), Congress created a short-term subsidy for individuals on COBRA because they were terminated from employment between September 1, 2008 and December 31, 2009. This subsidy, funded by the federal government, provides payment of 65 percent of the COBRA premium for eligible individuals. It is welcome relief to Rhode Islanders struggling with the cost of healthcare. 

BCBSRI's new eligibility guidelines will provide additional healthcare options to individuals who are not eligible for or who exhaust the subsidy.

Senator Joshua Miller (D-28; Cranston, Warwick) supports the policy change, saying, "I've heard from many of my constituents regarding the lack of options for people who had been forced to pick up COBRA. I am pleased that BCBSRI has taken steps to make another alternative available that may be more affordable than COBRA." 

BCBSRI is the only health plan in the state that offers coverage for Rhode Islanders who are not eligible for health insurance through an employer or government-sponsored programs. In all, BCBSRI offers four health plans and a dental plan directly to individuals and families.

Further, BCBSRI offers the AccessBlue Program that helps make coverage more affordable for qualified individuals and families based on income eligible guidelines. The BCBSRI Board of Directors established this program in 2006, and has set aside $11 million for AccessBlue. To date, more than $4 million of premium assistance has been provided to Rhode Islanders in need. Currently, more than 20 percent of Direct Pay members receive assistance through the AccessBlue program.

"BCBSRI remains committed to helping our members access affordable, high-quality healthcare," Purcell said. "For Rhode Islanders out of work because of the recession, BCBSRI offers options which may be less expensive than the cost of COBRA coverage." Rhode Island's unemployment rate, now 10.3 percent, is the nation's second highest. In 2008 alone, Rhode Island lost 19,000 jobs to the recession.

Current BCBSRI members who would like to learn more about BCBSRI's Direct Pay plans or AccessBlue should call Customer Service at (401) 459-5000 or 1-800 639-2227. Non-BCBSRI members should call BCBSRI Individual Sales at (401) 351-BLUE (2583) or 1-800 505-BLUE (2583).

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