Breidbart: State Dems need to make health care a priority

Joe Lieberman aside, Connecticut Democrats have to be pleased with where they stand after Election Day. They turned the entire state blue, with Jim Himes taking a congressional seat that had been Republican for 40 years, and they ensured veto-proof majorities in both houses of the General Assembly for the next two years.

Not bad.

But despite all their gains the Democrats will not have a blank check come January. No one needs to be reminded that the state’s budget is an embarrassing mess or that even with some money to work with, Gov. M. Jodi Rell can still be a force on her own. So when it comes to policy, the Democrats will have to be smart and selective in what they pursue. One area that should be particularly high on their docket is health care.

Luckily, they were already given some help on that front this past week, when Rell announced that she would be separating her recently developed Charter Oak Health Care program, which is designed to give coverage to uninsured adults, from the state’s long-running HUSKY plan, which provides health care for low-income youth.

As much as the latter has been successful as an independent program — it is currently in its 11th year with nearly 300,000 children enrolled — the former has struggled since it took off the ground this summer. Only 2,300 people have enrolled in Charter Oak so far, making it unlikely that the state will meet its goal of 10,000 participants.

So when the state announced that the two would be linked by law — as they were until this past Monday’s announcement — Democrats expected problems. They anticipated that doctors and hospitals would be unimpressed by Charter Oak’s low reimbursement rates.

Ultimately, they knew that would hurt HUSKY. Health-care providers who denied participation in one of the programs would no longer be eligible to participate in the other. Across the board, that policy was deemed unfair for the children who participate in HUSKY, especially as enrollment numbers are expected to increase during the economic crisis.

Now that they have been decoupled, it remains to be seen if Charter Oak will be able to survive, as hard as the governor and the HMOs might try to convince providers otherwise.

“It’s not for lack of trying,” Ellen Andrews, executive director of the CT Health Policy Project said Thursday. “The program is bound to have problems if it remains structured the way it is right now.”

But before the Assembly even tries to touch Charter Oak: Is it really the best plan for Connecticut?

House Majority Leader Chris Donovan does not think so. While it may attempt to be a low cost plan, the representative said Charter Oak’s high deductibles, high co-pays and limited coverage make it a “bare-bones program” that is simply unsustainable.

He has a better idea.

Since last year, Donovan has championed the Connecticut Healthcare Partnership, a statewide health-care pooling plan that would allow municipalities, small businesses and nonprofits to buy into the current state employees’ health-care plan. The idea is that a larger pool of people will have an easier time negotiating for lower costs with an insurance company because risk is more spread out.

“Health-care pooling and Charter Oak sit on the same spectrum, but are on opposite sides,” Donovan said Thursday. “Health-care pooling takes an established health-care plan with low deductibles and low cost and says, ‘Let’s open this up to the public.’ ”

Last year, both houses of the General Assembly passed a bill to set up the CHP, only to face a veto by the governor.

But Democrats have plenty of reasons to revisit the idea in the upcoming session: first, because of Charter Oak’s fragile situation; second, because there will soon be an administration in Washington that has public health care as a major point on its agenda; and third, because even with a nasty budget situation, the plan will cost the state nothing and actually save people some money.

“That’s the beauty of it,” Donovan said.

Samuel Breidbart is a sophomore in Branford College.

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