Senate Approves Two Controversial Healthcare Bills Saturday
The state Senate approved a highly controversial health “pooling” bill that would allow municipalities, small businesses, and nonprofit organizations to join the state employees’ gigantic healthcare pool.
In a rare Saturday session in the historic Senate chamber, the Senate voted 21 to 12, with three members absent, for the pool that has been opposed by Republican Gov. M. Jodi Rell. Rell vetoed a similar bill last year, and her budget director has spoken against the bill this year.
Immediately after the pooling bill passed, the Senate began debating the controversial SustiNet universal health care bill. Democrats said that SustiNet is a progressive, forward-thinking system to vastly improve the healthcare system and will allow the state to become “Obama-ready” for the expected healthcare changes at the federal level. By contrast, Republicans derided the bill as the first step toward European-style socialized medicine.
Shortly before 3:30 p.m., the Senate voted 23 to 12 on strict party lines with 23 Democrats in favor and all 12 Republicans opposed.
Sen. Jonathan Harris, a West Hartford Democrat who summarized the bill on the Senate floor, said the current healthcare system needs to be improved because it is highly expensive. Every year, the current public and private health care systems spend $22 billion to cover the healthcare in Connecticut. The SustiNet plan, he said, will save $1.8 billion.
The bill, Harris said, covers the four biggest issues regarding healthcare – “cost, quality, access, and coverage.”
“We are picking a path,” Harris said on the Senate floor. “The final decision, or decisions, will be made by future General Assemblies.”
“SustiNet is a self-insured coverage system,” Harris said. “The delivery system is a very important piece of this. … Every individual in this state should be entitled to a primary care doctor.”
The bill calls for an expansion and improvement of electronic medical records “so we bring that country doctor with the bag from the 19th century into the 20th century,” Harris said. “SustiNet brings this to the table.”
HUSKY A and B and SAGA will be in a separate pool or silo, Harris said.
“This doesn’t push out the private market,” Harris said. “A level playing field will be established and there will be competition, which made this country great. … This bill does not implement SustiNet or any significant part of SustiNet. … The General Assembly must come back to the drawing board” to implement SustiNet.
“I want to be clear. Today, we are not legislating this to happen,” Harris said. “We will need to do more later. … We’re in this together, and we’re not going to succeed unless we work together.”
The bill sets up three task forces – on obesity, tobacco, and the workforce.
Obesity “is putting a major drag on the healthcare system,” Harris said.
But Sen. Dan Debicella, the ranking Senate Republican on the budget-writing appropriations committee, said the bill is both bad healthcare policy and bad fiscal policy. The measure would be a huge drain on taxpayers in the future that was not outlined in the bill, and plan would mirror “the gold-plated plan” that state employees currently have, he said.
“The bill before us today is not the answer,” Debicella said. “It is a path that will lead us to a bad policy” on government-run healthcare.
“This bill presupposes the answer,” he said. “The core of it is the wrong answer that we have presupposed. … The bad policy in this bill says that we are going to harm the 94 percent who have health insurance to help the 6 percent of us who do not have it. … It hurts one to help the other, and there’s a better way. The better is to focus on cost containment.”
Regarding how to pay for the plan, Harris said it will be decided by legislators in the future.
“The end-goal for the advocates is to have a European-style” socialized medicine, Debicella said.
Greenwich Republican Sen. L. Scott Frantz said that he applauds the concept of improving the healthcare, even though he opposed the bill.
“It’s a noble cause,” Frantz said. “The only question is: how do we get there?”
Three ways of reducing costs include medical malpractice reform, reducing tobacco use, and reducing obesity. If all tobacco use was eliminated, the system could save 40 percent to 60 percent of the entire healthcare bill, Frantz said. If obesity was eliminated, the system would save another 15 percent to 25 percent.
“I’m not sure government can take care of every need,” Frantz said on the Senate floor.
Sen. Edward Meyer, a Democrat, said he has “had issues” with SustiNet, but the plan makes improvements on cost, quality, and access – three important issues in health care.
“SustiNet will give us further choice,” Meyer said. “It is the major game in town. It’s something we have to consider.”
But Senate GOP leader John McKinney of Southport opposed the bill.
“The bill is much more than a study. The bill before us is clearly designed to implement the SustiNet plan,” McKinney said, adding that the SustiNet plan will likely cost $1 billion in 2012.
In Canada, the universal, single-payer system “has many shortcomings” in which individuals “are treated as expenses” who cannot get quick access to their doctors, McKinney said. “It’s not anecdotal. It’s true. … The system we have, for all its flaws, is much, much better. That’s why this is the wrong bill at the wrong time.”
Sen. Edith Prague, a Columbia Democrat, said, “The uninsured are not getting their healthcare free. Each and every one of us is paying for it.”
While Republicans trashed the plan, Sen. Joseph Crisco said, “It really is a brilliant piece of work.”
Senate Majority Leader Martin Looney, a New Haven Democrat, said the bill was “timely, patient-centered, and equitable. … By 2011, the board of directors that will be set up under this bill will have to make recommendations” on healthcare improvements.
Senate President Pro Tem Donald Williams, the leader of the 24-member Democratic caucus, said, “We know there can be vast improvements in the delivery of healthcare to everyone who needs it.”
Longtime healthcare advocate Tom Swan said, “People nationally understand that this is a very big deal in the national debate.”
Universal Health Care Foundation president Juan Figueroa, a former legislator from Hartford, hailed the passage of both SustiNet and the pooling bill.
“Together, these two reform bills set the state on a path of health care and economic recovery,” Figureroa said. Business, labor, clergy and health providers are all on board. Now, we need the governor to lead our state through its health care crisis.”
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