Conn. health care plan still moving forward

By Susan Haigh
Associated Press Writer / March 22, 2010

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HARTFORD, Conn.—Proponents of a proposed universal health care system for Connecticut say the program is still needed despite the newly passed federal health care overall in Washington.

Kevin Lembo, the state's health care advocate and co-chairman of a board that's putting together plans for the system, known as SustiNet, said Monday that the Connecticut initiative will complement the federal legislation.

"We will need SustiNet," he said. "SustiNet is much bigger than just this."

The board has been charged with designing the SustiNet system, which would pool everyone from state employees and retirees to the uninsured and needy into a single system that proponents say will share the risk, promote wellness and control costs.

The proposed SustiNet system is scheduled to be presented to the General Assembly and the next governor by Jan. 1 for approval.

Frances Padilla, acting president of the Universal Health Care Foundation, said the federal health care bill calls for health care exchanges, where people could pick from various insurance plans for coverage. Padilla said SustiNet would be a public plan offered within the exchange.

The SustiNet law, she said, "is really a mirror, hand in glove, of the federal reform."

Gov. M. Jodi Rell, a Republican, vetoed the SustiNet legislation last year, arguing it would ultimately cost the state at least $1 billion. She criticized the bill for not providing a way to pay for SustiNet.

The Democratic-controlled General Assembly overrode Rell's veto.

There have been other estimates that SustiNet could cost as much as $3 billion, but Padilla and Lembo discounted those figures as inaccurate because the overall expense has not been determined while the program is being developed.

Keith Stover, a lobbyist for the Connecticut Association of Health Plans, said SustiNet could be a difficult sell considering more than 90 percent of the state's population currently has health insurance.

"The most significant hurdle that SustiNet faces is not whether the federal government passed health care legislation but how you come up with a rationale in this fiscal climate to spend a $1 billion or $2 billion to insure an additional 7 percent of Connecticut's population," he said.

Stover said state officials need to "take a deep breath" with SustiNet, given the federal health care reform legislation.

"There are a lot of moving parts in this federal reform bill," Stover said. "I think the challenge in times like this is to resist euphoria driving you to do something without a rational policy or fiscal basis."

When President Barack Obama signs the federal bill into law, the SustiNet board will have 60 days to recommend any changes to state laws or regulations that Connecticut needs to comply with the federal legislation. Obama plans to sign the legislation Tuesday, capping a yearlong quest by the president and congressional Democrats to remake the nation's health care system.