Fresh off Election Day victories, Connecticut Democrats announced Thursday their latest attempt to more deeply involve the state in health insurance, drawing quick and fierce opposition from insurers and pharmaceutical companies.
Legislation has not been drafted detailing the plan or its costs. A proposal to be introduced in February when the General Assembly convenes would extend the state employee health plan to individuals, small businesses and nonprofits, Comptroller Kevin Lembo and Democratic legislative leaders said at a Capitol news conference.
Gov. Ned Lamont, who said he supports efforts to make health insurance more accessible and affordable, expressed skepticism about a so-called public option, particularly if taxpayers will be responsible for the costs.
He disagreed with Lembo who said the “backstop is the state of Connecticut.” The comptroller said the state plan will be subject to smaller rate increases than in the private sector because of the sizer of the state insurance pool.
“I don’t want the taxpayers to be the backstop of anything," Lamont told reporters at a Capitol briefing. "At this point it has to be incredibly carefully designed so that taxpayers are not the backstop.”
Lawmakers have tried before, but were defeated in 2019 by heavy lobbying by the insurance industry, a dominant force in Connecticut extending back two centuries. Reform advocates now say there is a new urgency as the public faces the the worst public health crisis in a century and tens of thousands of workers have lost their jobs and health insurance. Policymakers also are seeking to end racial disparities in health care coverage that have worsened in the COVID-19 pandemic.
In addition, Democrats have more muscle, winning bigger majorities last week in House and Senate elections.
State officials also say they need to act because health insurance policy in Washington is chronically tangled in partisan battles in Congress. The Supreme Court last week heard the latest challenge to the Affordable Care Act, known as Obamacare, brought by Republican attorneys general.
Senate President Pro-tem Martin Looney, D-New Haven, said the measure represents an early start for lawmakers and would help "until the time comes when we get comprehensive federal reform.”
Lawmakers say the rapidly rising cost of health insurance and increasing high deductibles that put insurance beyond the reach of many have been a top complaint from individuals and small businesses.
“The other big intervening issue is the election of 2020, an election litigated on one issue in this state and across the country and that issue is health care,” said Sen. Matt Lesser, D-Middletown, and co-chair of the legislature’s insurance committee.
“From Ellington to Ansonia to Wilton, Democratic candidates talked and talked and talked about health care and more often than not about a public option for Connecticut residents,” he said. “That election has been litigated and now a new legislature has been elected 1/4 u201a that ran on this issue, that has talked about this issue and that it made promises to the people of Connecticut that we’re going to deliver real reform to the residents of Connecticut.”
Lembo, whose office is responsible for the state health plan for 220,000 state and municipal employees, retirees and their dependents, said officials are negotiating better deals with hospitals rather than through insurance companies.
Similar to last year’s legislation that failed following intense lobbying by the insurance industry, next year’s measure will likely call for leveraging the state employee plan to obtain prices for better deals, the comptroller said.
Health insurers said they will “adamantly oppose” legislation if it’s the same version of government-run health care “pushed by the comptroller in years past,” said Susan Halpin, executive director of the Connecticut Health Plan Association.
“It’s a proposal that’s failed before with good reason,” she said. “It establishes a false promise that’s already proven unsustainable in the limited form it exists today."
“At its core, a government-run public option reduces provider reimbursement rates,” Halpin said. “Like Medicaid and Medicare, it’s premised on a reduced fee schedule. The question is whether a new government fee schedule is enough to support today’s medical infrastructure, particularly in the midst of a pandemic.”
Connecticut’s Health Care Future, a project of the Partnership for America’s Health Care Future, an alliance of physicians, nurses, clinicians, community hospitals, health insurance providers and biopharmaceutical companies, blasted what it calls “a state government-controlled health insurance system."
Stratford Sen. Kevin Kelly, the Senate’s Republican leader, said a public option providing access to state insurance plans “will not accomplish our shared goal of reducing costs and increasing accessibility and will simultaneously threaten thousands of good paying jobs.”
Republicans have introduced legislation that would reduce health insurance premiums by 20%, contain health care costs and reduce prescription drug costs, he said in an emailed statement.
Rep. Sean Scanlon, D-Guilford, and House chairman of the finance committee, said the bill passed the House in 2019, but did not come up in the Senate. He said he would “like to pursue” the legislation and Democrats drafting the measure will “certainly consider” the Republican proposal.
Stephen Singer can be reached at email@example.com.
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