Air Force One touched down on the runway of Tweed-New Haven Airport Wednesday morning, marking yet another twist in the ongoing debate about Connecticut health insurance — specifically, the debate about how to help the state’s 350,000 uninsured residents.
President George W. Bush ’68 arrived in the town of his birth on his way to a panel discussion about health savings accounts with business leaders in Bridgeport. Health savings accounts allow individuals to save money tax-free to pay for health expenses, and Bush, a supporter of the accounts, used his speech Wednesday to promote their expanded use.
The president’s visit came in the middle of a gubernatorial campaign that has focused heavily on the need to reform Connecticut’s health insurance system. The visit also occurred one day after the Massachusetts legislature passed a bill making it possible for all state residents to acquire health coverage.
“There are pros and cons, but what happened in Massachusetts underscores that there is a need for a comprehensive solution, to put mechanisms in place that make health care coverage available for everyone,” said Janet Davenport, a spokeswoman for the Universal Health Care Foundation of Connecticut. “It is incumbent upon the governor and all people who hold positions of leadership in our state to make this a priority.”
Davenport cited a poll, conducted on behalf of the foundation, which found that 35 percent of Connecticut residents thought making health care more available and affordable should be one of the top two priorities for the state. Only 6 percent of those polled said Connecticut’s health care system is in “good shape.”
But John Wiltse, a spokesman for Gov. M. Jodi Rell, said the state’s established program to cover children — Healthcare for UninSured Kids and Youth, or HUSKY — is already adequate. Further expansion of the coverage the state provides would be prohibitively expensive, Wiltse said.
“Connecticut already has one of the most generous programs, especially for youth and children,” he said. “That doesn’t mean improvements can’t be made, but the question always becomes, ‘How are you going to pay for them?'”
Business leaders in the state said Bush’s plan for health savings accounts could work well in Connecticut, already a high-cost state for industry, whereas a plan like Massachusetts’ could place too much of a financial burden on businesses. Something, they said, must be done to reduce the rising costs of health care for businesses.
“You’d be surprised how many people are cutting back on new hires and on offering insurance,” said Joe Mirra, who sits on the Health Care Council of the Greater New Haven Chamber of Commerce. “I’m in favor of the health savings accounts — it’s one way to control the rise in health insurance and it also empowers consumers to control costs.”
Mirra said a plan like that of Massachusetts, which will split costs between the government, individuals and businesses, would add to Connecticut’s reputation as a high-cost state and cause the state to lose even more jobs.
But Davenport said health savings accounts, which are generally paired with a high-deductible insurance policy, are not an ideal solution to the problem of uninsured Connecticut residents because they remain financially unreachable for many residents.
“While health savings accounts are beneficial and will benefit certain residents in the short run, they fall short,” she said. “Not everyone will be able to participate, and I’m not just talking about the working poor; there are people who are middle income bracket for whom they may not be feasible.”
The problem of Connecticut’s uninsured residents has been a recurring theme of the race for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination between New Haven Mayor John DeStefano Jr. and Stamford Mayor Dan Malloy. Both DeStefano and Malloy issued statements in advance of Bush’s appearance in Bridgeport condemning Bush and Rell for what the Democrats’ campaigns called a lack of leadership on the issue.
Malloy’s campaign, which has released a plan that would offer health insurance to every child in the state, criticized the president and the governor for allegedly failing to adequately address the rising costs of health care in their State of the Union and State of the State addresses, respectively.
DeStefano’s campaign also held a press conference Tuesday at Tweed in advance of the president’s visit at which the mayor urged Rell to lobby Bush to scale back federal budget cuts that DeStefano said could hurt Connecticut families. Derek Slap, spokesman for DeStefano, said the governor should be looking into ways to fund a plan for universal health care as a way of improving job growth in the state.
“Other states are doing innovative things and are doing things where they are leading the nation, and Connecticut is not,” Slap said. “The mayor has talked about the need for something that’s portable, that covers everyone, and that’s preventative.”
The president, who traveled via motorcade from New Haven to Bridgeport, passed a number of protestors who oppose the continued U.S. presence in Iraq, the Associated Press reported.