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Friday, May 16, 2008

Pressure grows for Rell to sign bill

Plan would expand pool for health care coverage
By Mary E. O’Leary
Register Topics Editor

Legislators and small businesses are continuing to lobby the governor to sign a bill that would allow pooling of private employees and municipal employees with state workers in order to reduce health care insurance costs.
A bill authored by state House Majority Leader Christopher Donovan, D-Meriden, passed the House and Senate and will be sent to Gov. M. Jodi Rell for her signature after the Memorial Day weekend, at which point she has 15 days in which to veto it or it automatically becomes law.
John Hopper, president of a small marketing firm in Stamford, said he was “pretty passionate” that opening this pool to his five full-time employees and their families would help level the playing field in competing with bigger companies and allow him to grow his business.
Hopper, a Republican who voted for Rell, said he e-mailed her urging that she let the health options go into effect.
Jacob Hacker, Yale professor of political science and an expert on health care, in a conference call on the bill Thursday, said the market is “quite dysfunctional” for small businesses that pay administrative costs as high as 40 percent for inferior insurance, despite often having a younger work force with fewer health risks.
By spreading risk over a larger group of individuals, there is more leverage to negotiate with insurance companies, he said.
“This creates a new institutional foundation,” as Connecticut is the first to add small businesses and nonprofits, as well as municipalities to the pool, something that is being watched across the country.
Donovan said the average age of the 200,000 state employees and their family members and retirees is 48, and the group, which includes police, corrections officers and other high stress jobs, means they are probably less healthy than at other businesses, but still they pay less for health insurance because the risk is spread among many.
Rell is being advised by the state Office of Policy and Management that two of three insurance companies providing insurance for state workers have said they will seek new bids if she signs the pooling plan and OPM worries a zero percent premium increase for 2008-09, saving some $54 million, will disappear.
Jeffrey Beckham of OPM argued only small firms and municipalities with high payouts will opt for the state plans, thus adversely affecting the risk pool and threatening the savings.
Joshua Nassi, an analyst with Donovan’s office, however, said there is a review committee set up to not allow municipalities or companies to offer the state plan only to their sickest members.
As for Health Net of the Northeast and Anthem Blue Cross and Blue Shield ceding the market to UnitedHealth Group as the lone insurer willing to maintain its zero premium increases next year, Nassi thought this was a false threat.
“That’s a lot of workers to give up,” said Sal Luciano, executive director of Association of Federal, State, County and Municipal Employees, Council 4.
The Connecticut Business and Industry Association has said the pooling plan is the beginning of a single payor system for the state. Critics countered that the lobbying group has a conflict of interest in that it offers its own insurance plans for small businesses.
Hacker said pooling, with adverse risk control factors, just offers more access to private health plans, which increases choice and competition. “It’s a pretty American idea,” Hacker said.
Donovan said he hopes to have more dialogue with Rell.
Rell has said she will not sign a bill that adds costs to the $18.4 billion state budget for 2008-09 because of a projected drop in state revenues. The pooling bill needs $500,000 to implement.
Mary E. O’Leary can be reached at 789-5731 or moleary@nhregister.com.

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