Health-care mandate debate resumes, this time over children’s eye drops

The Connecticut General Assembly’s annual battle over health-care mandates resumed Wednesday with a debate over prescription eye drops for children.

On a 23-12 party-line vote, the Senate approved legislation requiring health insurers to cover the cost of an extra bottle of prescription eye drops for children, so they can keep one at school.

Every Democrat voted for it. Every Republican was opposed, saying that even a small mandate – coverage would be limited to one bottle every three months – adds to insurance costs.

Senate Minority Leader John P. McKinney, R-Fairfield, said the vote was not a harbinger of GOP opposition to every new mandate, such as a pending bill requiring coverage of oral anti-cancer drugs.

“You always take it issue by issue,” McKinney said.

But Sen. Sam S.F. Caligiuri, R-Waterbury, the ranking Republican on the Insurance and Real Estate Committee, said he is taking the pledge.

“This year, I just decided to say no to all of them,” Caligiuri said.

The legislature has passed about 60 mandates over the years. Some pass unanimously, or nearly so, such as a requirement last year for coverage of early screening for autism spectrum disorders.

Gov. M. Jodi Rell held a ceremony to sign the autism bill.

But she vetoed another measure that would have created a new mandate for the coverage of prosthetics and expanded other coverage, including hearing aids for children, wigs for persons who lost their hair due to alopecia, as well as patients who need colostomy supplies.

“Each of the provisions has merit and would provide additional benefits to people with serious medical conditions,” Rell said in her veto message. “Each, however, also will have a significant cost for taxpayers, policyholders, and employers in future years.”

A study commissioned by the Insurance Department later concluded that the cost of the bill would have been 72 cents a month for every policy holder, 35 cents of which would be for the prosthetics. Colostomy supplies would have cost a penny a month.

Legislators had no cost information Wednesday for the eye drops, although one eventually will be calculated.

“Time and time again we hear about the cost for the insurance companies,” said Sen. Joseph J. Crisco Jr., D-Woodbridge, the co-chairman of the Insurance and Real Estate Committee. “We never hear about the savings.”

Crisco said mandatory coverage often leads to earlier and better treatment, saving money.

Republicans said they didn’t see how having an extra bottle of eye drops at a child’s school or day care would save money.

Sen. Kevin D. Witkos, R-Canton, offered an amendment that would have required that the cost-per enrollee be deducted by the pay of every legislator. Witkos said it is easy to describe the cost as minimal, “until you have to pay for it.”

Senate Majority Leader Martin M. Looney, D-New Haven, took issue with the suggestion that the legislature is immune financial pressures.

“Members of the General Assembly have not had a raise in 8 years, so we’ve certainly had skin in the game,” Looney said.

Witkos’ amendment failed on a party-line vote.