Senate passes SustiNet compromise bill

A compromise bill on the proposed SustiNet state-run insurance plan passed the Senate 22 to 14 Monday, clearing the way for Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s signature.

SustiNet supporters cheered and hugged in the hall outside the Senate chamber after the vote, despite warnings from Republicans that the bill did not resemble the universal health care plan they had sought.

The bill does not commit the state to offering insurance to the public, although it does not rule it out. Instead, it establishes an advisory board called the SustiNet Health Care Cabinet to address health policy issues, including an examination of alternatives to private insurance, and an Office of Health Reform and Innovation to coordinate state and federal health reform efforts.

The bill also includes elements of a “pooling” proposal backed by House Speaker Christopher G. Donovan, D-Meriden. Municipalities would be allowed to buy insurance through the state beginning in 2012, and nonprofits that contract with the state would be allowed to buy in the following year. The state comptroller could join their coverage with the state employee health plan, which would require approval from state employee unions, or cover them in a separate plan.

During more than 4 hours of debate Monday, Senate President Pro Tempore Donald E. Williams Jr., D-Brooklyn, said the bill begins the process of addressing the lack of access to care and other problems in the health care system. The SustiNet cabinet will advise the state on how to increase access to care, whether to offer a public plan to cover low-income residents who don’t qualify for Medicaid, and make other policy recommendations.

“I don’t think it goes far enough, but it’s what we can afford today, and that’s important,” Williams said.

But critics questioned whether it could save money and said it does nothing to help the uninsured.

Sen. Len Suzio, R-Meriden, spoke of the SustiNet supporters watching from the Senate gallery wearing “healthcare4every1” T-shirts. “But this bill adds health care for no one,” he said. He called the bill “a hollow shell” that was not worthy of being voted on.

SustiNet has been controversial since it was proposed in 2009 as a universal health care plan, but the compromise bill has drawn praise from supporters and opponents of the original proposals.

In a statement released after the vote, Juan A. Figueroa, president of the Universal Health Care Foundation of Connecticut, which led the push for SustiNet, said that “the universal health care movement is alive and well in Connecticut.”

“Thanks to today’s vote, our state will take proactive steps to contain health care costs and explore alternatives to the current for profit health care market including a public option,” he said.