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Health Care Effort Takes A New Turn

By CHRISTOPHER KEATING | Capitol Bureau Chief

May 28, 2008

For months, legislators have argued at the state Capitol over a landmark bill to open up the state-employee health care pool in an attempt to lower insurance premiums for small businesses, municipalities and others.

On Tuesday, two top Republican leaders and the state's largest business lobby were surprised to learn that Attorney General Richard Blumenthal says there now could be two separate pools rather than one gigantic pool to drive down insurance premiums.

The issue of the pools is important because the single pool was the linchpin of the cost savings, and the potential for two pools raised questions Tuesday about whether the program would still be attractive to people who don't work for the state.

Under a two-pool system, there would be no additional cost to the state, Blumenthal said. It is uncertain how many insurance companies would bid under a two-pool system and how many municipalities and businesses would seek to join a second pool.

Legislators have been wrangling for weeks as they wait to see whether Republican Gov. M. Jodi Rell will veto the highly controversial bill that would allow workers for small companies, towns and nonprofit organizations to receive the same lucrative benefits package as state employees.

Although Rell has avoided using the word "veto," top employees in her budget office have criticized the bill as bad public policy. The debate has continued for weeks because Rell still has not received the bill as it winds its way through the Capitol's bureaucracy.

Republicans and the Connecticut Business and Industry Association said the idea of two pools was news to them because the floor debates in the House and Senate this year focused on allowing employees to join the state's pool.

"All of their bragging rights was based upon the premise of this incredibly large pool of people," said House Republican leader Lawrence Cafero of Norwalk. "Where in that legislation does it even reference a second pool? It doesn't. It's one big happy family."

Senate Republican leader John McKinney of Fairfield agreed that lawmakers battled for months over the idea of one pool as the best way to lower costs. "This entire debate on the Senate floor, the House floor, in committees and press conferences was on opening the state employee pool," McKinney said. "Now we are told for the first time that is not the case."

But Blumenthal said that section two of the complicated bill allows the state comptroller to create another pool. The important point, he said, is not what was said on the House and Senate floor, but what was written into the legislation.

"There is no specific reference to a second pool in that precise language," he said.

Eric George, an attorney for the CBIA, said it was "the first time I've heard of the second pool."

House Majority Leader Christopher Donovan, the bill's chief sponsor, thanked Blumenthal for "standing up to misinformation being provided by certain insurance companies" that the bill would lead to higher costs for the state. Anthem Blue Cross and Blue Shield had saidit would be forced to raise rates by 4 percent, or $24 million, if Rell signs the bill.

"The numbers are wrong. Anthem is wrong," Donovan said.

Anthem, Health Net and UnitedHealthcare said Tuesday that they don't have enough information yet to say whether they would bid on serving a separate new pool.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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