Fight over uninsured may shutter Pa. agency

MARK SCOLFORO (AP)
http://www.philly.com

HARRISBURG, Pa. – An agency that monitors the cost and quality of Pennsylvania’s health care system may be forced to close its doors as a casualty of a wider political battle over covering the uninsured.

The Pennsylvania Health Care Cost Containment Council is caught in the middle of a dispute over whether a bill to reauthorize it should also include an extension of a malpractice insurance subsidy for doctors. Without it, the agency’s legal authority expires Monday night.

“I got calls from people who work over there, very concerned,” said Rep. Todd Eachus, D-Luzerne, a leader in his caucus on health care issues. “They were being asked for keys and stuff like that: ‘Get the boxes ready, we’re going to have to move out.'”

The Senate passed a reauthorization bill Saturday that includes the doctors’ subsidy, but a House-approved version that passed Monday does not. Gov. Ed Rendell issued a letter Sunday saying he would veto the Senate version if it arrives at his desk.

Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi, R-Delaware, said he hoped the governor will sign a bill containing the Senate’s approach. “If he doesn’t, then we would have to re-evaluate our options,” Pileggi said.

It would be premature for the council to shut down operations while the Legislature and governor are working on the issue, he said.

“So long as we’re considering bills and we’re in session, I think that it would be prudent to continue to wait until the final legislative action’s taken,” he said.

Eachus said a shutdown would hurt the agency’s employees and send the wrong message about the state’s priorities.

“What is the image for Pennsylvania … when we shut down the foremost data collection agency in the country as relates to clinical quality?” he said.

On the House floor Monday, Republicans failed in an effort to advance a two-year renewal of MCare, the nickname of the state subsidy that helps doctors pay for supplemental malpractice insurance.

Minority Leader Sam Smith, R-Jefferson, said a vote against the procedural motion “is saying that you are not voting to support the medical providers and service providers of Pennsylvania that have relied on this MCare program over the last several years.”

Rendell wants to consider the doctors’ insurance benefit along with a proposal to extend health insurance coverage to nearly 300,000 Pennsylvania residents. The health-coverage debate is expected to resume after the General Assembly’s traditional two-month summer break from Harrisburg.

In his letter to lawmakers, Rendell said the Senate approach “sells short both our health care providers and our uninsured citizens.”

Several telephone messages left for Health Care Cost Containment Council officials Monday were not returned, and Rendell spokesman Chuck Ardo did not directly answer questions about whether the agency was being shuttered.

“The administration supports an extension of the cost containment council but can’t support the Senate version of the bill. Without action, the entire population of the commonwealth will lose an effective advocate,” Ardo said in an e-mail.

The council, established in 1986, employs about 40 people who compile reports on health maintenance organizations, hospital funding and hospital acquired infections. Its annual budget is about $5 million.

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