* Connecticut plan could be in place by 2012
* Critics say it's too expensive at $1 billion a year
By Ted Lorson
HARTFORD, Conn., July 22 Lawmakers in
Connecticut are moving ahead with plans for universal
healthcare in the absence of federal legislation, following the
lead of a pioneering law in neighboring Massachusetts.
As the Obama administration and Democratic leaders in the
U.S. Congress struggle to find support for a plan to extend
healthcare to millions of Americans, Connecticut is one of a
handful of states seeking to go it alone and reverse a trend
that has left more than 47 million Americans uninsured.
The Democratic-controlled legislature overrode a veto by
Republican Governor Jodi Rell on Monday to create a nine-member
board to craft a universal healthcare system.
The board will make recommendations to lawmakers by Jan. 1,
2011, on a healthcare plan called SustiNet that will cover
nearly all of Connecticut's 3.5 million people, including an
estimated 350,000 in the state without coverage.
Democrats hold veto-proof, two-thirds majorities in the
state's House of Representatives and Senate and voted along
strict party lines to pass the SustiNet bill.
Massachusetts passed a first-in-the-nation law in 2006 that
makes health coverage mandatory, bringing it within reach of
poorer people through subsidies and industry reforms. Other
states are also moving ahead with reforms, including Vermont
and Maine, as Massachusetts struggles to pay for its law.
Connecticut's system will be built around a large health
insurance pool in which state employees are pooled together
with participants in Medicaid, the joint federal-state health
insurance program for the poor and elderly.
That pool would then be expanded to include private
employers and people without health insurance who would be
offered the same health benefits available to state government
workers. Any state resident can join, regardless of health.
Specific details, including how it will be funded, are to
be determined. It is scheduled to begin on July 1, 2012.
Backers contend it would drive down costs by covering
primary care treatment for patients, reducing the need for
expensive emergency room care. Critics say it's too costly,
would sink the state deeper into debt and shatter the state
health insurance industry, a mainstay of the state economy.
The bill itself does not mandate health insurance for all
citizens, as Massachusetts does, but instead directs those
designing the law to explore whether such a mandate is needed.
The panel would also create task forces addressing obesity,
tobacco use and the number of healthcare workers.
Governor Rell said she vetoed it because of concerns over
cost, estimating it will require $1 billion a year. The state
has been without a budget since July 1 and projects a $8.9
billion deficit over the next two fiscal years.
"The Democrats in the legislature have not passed a
biennial budget yet they have approved a new, $1 billion
spending program without providing a way to pay for it," said
Rell. "The simple fact is that the families and employers of
Connecticut cannot afford the new taxes that will be required
by this new program," she added.
Universal Health Care Foundation, a Connecticut non-profit
group, said at least 325,000 people in the state lack health
insurance coverage. "Under SustiNet, we do anticipate
affordable public health insurance options starting in 2012,"
said its president, Juan Figueroa. He said a goal is to cover
98 percent of the state's population by 2014.
(Editing by Jason Szep and Eric Beech)