Fight for ‘public option’ goes on, Donovan tells SustiNet rally

A week after lawmakers reached a compromise that leaves SustiNet backers short of their goals, leaders of the push for the proposed state-run health plan told supporters that the fight isn’t over.

House Speaker Christopher G. Donovan, one party to the compromise, told the crowd that their goals would be achieved.

“We’re going to open up the [state employee health insurance] pool to cities and towns and eventually, small businesses,” the Meriden Democrat told hundreds of SustiNet supporters who filled Hartford’s Union Station Wednesday evening. “We’re going to create that public option in Connecticut so that everybody can afford health care.”

Juan A. Figueroa, president of the Universal Health Care Foundation of Connecticut, which created the original SustiNet proposal, told supporters that the plan is not dead.

“Don’t believe the obituary that has been written by some members of the press,” he said. “Don’t believe those obituaries.”

SustiNet rally 4-27-11

SustiNet supporters fill Union Station in Hartford

But it could be an uphill fight.

In an interview, Donovan acknowledged that the compromise is missing two key pieces of the SustiNet proposal that he mentioned in the speech: opening the state employee pool to small businesses, and offering state-run insurance to the public, the so-called public option. Donovan said legislators are working with the governor and pushing for “strong language” in the compromise bill that would lead to expanding the state employee health care pool further and move toward a public option.

But Gov. Dannel P. Malloy is unlikely to agree to a public option this year. Last week, Malloy’s senior advisor Roy Occhiogrosso said the governor “does not believe that is a viable option at this point. He thinks it might not ever be.”

The compromise agreed to by the Malloy administration, Donovan and Senate President Pro Tempore Donald E. Williams Jr., D-Brooklyn, would open the state employee plan to municipalities and nonprofits that contract with the state. It would not create a public option, but would create a SustiNet advisory panel to oversee health reform efforts in the state.

Figueroa, who wants a commitment to create a public option, said legislators are working to push forward the SustiNet bill, separate from the compromise already reached. There have been “some real meetings” with the administration and legislators about substitute language for the proposal, he said, adding that he was optimistic about an agreement that could move the state in the direction SustiNet supporters are seeking. Still, he said, it’s hard to tell how far the governor would agree to go.

Many of the remarks at the rally were aimed at pushing Malloy on SustiNet. Figueroa cited the concerns Malloy has raised about the plan and noted that Malloy did not allude to them when he was a candidate.

“Now look, we understand that things are different once you’re in the governor’s chair as opposed to when you’re running for the chair, we understand that,” he said, drawing laughter.

A video that played at the rally, billed as a message to Malloy “from the people who believed in you and voted for you,” took a similar theme.

“You said you were a longtime supporter of reform that would make affordable health care benefits available to all Connecticut citizens, and especially the most vulnerable,” it said. “You chastised the former governor for not acting on health care reform, saying, ‘The truth is we can’t afford not to pass this. Health care costs are killing us.'”

It added, “We understand no one in Connecticut has a tougher job than you, but at least you have a job, and benefits, and health care. Your children aren’t going without seeing the doctor. Your parents aren’t choosing between medicine and dinner.”

That line drew applause from the audience. After the video, they marched from Union Station to the state Capitol, where they formed a circle around the building and chanted “health care!” and “public option!”

Malloy spokeswoman Colleen Flanagan said Wednesday night that Malloy still believes that “we need to do a better job of providing affordable and accessible health care to the people of Connecticut.”

But she said that when the SustiNet concept was created, federal health reform had not yet passed. Now that it has, Malloy is looking toward it as a way to increase access to health care and make it more affordable.

The compromise on SustiNet, she said, includes important pieces of the proposal and shows that Malloy supports its goals.

“How we get there, it’s not a straight path,” she said. “He’s committed to working with everyone at the table to figure out the best way to do that, and he is hoping to continue to do that.”