Facing a barrage of criticism over eligibility cuts, the SAG-AFTRA Health Plan has announced it will be offering an 80% reduction in COBRA premiums for many participants who will no longer qualify for coverage starting Oct. 1

More than 17,000 people have asked trustees of the SAG-AFTRA Health Plan to overturn recently announced changes that will cut eligibility for the plan on Jan. 1. In less than a month, the  petition at change.org — titled “Overturn the Changes Made to the SAG-AFTRA Health Plan” — noted that the changes are being imposed amid the COVID-19 pandemic and characterized them as “unconscionable.”

The health plan announced in an email it sent to members on Aug. 12 that it would raise the earnings floor for eligibility from those earning $18,040 a year to $25,950, effective Jan. 1. Trustees said at the time that without restructuring, the plan was projecting a deficit of $141 million this year and $83 million in 2021.

The plan, which is operated by trustees of the performers union and the industry, said Wednesday that the trustees are committed to helping as many participants keep their health coverage as is sustainable.

“Though necessary to save the Plan, we recognize that production shutdown and the changes to the SAG-AFTRA Health Plan eligibility requirements are painful for many of our participants,” said SAG-AFTRA Health Plan CEO Michael Estrada. “With this in mind, the Plan Trustees asked us to develop the broadest reduced-premium COBRA relief possible so participants and their families can keep their high-quality coverage at a highly subsidized cost.”

Some participants and their families who will lose earned coverage on Oct. 1, Jan. 1 and April 1, can keep their coverage if they have at least $13,000 in earnings (or 50 days for those covered under the Plan’s special rule based on days of work). Those who qualify will see reduced monthly COBRA premiums for up to 12 months, or nine months if they are losing coverage on April 1, 2021.

For these participants, Plan I COBRA premiums are reduced from $919 to $184 for a single participant; $1,663 to $333 for a participant plus one dependent; and $2,336 to $467 for a participant plus two or more dependents. These premiums and eligibility requirements will also apply to current Plan II participants who will be losing earned coverage on Oct. 1, Jan. 1 and April 1.

The plan also said the Trustees — especially the Union Trustees — understand that some members’ earnings can vary greatly from year to year, and they insisted that the new single-plan structure include a safety net for participants who have had extended careers. As a result, the Health Plan has created the Extended Career COBRA benefit for participants who have at least 12 extended career credits and will be losing coverage on and after Jan. 1 because of volatile earnings.

Participants and their families will qualify for this new benefit if they have at least $20,000 in covered earnings during their last base earnings period and lose coverage on Jan. 1 or later. Those who qualify will see reduced monthly COBRA premiums — paying only 20% of the otherwise applicable amounts — for up to 12 months if they have 12-19 Extended Career Credits or up to 18 months if they have 20 or more Extended Career Credits.