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The Great Health Care Waiting Game

Lawmakers "fix" health care by studying it and planning to make a recommendation in two years

By Andy Bromage

June 30, 2009

A small army dressed in red T-shirts is marching on the Governor's Mansion in Hartford, shouting through bullhorns and pumping fists in the air. They're rallying for universal health care and two bills sitting on the governor's desk that, if signed, could expand health insurance to some of the more than 300,000 state residents who don't have it.

A call-and-response chant echoes down posh, leafy Prospect Avenue: "What do we want? Health care! When do we want it? Now!!"

That's a pretty good chant, but not quite accurate. They should be screaming something more like: "What do we want? An implementation plan for universal health care, followed by two years of committee hearings! When do we want it? 2011!!!" Not as catchy, but that's what one of the bills they're rallying for promises.

The so-called SustiNet bill, the universal health care movement's answer to the state's insurance crisis, passed in the legislature and is being hailed as the most important reform the state's seen in decades, if not ever.

In theory, the SustiNet health care plan is revolutionary: Any resident of the state could obtain low-cost health insurance that guarantees quality health care with co-pays and premiums that adjust to your income.

What the bill actually does is far less monumental: It establishes a SustiNet committee to devise a universal health care plan and by 2011 recommend reforms to the legislature. Lawmakers would still have to approve and more importantly, find funding for the plan. With a startup price tag of almost $1 billion, a Republican governor who's shown little interest in real health care reform and a crippling $8 billion budget deficit, that'll be a tall order.

SustiNet's real importance might be that it makes Connecticut "Obama-ready," meaning that if Washington passes real health care reform, a blueprint will be in place to make it happen on the state level. But prospects are dimming that a public option will come out of whatever Congress passes, thanks to estimates that it would cost upwards of $1.2 trillion.

So why all the fuss over a bill that promises nothing but more committee hearings? For answers, we asked state Rep. Betsy Ritter, a Waterford Democrat who, as co-chair of the Public Health Committee, helped SustiNet win approval.

Advocate: SustiNet's big selling point is that it would save money in the long run. How would it do that?

Ritter: It's easily summarized: getting people out of emergency rooms for primary care. That's not the place one should get primary care, and is far more expensive.

What compromises, if any, did you have to make just to get the SustiNet blueprint passed this year?

The deadlines. The original plan put out in a little pamphlet is 12 to 18 months faster than the deadlines that we set. That was a prudent thing to do because of the federal questions: It would be a shame to expend a huge amount of effort and resources and find ourselves going against the tide of what is available from the federal government.

Do you think SustiNet will ever be a funded health care program?

I would love to see that happen.

But do you think it will happen?

You'll have to ask the governor that question.

We already have special committees advising the government on health care reform, including the Connecticut HealthFirst Authority. What will the SustiNet committee do that's different and how do we know their plan won't sit on a shelf somewhere collecting dust?

Actually, the Connecticut HealthFirst Authority report issued in January had a lot of the same proposals incorporated in the SustiNet plan. I wouldn't say it sat on a shelf and did nothing. Could nothing happen? Sadly, yes. But nothing is going to happen in this direction without this kind of legislation. We don't have anything else that sets us on a path that looks at expanding health care.

Was passing a bill that put money behind universal health care out of the question this year?

Yes, pretty much. You might notice there were no money bills passed this year and we also have no budget. This is a big undertaking. We tried our best to hang onto some of the progress we've made up until now. You have to look at the environment in which this occurred.

Does SustiNet really bring us any closer to universal health care if there's no money behind it?

Ultimately, absolutely. If the governor were to sign the bill, or allow it to become law, and we appointed the committee and they were to meet and make recommendations to the legislature, and the legislature passed it, we would be a long way toward universal health care.

But isn't that all contingent on finding the seed money?

We would ultimately have to find funding. Health care is not free and expanding it to cover more people will not be free.

If getting Gov. Jodi Rell to sign a blueprint is so difficult, isn't it a virtual certainty anything with a price tag would be dead on arrival?

Ask her if it's so difficult. The bill passed by huge margins in the House and Senate. We don't know what she's going to do.

What happens if she doesn't sign it?

We would have shut down an opportunity. We will be back at it next year, sure. We say that all the time. Will it be difficult to do that? Hard to tell. I would hold out for the feds as well. The indications are that there is indeed going to be change and opportunities, so hopefully we won't find ourselves playing catch up.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Advocate.
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