Democrats stepped up pressure Tuesday on Republican Gov. M. Jodi Rell to sign a health insurance bill that could loom large in this fall's General Assembly races.
Backers of legislation that would open the state-employee health plan to a pool of municipalities, nonprofits and small businesses said a veto would align Rell with "special interests."
"Today, I call on Gov. Rell to have the courage to say no to special interests and say yes to help for small businesses," said Secretary of the State Susan Bysiewicz, a Democrat.
The bill was passed by the large Democratic majorities in the House and Senate without attracting a single Republican vote in either chamber.
The Rell administration says that the bill's Democratic proponents exaggerate potential savings to the new pool, while downplaying the risk of as much as $78 million in higher costs to the state health plan.
"That's $78 million the state doesn't have right now," said Chris Cooper, a spokesman for Rell.
Insurers warn that opening the state-employee pool could bring in higher-risk participants that could drive up costs.
Bysiewicz hosted a press conference Tuesday with the bill's lead sponsor, House Majority Leader Christopher G. Donovan of Meriden, and executives of two businesses and a nonprofit that support the bill.
"This is a great opportunity," said Donovan, a labor activist who is expected to succeed James Amann as speaker in January. "With this bill, we can have a big win for the people of Connecticut."
Donovan said the new pool could provide the health benefits enjoyed by state employees, including prescription co-pays as low as $3, to small businesses and nonprofits now struggling with high premiums and poor benefits.
He was joined by Ned Lamont, the Democrats' U.S. Senate nominee in 2006 and the owner of a cable-television business, consultant John Hopper of Stamford and Jessica Sager, the director of a New Haven child care organization.
Lamont said he was amused by arguments that Donovan's plan was the first step on a slippery slope to socialized medicine.
"Nonsense," Lamont said. "What you're doing is you're giving small business a choice. You're giving small business an option. You're putting a little bit of competition on the table. And I think that's good."
Hopper said the cost of health insurance is stopping his communication consulting business from offering full-time positions to some of his 15 part-time employees. He has five full-time employees.
He said he pays $2,400 a month to cover his own family of five.
"This is a critical issue for us right now," said Hopper, who identified himself as a Republican who voted for Rell.
Donovan told Hopper that a supply of drugs that now costs his employees $120 could cost just $6 under the new plan.
"Donovan has no facts to back that up," said Chris Healy, the Republican state chairman. "He can no more predict the benefits of this after the fact than a fortuneteller."
The state comptroller's office already runs a limited pool open to municipalities, nonprofits and small businesses, but it is not tied to the giant pool of state employees.
Political sources say that Comptroller Nancy Wyman, a Democrat, has privately warned legislative Democrats against overselling the benefits of a new, larger pool.
She could not be reached for comment Tuesday.
Some strategists in both parties said that Rell could be doing the Democrats a favor by vetoing the health plan.
Until the new plan is implemented and actual costs are established, Democrats can reach out to small businesses and municipalities with the promise of lower health costs that may or may not be realized.
"They get to campaign on a concept," said George Gallo, the top political strategist for House Republicans. "They don't have to campaign on reality."
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at