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Lamont, legislative leaders announce ‘public option’ health care bill as insurance industry withholds support

Lamont, legislative leaders announce ‘public option’ health care bill as insurance industry withholds support
Gov. Ned Lamont, at the Capitol Thursday with House Speaker Joe Aresimowicz directly behind him, Comptroller Kevin Lembo, Rep. Sean Scanlon and Sen. Matt Lesser, to the governor's left, announced Thursday legislation to establish a public option health insurance program in Connecticut. (Stephen Singer)

Gov. Ned Lamont and Democratic leaders of the General Assembly unveiled legislation Thursday proposing state-subsidized health insurance in Connecticut that quickly drew fire from the industry and Republicans.

The legislation would offer coverage that meets or exceeds what’s provided by health plans and “within available appropriations” provide state-financed subsidies for those who do not qualify for federal health care subsidies.

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The cost of this expansion of government-sponsored health insurance is not yet clear, but if fully implemented the price could be in the tens of millions of dollars or more annually.

Known as the Connecticut Option, it must pass the House and Senate before the General Assembly adjourns June 5. It would be available in 2022, with details such as the number of health plans will will be worked out by the Office of Health Strategy, the comptroller’s office and actuaries.

“This is a bill that gives us the best opportunity in a long time to expand access to people who don’t have access to affordable health care and to bring down the cost of health care,” Lamont said.

The cost to establish the ConnectHealth Plan is expected to be at least $1.5 million in the state’s 2020 budget year and $750,000 the following year, according to the state Office of Fiscal Analysis. The cost is associated with consulting services, including actuarial and legal services.

However, the legislation does not detail the cost of state-financed subsidies for plan participants. The cost to the state will depend on the amount of the subsidies and eligible population, according to the Office of Fiscal Analysts.

Lamont said he worked "very closely with the insurance industry.”

“This is the insurance capital of America," he said.

The health insurance industry praised Lamont’s work, but said it will not support the legislation.

“We believe the current legislation, as drafted, continues down the path toward government-run health insurance and we principally cannot support its passage," said Susan Halpin, head of the Association of CT Health Plans.

She cited Connecticut’s role as a center for the insurance industry and said the state "should be embracing the growth of the health plan jobs here."

“If the aim is to reduce rates, we should be looking at all the cost drivers in our excellent but expensive health system," Halpin said. “As health plans, we stand ready to meet that challenge and work with anyone that wants to advance true market-based solutions.”

Economic activity related to the health insurance industry accounts for nearly 49,000 jobs in Connecticut, according to the Connecticut Economic Resource Center.

Sen. Matt Lesser, co-chairman of the legislature’s insurance and real estate committee, said the measure would lower the cost of health care by 20 percent for individuals and small businesses, reduce the price of prescription drugs by bringing in “affordable” medication from Canada” and control rising premiums and deductibles with subsidies and reinsurance.

The state will finance the cost of the program by taxing opioid manufacturers and restoring the individual mandate, which was required under Obamacare, said Lesser, D-Middletown.

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Senate Republican leader Len Fasano and Sen. Kevin Kelly, the ranking Republican on the insurance and real estate committee, said Lamont and Democrats did not provide details or the legislation to GOP lawmakers.

“There’s no public hearing, no testimony, no evidence this is good or bad,” Fasano said.

“First and foremost I just believe the whole process is deceitful,” Kelly said. “And it’s not like we’re without ideas. We’ve talked about the public option. We’ve talked about putting the health care issues foremost. Because we deal with the same constituents the Democrats do.”

Maribel La Luz, a spokeswoman for Lamont, said the legislation in an earlier form and the issue have been on the legislature’s agenda since early in the session, which began in February. “It’s not a brand new topic,” she said.

“It just seems pretty politically convenient when you can’t criticize the policy, you criticize the process,” La Luz said.

Tara Downes, a spokeswoman for Lembo, said Republicans did not take the comptroller up on his offer to speak to their caucus about the legislation.

Rep. William Petit, R-Plainville, said he doesn’t believe it’s “realistic we can push something though this complicated in the last 10 days.”

By late Thursday afternoon, he said he had not seen specifics of the legislation.

An earlier version of the measure proposed allowing individuals to enroll in the state employee plan, expanding the variety of health insurance plans available to private employers and authorizing the state comptroller to offer coverage to small employers.

Stephen Singer can be contacted at ssinger@courant.com.

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