Sen. Matthew Lesser, center, D-Middeltown, stood with advocates and health officials earlier this month in announcing a new push for a public health insurance option in Connecticut.
Sen. Matthew Lesser, center, D-Middeltown, announces a new push for public health insurance in Connecticut.

Connecticut lawmakers are joining other states that have unveiled proposals to expand government-run health coverage, with plans to extend state health benefits to small businesses and nonprofits, and to explore a public option for individuals.

Under two measures announced Thursday, officials would open the state health plan to nonprofits and small companies – those with 50 or fewer employees – and form an advisory council to guide the development of a public option. The legislation would allow the state to create a program, dubbed “ConnectHealth,” that offers low-cost coverage to people who don’t have employer-sponsored insurance.

Comptroller Kevin Lembo’s office would partner with one or more private insurers under an umbrella contract to provide plans outside of the state’s risk pool. The plans would meet the standards outlined in the Affordable Care Act.

“Somewhere in Connecticut, there’s a young worker with a big idea that they want to chase – something that could change their world or ours – but for now, they’re forced into a cubicle because it may be their only way to access health care,” said Lembo, Connecticut’s former health care advocate. “I’ve seen this story play out a time or two – dreams set aside and lives put on hold indefinitely and squandered because our health care market is broken.”

If adopted, small businesses could join the state health plan as early as January. Less than half of Connecticut’s small companies offer health insurance to their workers, legislators said, despite collectively employing more than 700,000 people – about half of the state’s workforce.

The public option would be created with input from the advisory council. It would require a second round of legislative approval, and wouldn’t roll out until 2021.

The council will examine the financial impact of the public option. Sen. Matthew Lesser, D-Middletown, a co-chairman of the Insurance and Real Estate Committee, estimated that the startup costs would amount to less than $1 million.

“We’re not trying to subsidize insurance,” Lesser said. “What we’re trying to do is leverage what we have right now in place, and we’re working to try to find a way to do that without impacting the general fund.”

Lembo said the public option is not about vilifying the private insurance industry, but rather seeks to recognize that government can –by boosting competition –provide vital assistance to small businesses and their workers.

“I think they are trying their hardest,” he said of the insurance companies, “but they’re competing over a shrinking book of business.”

That has translated into too many private health plans offering minimal benefits at prices many households can’t afford, Lembo said.

“This is about trying to bring more people to the table based on what might be a more affordable option because there is no profit motive, no shareholder input, no brokers’ fees,” he added.

The Connecticut Business and Industry Association has been a frequent critic of public health insurance options, arguing the premiums, benefit levels and medical provider payments the government sets often fail to reflect market realities.

“With any new health insurance market comes the increased likelihood of destabilization because of potential changes in the risk pool,” Joe Brennan, the group’s president and CEO, said in written testimony submitted Thursday. “If a disproportionate share of individuals with greater health care needs choose to enroll in the ConnectHealth program, premiums could go up significantly and raise costs to the state by impacting state employee premiums.”

The CBIA also has “considerable concerns” about funding for the public option, he said.

“The bill provides for state-financed cost-sharing subsidies to enrollees in the ConnectHealth plan who do not qualify for cost-sharing subsidies pursuant to the Affordable Care Act,” Brennan said. “The language is silent as to how such funding will be attained.”

Sen. Kevin Kelly, R-Stratford, a ranking member of the insurance committee, said the cost estimate provided by lawmakers Thursday was unrealistic.

“This is something that would be extremely expensive for our state and would crowd out already limited state funding for core services for the most vulnerable,” he said. “There is a reason why President Obama did not go in this direction when he developed the Affordable Care Act and there is a reason why no other state has this system.

“A public option would actually lead to more expensive health care costs over the long term and destabilize the individual market through less competition as private insurers would be forced to compete with a government option that can offset costs at any time simply by raising taxes.”

Cities and states across the country have announced ambitious proposals to explore government-sponsored health insurance.

Democrats in Washington state, New York and California have introduced plans to offer public coverage to people who don’t qualify for it or can’t afford to enroll.

Jenna is CT Mirror’s Health Reporter, focusing on health access, affordability, quality, equity and disparities, social determinants of health, health system planning, infrastructure, processes, information systems, and other health policy. Before joining CT Mirror Jenna was a reporter at The Hartford Courant for 10 years, where she consistently won statewide and regional awards. Jenna has a Master of Science degree in Interactive Media from Quinnipiac University and a Bachelor or Arts degree in Journalism from Grand Valley State University.

Keith has spent most of his 31 years as a reporter specializing in state government finances, analyzing such topics as income tax equity, waste in government and the complex funding systems behind Connecticut’s transportation and social services networks. He has been the state finances reporter at CT Mirror since it launched in 2010. Prior to joining CT Mirror Keith was State Capitol bureau chief for The Journal Inquirer of Manchester, a reporter for the Day of New London, and a former contributing writer to The New York Times. Keith is a graduate of and a former journalism instructor at the University of Connecticut.

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  1. This is how the US is going to ram Universal Health Care which is basically Obamacare for all citizens. They are going to “piece meal it” thru individual states to fool unsuspecting public. If you do not know what Unuversal Health Care run by the government looks like, go to a VA hospital.

    1. Actually the majority of the American people want a Medicare for All system like every other industrialized country in the world who by the way ALL have a longer life expectancy than us!…..oh yes….and we pay a lot more for an inferior product. You keep fear mongering and we’ll move ahead without you.

  2. Headline should read “Connecticut Legislators Rush to Defend Health Insurer Profits from the INEVITABLE move to Medicare For All” ….It’s a bit wordy but it states it so much better!

  3. “Democrats in Washington state, New York and California have introduced plans to offer public coverage to people who don’t qualify for it or can’t afford to enroll.”

    A ploy to increase dependency on state government services ,and terms and conditions of existing
    state union worker health contracts. A better alternative; Reduce Medicare eligability age to 60 years old, thus removing older, less healthy individuals from the general risk pools, which reduces significant osts on both ends of the healthcare rate pools.

  4. I support this initiative. It’s important that every person has access to healthcare. More competition usually equals less cost. An idea: how about contracting directly with the hospitals and their physician organizations and minimizing the insurance industry.

  5. Unfortunately, media in the State of Connecticut has become nothing more than a PR Firm for the Democratic Led State Government. Mr Phaneuf you should be ashamed. You profess to be an expert on the financial demise of our state, but never mention how the politicans and union leaders conspird and agreed to use an inflated Discount Rate for Union Pension Invement Returns lto hide investment return shortfalls. Shamless, simply shameless!

      1. Thanks for the response. However, I stand by my position. Though, included in your series ( Yes, I read it…nice work), you never “beat the drum” about how the agreed to Pension Fund Discount Rate was a contrived number, designed to underfund and mislead the public. Addiionally, stop blaming others for the problems, it was the Inflated Pension Fund DR, and the “Automaic Passing of Union Labor Agreements” via absence of a vote after 30 days, that really got us in this mess. If the media didn’t continually softshoe arond these points, and the manipulaion and malfesence that hs been occurring in our state govrnment over the lat 30 years. We probably wouldn’t be in this mess. News Media has an opportunity to change direction and assist with saving this state. The ball is in now in your court!

        John Doe

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