MANCHESTER–Gov. Dannel P. Malloy used his strongest language to date Tuesday night to question the wisdom of placing control over state health care, a significant and growing piece of the state budget, in the hands of the proposed quasi-public SustiNet Authority.

“The idea we would move these cost centers from direct government control, particularly our relationship with our employees, and turn it over to a quasi-public entity over which we have no direct control is a bit of a stretch — as in it’s never been done before,” Malloy said in a town hall meeting on his proposed budget.

Malloy also questioned taking on the cost of such a system, which would oversee health benefits for state employees, retirees and Medicaid recipients, at a time when he is trying to erase the largest per-capita state budget deficit in the country.

The governor repeated his support for the goals of health-care reform, while suggesting in a lengthy exchange with a minister that the timing and content of SustiNet make it something he cannot support.

The Rev. Joshua Pawelek of the Unitarian Universalist Society in Manchester began the exchange by praising the governor on his overall approach to the budget, then challenging him on SustiNet.

“I’m wondering why your administration is backing off from SustiNet, and isn’t it about time that we built a health care system in Connecticut that’s based on providing health for our residents, not profits” for corporations, Pawelek said.

His comments were drowned out by applause in the packed auditorium of Manchester Community College.

“Listen, I have to be clear. I support the goals of SustiNet,” Malloy said. “I don’t think the current version of this legislation is perfect by any stretch of the imagination.”

At a current cost of $12,000 for individuals and $16,000 for families, “you’re not really talking about affordable health care,” he said.

“I pledge to work with you,” Malloy said. “And I pledge to implement the federal system. And I’ll pledge to get to the point where no one in Connecticut is denied services.”

“At this time, I have difficulty doing that,” Malloy said. “But you ask a very reasonable question, and I’m trying to give you a very reasonable answer.”

“I think you have,” replied Pawelek. “What I’m hearing is that you’re not closing the door. You want to see numbers and costs… You need more information, and I appreciate that.”

But then Malloy told the minister he didn’t want to leave the wrong impression: He has a fundamental concern about yielding so much control over health care for so many people to an unprecedented quasi-public authority.

A premise of the plan is that having a common authority overseeing the health plans and a large insurance pool would provide the leverage to save money and produce delivery-system changes.

SustiNet coverage would be offered to municipalities, small businesses and nonprofits as soon as next year. Ultimately, anyone in the state would be allowed to buy into the plan.

But Malloy tonight said there is no way the coverage could be offered next year.

“The idea that we’re going to be able to offer that coverage this January, honestly, its just …”

Malloy struggled to complete his answer, then said, “Reverend, it’s not telling the truth.”

The SustiNet concept has drawn passionate support, including from clergy, small business owners, patient advocates, doctors and people who have struggled to get or afford health insurance. Supporters, many of whom have become a frequent presence at the Capitol and at town-hall meetings in red “healthcare4every1” T-shirts, have spoken of the need for affordable insurance and an alternative to for-profit insurers.

Administration officials said a month ago they share the goals of SustiNet, which was created to produce universal health care and is now being pitched as a public insurance option that could promote delivery system changes and reduce health care costs.

But they say they’re looking to the federal reforms to achieve those goals, and say SustiNet needs to be re-examined in light of the federal law.

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Mark PazniokasCapitol Bureau Chief

Mark is the Capitol Bureau Chief and a co-founder of CT Mirror. He is a frequent contributor to WNPR, a former state politics writer for The Hartford Courant and Journal Inquirer, and contributor for The New York Times.

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