The proposal to establish the SustiNet state-run health insurance plan cleared its first legislative committee Monday, receiving approval to move forward from the Public Health Committee by a 16-10 vote.

The current version of the bill is a work in progress and will likely be amended as it moves forward. It will now go to the Insurance and Real Estate Committee.

The proposal calls for joining the health insurance pools the state currently pays for–state employees and retirees and people covered by Medicaid and other public plans–under a quasi-public SustiNet Authority. Ultimately, the public would be allowed to buy SustiNet coverage.

Committee members debated the proposal for more than an hour. Supporters, including co-chairs Rep. Elizabeth B. Ritter, D-Waterford, and Sen. Theresa Gerratana, D-New Britain, argued that the proposal could improve access to medical care, slow the growth of health care spending and promote changes that would improve the health care system.

Much of the discussion centered on concerns raised by Republican lawmakers, who said the proposal could put the state at financial risk and would require major changes in an unrealistically short time. They also questioned whether the state should be running a health plan and said it could pose a problem to private insurance companies.

Rep. Jason D. Perillo, R-Shelton, and Sen. Jason Welch, R-Bristol, said many of the goals of the proposal could be achieved outside the SustiNet bill. Welch said moving forward with individual reforms, rather than a comprehensive proposal, would allow the state to expand reforms that work and back off those that don’t.

Before the committee voted, lawmakers removed a provision from the bill that would have protected health care providers from liability for injuries to SustiNet plan members if they occurred while the provider was following clinical care guidelines. The provision drew praise from physicians and opposition from trial lawyers and people who were harmed by doctors. Ritter said the provision was removed in response to concerns that it would create a dual standard, since it would only apply to people covered by SustiNet, and would therefore be an inappropriate way to solve a widespread problem.

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Arielle Levin Becker covered health care for The Connecticut Mirror. She previously worked for The Hartford Courant, most recently as its health reporter, and has also covered small towns, courts and education in Connecticut and New Jersey. She was a finalist in 2009 for the prestigious Livingston Award for Young Journalists, a recipient of a Knight Science Journalism Fellowship and the third-place winner in 2013 for an in-depth piece on caregivers from the National Association of Health Journalists. She is a 2004 graduate of Yale University.

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