By Brian New

NORTH TEXAS (CBSDFW.COM) — Millions of laid off Americans now can keep their workplace health insurance for free.

While much of the talk around the American Rescue Plan Act, passed by Congress in March, was about the $1,400 direct stimulus payment, the federal relief package also included six months of free COBRA health insurance.

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The federal law known as COBRA gives workers the option of keeping their work’s health insurance if they lose their job.

The problem is COBRA insurance premiums are expensive – on average $600 per month for an individual and $2,000 per month for a family.

Karen Pollitz, a senior fellow and health insurance expert with the Kaiser Family Foundation, said the cost of COBRA far too often forces families to make difficult decisions.

“If you can’t pay the rent and health insurance, most people are going to pay the rent because you have to have a place to live,” she explained. “This now takes this decision off the plate. Families won’t have to decide between health insurance and rent.”

Here’s what you need to know about the free COBRA plan.

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Q: How long does it last?
A: It’s six months of free COBRA insurance from April 1st to September 30th. The plan does not reimburse for any past COBRA payments.

Q: Who qualifies?
A: Any worker laid off in the past year who lost their health insurance qualifies, including those who initially elected not to take COBRA because they couldn’t afford it.

Q: How do you to sign up?
A: You must notify former employer. Companies are supposed to be sending employees notices but, if you don’t want to wait, you can also fill out a form (linked here (pdf)) from the US Department of Labor and send it to your employer.

Pollitz said with Congress rushing to start the free COBRA benefit by April 1st, expect the process at times to be “messy” but she said for many struggling Americans this benefit can also be “life changing.”

For those not eligible for COBRA or who decide not to elect COBRA, the latest stimulus package also provides free health insurance from the marketplace for those on unemployment.

Subsides for marketplace health plans are also available. Congress has also extended the insurance enrollment time period to mid-August. For additional information go to heathcare.gov.

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For additional questions about free COBRA insurance click here (pdf).