State Senators Push For Health Plan Approval

By: Bradley Vasoli, The Bulletin
http://www.thebulletin.us

Harrisburg – State Sens. Vincent Hughes (D-Philadelphia) and Jay Costa (D-Allegheny) announced yesterday they are introducing legislation to provide medical coverage to uninsured Pennsylvanians earning up to 200 percent of the poverty income level.
Dubbed the Pennsylvania Access to Basic Care plan (PA ABC), the measure would subsidize health coverage for an estimated 80,000 state residents already waiting to be insured under adultBasic, a program to insure 19- to 64-year-olds lacking coverage. The bill would make subsidized care available to more than half a million Pennsylvanians.

“This is moving to provide opportunity and access for a half a million people,” Mr. Hughes said. “It addresses a significant health-care need.”

Sponsors of a state House of Representatives version of the legislation that passed 114-81 Wednesday as an amendment to a bill extending medical liability insurance assistance for doctors. The cost of the insurance measure is estimated to equal $1.11 billion in its first five years.

The effort is a part of a more ambitious proposal by Gov. Ed Rendell (D) to provide health coverage to over 800,000 uninsured Pennsylvanians. According to Bob Caton, spokesman for Rep. Todd Eachus (D-Luzerne), the author of the amendment, the portion of the plan currently being debated addresses the needs of working families whose employers do not provide insurance and who cannot afford to buy insurance independently.

“There was a definite gap there,” Mr. Caton said. “It’s kind of unconscionable in this day and age and that’s something we wanted to address immediately.”

Since Republicans control the state Senate, winning passage of the measure is going to be a tougher task, he believes. But he couched the matter in urgent terms, asserting that two Pennsylvanians die everyday because they do not have health insurance.

“How much longer can the Senate afford to wait to get this done?” he said.

Although what Sens. Hughes and Costa are proposing does not go as far as the more comprehensive and controversial proposal Mr. Rendell dubs Cover All Pennsylvanians (CAP), fiscally conservative critics believe the funding scheme for the measure is untenable.

Nathan Benefield, director of policy research at the nonprofit Commonwealth Foundation, believes that enacting the legislation will discourage some employers from offering private insurance once they realize that more workers could rely on subsidized care.

He also posited that the cost of subsidized care is likely to exceed current projections. When former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney (R) worked to subsidize health coverage for more uninsured workers in his state, he said, the costs quickly moved beyond early estimates.

Mr. Benefield said he would like to see passage of market-based health-care reforms such as permitting residents to buy out-of-state health insurance and to acquire less comprehensive coverage plans if they choose. State Sen. Mike Folmer (R-Lebanon) is championing those ideas in his chamber.

“I was disappointed that the freeing of the market was rejected [in the House],” Mr. Benefield said.

Much of the revenue that would pay for these increased subsidies would come from a surplus in the state’s MCare (Medical Care Availability and Reduction of Error) fund, which assists doctors in affording medical liability insurance. The Pennsylvania Medical Society, a doctors’ advocacy group, has expressed concern that PA ABC as currently structured would jeopardize the fiscal state of MCare.

Bradley Vasoli can be reached at bvasoli@thebulletin.us.

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