CT House Debates Health Care Pooling Bill

Bridgeport CT Post
May 21, 2009

May 21--HARTFORD -- House Democrats on Wednesday, after a seven-hour debate, used their hefty majority to hammer through a healthcare-pooling bill that would end current contracts with traditional insurance companies and make Connecticut self-insured.

The bill passed 109-36, with one Democrat siding against the legislation.

If approved in the Senate and signed into law by the governor, the legislation would terminate the contracts, which have two more years to go; and open up coverage for towns and employees similar to programs in two dozen other states, including Massachusetts and New York.

But Connecticut would also pioneer the expansion of the state health benefits, which are some of the best in the nation, to small businesses and non-profit agencies.

Robert L. Genuario, the governor's budget chief, joined minority Republicans in warning that the changeover could cost an additional $70 million a year, plus more administrative fees in the state Comptroller's Office, at a time when Connecticut is in fiscal crisis.

"Is this the time and is this the place, to take this risk?" House Minority Leader Lawrence F. Cafero Jr. asked at the end of the afternoon-long debate.

Speaker of the House Christopher G. Donovan, the chief proponent of the legislation, said in an interview that by changing the state's coverage from traditional insurers to a self-insurance concept, the bill may be more acceptable to Gov. M. Jodi Rell.

Rell last

year successfully vetoed a bill that would open up the state's health-insurance programs, claiming that it would drastically change the terms of contracts with healthcare contractors who just began a three-year deal with the state.

Republicans said Wednesday the possibility for higher costs is a major threat.

"That's the risk," Cafero said, citing a recent legislative research report that noticed a $69 million cost overrun during one recent three-month period of benefits' payments. "Right now, folks, we can't afford this risk, because if we let in a group, that increases the risk."

He warned that expanding the number of participants beyond the current 200,000 active and retired state workers will create higher costs.

"Ladies and gentlemen, this is a ground-breaking piece of legislation," Cafero said.

"You don't flip from fully insured to self-insured overnight." Cafero predicted massive amounts of new work for the state Comptroller's Office.

He acknowledged, however, that the legislation is a priority for Donovan, D-Meriden, and that Democrats rule the House 114-37. A similar bill, without the self-insurance component, was successfully vetoed last year by Rell.

"I am not a moron," Cafero said at about 1:30, an hour into debate. "I know this is the speaker's bill and I know I can count." Currently, the Comptroller negotiates with four health insurance companies to handle the various programs, which are limited to state employees and retirees.

He said that while the concept is "simple," the state's generous health-care plan, rated among the best in the nation by Consumer Reports, might have trouble expanding to municipalities, small businesses and non-profit organizations.

Rep. Lile R. Gibbons, R-Greenwich, said the issue is very complicated.

"If it were easy we'd have quality affordable insurance at the national level," she said. "I see this bill as an introduction to universal healthcare in Connecticut."

Under the legislation, towns and cities could join the program in January 2010, nonprofits in July 2010, and small businesses in January 2011. There would be a minimal two-year commitment for new participants.

"Consumers across the state want choice," said Rep. Steve Fontana, D-North Haven, who introduced and defended the legislation on the House floor for the entire seven hours. "They want competition. They want comprehensive coverage."

Currently about 92 percent of the state's 3.4 million residents have insurance coverage. Cafero charged that the issues of accessibility and affordability are crucial to healthcare. "This bill does not solve that problem," he said.

"The state of Connecticut has the best health plan in the country," said Rep. Lawrence G. Miller, R-Stratford. "I don't know why we're fooling around with this. I'm not sure there's going to be savings."

"This may be cruel and cost more money down the road," said Rep. John A. Harkins, R-Stratford. "This is the taxpayers' money we're talking about."

Donovan, in an interview during the debate, said he's continued contact with the governor on the issue, dating back to her veto last year, when she promised to work with him on another form of expanded healthcare coverage for the state.

"I've kept in touch with her and met with the lieutenant governor several times and my staff has met with the Office of Policy and Management (OPM) and the governor's staff," Donovan said.

"There hasn't been an OK and there hasn't been disapproval, either."

Genuario, the secretary of OPM, told reporters in the Capitol Press Room during the debate that the state is only a third of the way through the existing three-year contract and has already seen benefits soaring about 6 percent more than anticipated by the insurers.

If the state were to self insure, it would take the chance of losing money similar to the way the current state insurers are paying more than they expected.

Genuario said that the state benefits are the equivalent of $8,000 in premiums for a single person and $23,000 a year for families.

"There is no insurance crisis in the state for people or businesses that can afford $8,000 a year or $23,000 for a family," Genuario said. "Folks who are in those financial brackets do not have a problem."

Eric George, lobbyist for the Connecticut Business & Industry Association, which opposes the legislation, said the lower costs Democrats anticipate may be a myth. "What costs are you going to bring down?" he said. "It sounds like you're going to pay the doctors less. The last thing we need is to pay the doctors less."

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