A paperwork delay has caused the approximately 4,500 Enron Corp. workers laid off by the foundering energy giant to go without health insurance temporarily, forcing at least one ex-employee to put off cancer surgery.

Many employees, including Mike Black, had planned to continue their Enron benefits after their expiration last month under federal rules set up by the Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act, or COBRA.

But Black, who had to cancel skin cancer surgery set for last Thursday, and his fellow former Enron mates learned the company failed to complete all the necessary paperwork in time for coverage to continue into January.

Enron planned to have COBRA information mailed to workers three weeks after their termination, but spokeswoman Karen Denne said it's taken longer than expected.

Ex-workers should receive the paperwork by Jan. 15, Denne said.

The delay has left Black, a systems programmer who can't afford the operation without insurance, in limbo.

"I'm still waiting for my second unemployment check," Black said.

Black, 54, said he's been unable to get any COBRA information from Enron, the insurance plan administrator or the insurance company.

It seems as if "they're all pointing fingers at each other," Black told the Houston Chronicle.

Matt Isbell, president of consulting company COBRA Resources, said the problem is not unusual because of the complex process. Companies have 44 days to notify an individual they can buy the coverage, Isbell said.

During that time, former workers are on their own until they receive COBRA coverage. After that, qualifying expenses are reimbursed.

Black's not willing to front his surgery costs, however, because COBRA could disappear altogether if Enron switches its bankruptcy filing from Chapter 11, or reorganization, to Chapter 7, which is liquidation.

Another worker, Candace Womack, didn't find out her insurance had lapsed until New Year's Day, when she got out of the hospital from heart surgery and needed to buy prescriptions.

Womack, who worked in software support, carried health insurance for her family.

"I'm getting a little ticked about the situation," said Womack, 51, who added that she was able to sign up for COBRA coverage before she walked out the door after she was laid off from another company in the mid-1990s.