Doctors: State health plan does harm

By Alex Roarty

Cumberland County doctors are balking at a state House bill they say could force them to accept an ill-conceived insurance plan.

The bill, approved by the House on Monday, would try to provide health insurance to 273,000 low-income Pennsylvanians not currently covered.

Individuals who make $20,800 or less and families of four that make $42,400 or less — each amount is 200 percent of the federal poverty line — would be eligible.

Surplus money from MCare, a statewide fund that helps doctors pay for high-priced malpractice suits, would partially pay for the program.

But doctors are fearful the insurance won’t provide them enough reimbursement, according to Dr. Andrew Behnke, president of the Cumberland County Medical Society.

His group represents about 250 doctors in the county.

And adding to the problem, Behnke said, is a perceived ultimatum from Gov. Ed Rendell.

He said the governor has threatened to take away a program that subsidizes doctors’ payments into MCare, called abatements, if a health care reform bill is not sent to him by the end of March.

The abatements can be as much as $5,000, half the total cost, Behnke said. Doctors, he said, would be forced to support a plan that might not pay them enough or pay out the nose to keep their licenses.

“I don’t have $10,000 sitting in my back pocket ready for the end of March,� he said.

The withdrawal of abatements and a new insurance plan would make Pennsylvania’s environment worse for doctors, said Chuck Moran, spokesman for the Pennsylvania Medical Society.

“It’s just another thing tacked onto the reputation Pennsylvania already has,� Moran said.

Officials in the Department of Health and the governor’s office, however, think the bill will help solve one of the state’s biggest health insurance problems — the uninsured.

The cost of providing care for the uninsured was $1.4 billion in 2006, according to Elisabeth Myers, health department spokeswoman.

That money is drawn from tax dollars and higher insurance premiums for those who do have coverage, she said.

Myers also disagreed the reimbursement package isn’t satisfactory, saying the exact amount of funding hasn’t been decided but that doctors should be happy with it.

The bill is similar to one proposed by Rendell in his “Cover All Pennsylvanians� program.

“The governor believes that the bill passed by the House is a step forward,� said Chuck Ardo, Rendell’s spokesman. “He also believes the Senate needs to act on the legislation in a timely manner to secure continuation of the MCare abatements.�

The bill is likely to face a roadblock in the Republican-controlled Senate, whose leaders have indicated they are not happy with how the program would be funded.

It would be a relief to Behnke, who operates one of his two endocrinology practices in Carlisle.

He said the program, designed to improve health care in the state, could actually harm it if doctors are driven away.

“Why would a doctor come to a commonwealth that you have to pay extra money in for liability and accept insurance that doesn’t pay you well?� he said.

“It’s almost like the governor is asking us to leave.�

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