Session opens with flurry of new bills

By Keith M. Phaneuf, Journal Inquirer
http://www.journalinquirer.com

HARTFORD – The 2007 General Assembly session opened Wednesday with its usual flurry of activity, with more than 200 new bills referred to various committees.

Not surprisingly, included among them were dozens of health insurance-related measures. Legislative leaders and rank-and-file lawmakers spent much of the past fall campaigning on various proposals to help growing numbers of uninsured children and adults.

The other most common filing in the opening barrage of legislation – also expected given that it happens at the beginning of almost every term – involves dozens of requests for state funding for projects in lawmakers’ home districts.

Senate President Pro Tem Donald E. Williams Jr., D-Brooklyn, who pledged last July that Connecticut would debate universal health care in 2007, kept his word.
The first three Senate bills introduced this session all involve proposals to dramatically expand public and private health insurance opportunities.

Described by many Democrats and Republicans alike as one of the most complicated issues facing the state, the health insurance dilemma actually involves many problems.

Besides growing numbers of uninsured children and adults, more doctors are declining to treat poor patients with state-subsidized insurance because of low reimbursement rates. Physicians also have complained for years about skyrocketing malpractice insurance rates, yet Connecticut is finding fewer insurance companies willing to offer coverage because of high settlements.

And to top it all off, health care costs have been growing by double-digit rates for several years, with analysts saying there’s no end in sight.

“I don’t think anybody would tell you at this time they have all of the answers,” Williams said. “But I’m very optimistic this year that we will have some very substantive changes in our health care system.”

Various plans will be crafted and revised throughout the session, but Williams said Senate Democrats have agreed on several core principles they believe state government should be working toward.

These include a health system that emphasizes:
* Preventative care, which increases the odds of curing serious diseases early, often at a lesser cost.

* A community-based health care system that allows patients to find treatment close to home.

* Greater efficiency and improved technology for medical records systems, something Williams says can not only improve patient care, but also reduce bureaucratic costs.

Legislators also spent much of their time back at the Capitol claiming dibs on any available space on the state’s credit card, or part of the $1.1 billion emergency reserve amassed over the past three years.

This year’s $16.07 billion budget also is running more than $500 million in the black.

There were requests for state dollars for projects tied to increasing economic development, preserving historic buildings, fighting pollution, and improving parks and museums.

But Gov. M. Jodi Rell has been urging lawmakers to restrain their spending proposals, with analysts warning of a potential economic slump in a couple of years.

Connecticut has a $14.2 billion bonded debt, the third-highest per capita of any state in the nation. It also has underfunded its pension programs for teachers and state employees.

Rell said the large reserve primarily should be retained to guard against future budget deficits. Any spending from that account, or of the projected surplus, should go primarily to offset debt, she said.

The large surplus and reserve “should not be taken as a license to expand government spending,” Rell said. “Our state’s credit card is maxed out, and the payments we have to make on what we owe are getting higher and higher. To make sure those long-term debts do not completely tie our hands in the future, we need to focus on controlling our spending.”
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