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Adam Thompson on September 17, 2009 - 12:14pm
CT Legislative Session Roundup
Connecticut legislators deserve praise for a robust and active legislative session, despite an unprecedented budget deficit and opposition to many important measures by Gov. Jodi Rell. Legislators succeeded in expanding access to health care and improving its quality, passing a public health insurance option, and addressing the foreclosure and financial crisis to aid consumers and prevent corruption and abuse. Lawmakers expanded environmental protections, improved long-term planning for coastal waterways, and passed measures to support families, workers, and seniors. A notable achievement, the result of a State Supreme Court ruling in 2008, was implementation of marriage equality for same-sex couples.
Much of the session, including the last few months since the legislature adjourned, was consumed by a protracted budget debate between Gov. Rell and the Legislature. Lawmakers scuffled over how to fill the state's $8.6 billion deficit - the extent of which was largely due to the financial breakdown on Wall Street - and finally settled on a $37 billion budget package. Although the plan included key priorities shared by Gov. Rell and minority-party Republicans, Rell neither signed nor vetoed the budget, allowing it to become law.
The apparent political acrimony between the executive and legislative branches in the budget process was evident elsewhere. Before adjourning, legislators overrode 7 Rell vetoes, the most overrides since 1992. The most notable override was for a health care reform measure called SustiNet. The plan, named after the state's motto, will move Connecticut towards quality and affordable health care for all by establishing a process to create new options for coverage, including a public option, and implementing system reforms that promise to cut health care costs while improving its quality.
With a strong progressive legislative coalition, Connecticut moved forward on many key issues in 2009 despite the Governor's objection or inaction.
Budget: Connecticut's $37 billion budget preserves funding for many key programs like public education, higher education, Head Start, community health centers and nursing homes, and makes many changes to the state's tax structure. The budget increases the state income tax for millionaires, increases the cigarette tax from $1 to $3, reduces the state sales tax from 6% to 5.5%, and reduces the reach of the estate tax by raising the point at which the tax goes into effect, from $2 million to $3.5 million. Although Republicans and Gov. Rell said the budget lacked compromise, majority-party Democrats cited several instances where they adopted key Republican priorities in order to achieve a budget with bipartisan support. These included raising the threshold for the estate tax and eliminating "the cliff." Under current law, an estate with value just over the threshold would face taxes on the deceased's entire worth, while an estate just $1 less than the threshold would face no taxes. The budget fix eliminates the cliff and only activates the tax on value above the threshold.
In an apparent, but poorly executed attempt to preserve standing with her party while allowing the budget to become law without her signature, Gov. Rell tried to eliminate $8 million in spending from the $37 billion package by using her line-item veto powers. However, the Attorney General said the Governor could not veto any provisions without signing the entire bill. In the end, the Governor decided to allow the budget to go forward as presented, as another veto could have prolonged the impasse through the fall.
Health Care: While the country ever-intensifies its focus on Washington DC and health care reform, Connecticut legislators and advocates moved forward on reform, including a public insurance option. Legislators passed two bold and innovative initiatives to improve access to coverage and cut health care costs. Both measures hinge on providing the choice of a public health insurance plan. Connecticut's actions have received significant national attention and offer a model for a national public option.
- SustiNet: Over a governor's veto, lawmakers enacted SustiNet (HB 6600), which creates multiple self-insured coverage pools and will provide Connecticut businesses and individuals with new insurance options. This includes a new public option where coverage pools will provide the leverage necessary to implement system innovations like electronic medical records, care coordination, evidence-based clinical care guidelines for providers and aggressive preventive care programs to drive down cost and improve quality on a large scale. A nine-member board of health care providers and experts will produce detailed recommendations on how to implement and fund the plan that will include low-income subsidies. This plan was developed by the Universal Health Care Foundation of Connecticut working with small businesses, faith leaders, medical providers, labor organizations, and advocacy and human services groups.
- Healthcare Partnership: Elsewhere, for the second year in a row, lawmakers passed the Connecticut Healthcare Partnership (HB 6582). And, for the second year in a row, Gov. Rell vetoed the measure, despite heavy support from the legislature, press, small businesses, and consumers. The Partnership would permit municipalities, small businesses and non-profits to purchase insurance through the state employee health plan, taking advantage of the increased bargaining power and lower administrative cost associated with the 200,000-member pool. The vote to override the Governor's veto sailed through the House but went down by a single vote when a wavering Democratic legislator exited the chamber.
Other health care initiatives in the state included:
- Cost Controls: Lawmakers enacted important initiatives that will help reduce health care costs and unnecessary spending across the state. SB 1048 requires state health and social service agencies and the state employee insurance to develop a plan for the bulk purchasing of prescription medications to negotiate lower prices, while another provision will prohibit hospitals from seeking payment for “never events,” preventable medical errors that result in serious consequences, such as objects left inside patients after surgery and surgical infections. Elsewhere, to address health care costs stemming from pharmaceuticals, HB 6678 creates an academic detailing program to provide independent and unbiased information on the therapeutic benefits and cost-effectiveness of various pharmaceuticals to prescribers. To balance the marketing and biased information on prescriptions originating from pharmaceutical companies, the state, working with the University of Connecticut Health Center, in consultation with the Yale School of Medicine, will develop an evidenced-based outreach and education program on prescription drugs. Making a new source of independent information accessible to prescribers will help them to make well-informed choices, taking into account the full spectrum of drug options available to consumers.
- Cultural Competency: Lawmakers enacted an important provision to require medical professionals to obtain cultural competency training as part of the state's medical licensing and continuing education process.
- Autism Coverage: Lawmakers enacted SB 301 to make Connecticut the 12th state to require comprehensive insurance coverage for people with autism to help assure that the 1 in 150 people diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder receive the care they need. By allowing them to lead a higher functioning life, proponents say it will achieve overall cost savings for medical and special education costs.
- Coverage for Children: HB 5433 requires insurance companies to provide stepchildren with the same level of coverage as biological children and allows children to stay on their parent's non-group insurance policy to age 26.
- Insurance Transparency: To help inform policymakers and consumers, SB 46 creates the Consumer Report Card on Health Insurance Carriers in Connecticut, a comparison guide of all HMOs and the 15 largest health insurers in the state, including the "medical loss ratios" (ie. percentage of premiums spent on actual medical care versus administrative costs) of each insurer and requires insurers to communicate their medical loss ratio to consumers who are applying for a policy.
- Limiting Pre-X Exclusions for Rx Use: Significantly, HB 5019 prevents insurers from using the fact of a consumer's use of an anti-anxiety medication for 6 months or less as a factor in denying the consumer's application for coverage. This will help protect consumers from being unfairly denied insurance coverage. Unfortunately, Gov. Rell vetoed a strong consumer protection bill (HB 6531) that would have regulated insurer rescissions of coverage by regulating the practice of mining patient records for pre-existing conditions, factors insurers use to cancel policies.
- E-Prescribing: Lawmakers enacted HB 6301 to improve electronic prescription filling and tracking. The law will improve efficiencies and help reduce medical errors. Elsewhere, HB 6678 creates a health information technology and exchange advisory committee to access federal stimulus funding for e-health records.
- Long Term Care: SB 957 will help low income seniors and disabled individuals stay in residential care homes, rather than be forced into nursing homes if they become ineligible for state financed care in residential homes. Currently, if income rises above the 300% supplemental Security Income maximum, residents lose state support and most often are forced into nursing homes because they can't afford the full-cost of the residential care home. SB 957 establishes a special needs trust for excess income that is above the 300% maximum but below the private rate of the residential home. After a resident dies, the funds in the trust will be used to reimburse the state for Medicaid services received up to the amount of State Supplement provided. Similarly, lawmakers enacted SB 989 to expand income eligibility for the state's Respite Care program for individual with Alzheimer's disease. The program provides services and support for family caregivers. Additionally, SB 814 helps ensure access to personal care assistance to help seniors stay in their homes.
- Health Facility Planning: To ensure access to services across the state and, potentially, to prevent excess and therefore costly services, lawmakers enacted HB 6264 to require the state to conduct annual health facility utilization studies and to develop a state health facilities plan every five years. The facilities plan will assess the availability of care across the health care setting - acute care and specialty hospitals, emergency rooms, outpatient surgical centers, clinics, and primary care sites. It will also evaluate the unmet needs of people, project future demand for health care services, measure the effect technology may have on the demand, capacity, or the need for services, and recommend expansion, reduction, or modification of health care facilities.
- HIV Testing: HB 6391 removes several barriers to accessing HIV testing, while preserving patient confidentiality and choice whether or not to receive the test.
- E-Health Information: SB 1079 facilitates improved sharing of patient data contained by state health agencies, while preserving confidentiality, in order to strengthen the State's Health Information Network.
Creating Jobs, Protecting Workers:
- Standard Wage Benefits: Connecticut's standard wage law ensures that janitorial and food service workers, employed by private contractors, in state buildings receive certain wages and benefits. Lawmakers enacted HB 6502 over the Governor's veto to create a new way to determine these hourly wages and benefits. This action was in response to rising health care costs and will help these workers retain their private insurance.
- Workers' Compensation: Lawmakers enacted SB 778 to allow state authorities to renew a business license or permit only if sufficient evidence of compliance with workers' compensation insurance coverage requirements is provided by the business applicant. This will help ensure workers are adequately protected and covered by necessary insurance.
- Medical Leave: To support families of wounded soldiers, SB 710 provides for 26 weeks of unpaid leave for a family member to care for an injured soldier.
- Missed Opportunity: Unfortunately, Gov. Rell vetoed SB 1068 which would have required the state to apply for federal stimulus funding dedicated to the creation of green jobs and the implementation of green energy and conservation initiatives.
Financial Reform: Connecticut enacted a number of reforms addressing lending abuses and consumer protection:
- Foreclosures: SB 948 and HB 6481 implement mortgage foreclosure safeguards. The bills implement the federal Secure and Fair Enforcement for Mortgage Licensing Act by imposing conditions on the licensing of mortgage professionals. Additionally, they expand eligibility for the Emergency Mortgage Assistance Program by (1) giving the CT Housing Authority the authority to determine what constitutes a significant reduction in a borrowers' income and (2) expanding the list of circumstances that constitute a financial hardship beyond the borrower's control and changing some conditions for repayment. And, SB 949 creates the crime of residential mortgage fraud and modifies non-prime loan practices and regulations in the state. In a related move, lawmakers approved SB 951 to help prevent blight and the degradation of foreclosed and empty properties. The bill creates a system to track the owners of vacant dwellings and authorized local governments to enforce local ordinances concerning the repaid and maintenance of foreclosed properties. Neighborhood blight compounds problems caused by foreclosures by lowering surrounding property values and inviting vandalism and other crime.
- Credit Card Offers at Colleges: HB 6483 requires the public college board of governors to regulate credit card marketing practices to protect students from unfair targeting by card issuers. The bill prohibits card issuers from taking any debt collection action against a student's parent or guardian unless s/he had agreed to be responsible for the student's debt.
- Debt Reduction Services: HB 6327 requires debt reduction services to be tax-exempt nonprofits in order to operate in the state. It allows consumers to break a debt reduction contract within three days and enables the state to review any fees a credit clinic or other debt reduction service assesses.
- Identity Theft: Lawmakers passed a sweeping bill, SB 838, to better protect consumers form identity theft and enhance criminal prosecution of identity theft. The legislation increases protection of Connecticut residents’ personal information, corrects a shortcoming in our existing identity theft statute, and enhances the criminal penalties and enforcement authority provided to the Department of Consumer Protection. The legislation makes numerous changes in laws relating to identity theft, Social Security numbers, and the dissemination of personal identifying information.
- Timely Insurance Payments: Pro-consumer and pro-business legislation, HB 6447, was enacted to shorten the time period an insurer has to pay a claim from 60 to 30 days. The law allows an insured person or business to receive partial payments before a final settlement is determined, and increases the statute of limitations for filing a lawsuit arising from a claim under the policy from 12 to 18 months after sustaining a loss.
- Corruption: Lawmakers enacted HB 6339 to seize the assets of corrupt money managers like Bernie Madoff, the New York money manager who confessed to running a $50 billion Ponzi scheme. The legislation expands the state’s organized crime statute, Corrupt Organizations and Racketeering Act (CORA), to target fraudulent activity by money managers.
Gay Marriage: Lawmakers enacted SB 899 to implement a 2008 State Supreme Court ruling that legalized gay marriage. The law recognizes same-sex marriages from other states. It exempts religious organizations from being forced to participate in ceremonies but, importantly, does not exempt religiously-affiliated organizations that provide adoption, foster care, or social services from the marriage equality guarantees that are funded by state or federal funds.
- Children's Services: HB 5915 requires the Dept. of Children and Families to improve its monitoring and tracking of children who are under its care, children who are known as "stuck kids" - those who are placed out-of-state, living in psychiatric hospitals, are homeless, or are under the care and supervision of the Department. Currently, the state does not adequately track these children and therefore they are increasingly vulnerable and the state has little information from which to improve services for these children. Similarly, lawmakers enacted SB 872 to provide Medicaid for children placed in out-of-state residential facilities by the state.
- Child Support: HB 6486 seeks to address the impact of absent fathers by, among other initiatives, requiring the Dept. of Social Services to report on child support collection efforts, efforts to reduce teen fatherhood, and allows family magistrates to require a parent owing child support to participate in educational, job training, rehabilitation and other programs to enable them to fulfill their child support obligations.
- Rental Assistance: To ensure recourse for low-income families at threat of losing rental housing affordability assistance, lawmakers enacted SB 817 to give families the right to judicial review in the event the state has threatened to remove their housing assistance.
- Death Penalty: Regrettably, Gov. Rell vetoed HB 6578 which would have eliminated the death penalty in Connecticut.
- Inmate and Staff Protections: Lawmakers enacted HB 6684 over the Governor's veto to create a commission of correctional stakeholders and inmate advocates to make recommendations for creating safer prisons for staff and inmates. Additionally, lawmakers passed HB 6685 to require enhanced facility by reporting of inmate overcrowding. These reports will help inform policymakers in addressing prison overcrowding.
- Gun Safety: SB 358 bars anyone from selling, giving, or transferring machine guns to people under age 16, including allowing minors to use machine guns for target shooting, shooting range, or for any other purpose.
- Removing Toxins: HB 6496 seeks to remove toxic cleaning chemicals from schools, to protect students, teachers and staff. The law requires local and regional school boards to implement a green cleaning program to clean and maintain their schools with environmentally preferable cleaning products by July 1, 2011. Elsewhere, lawmakers enacted HB 6572 to ban bisphenol-A from containers holding baby food and infant formula. Bisphenol-A has been shown to be harmful to child development and adult reproductive systems. The law also bans the sale of reusable food and beverage containers made with the chemical.
- Protecting Waters: SB 1078 was enacted, over the veto of Gov. Rell, to create a Bi-State Long Island Sound Commission. If New York adopts similar legislation, the commission will seek bi-state consensus on ways to preserve the natural resources accorded by the Sound while fostering the area's energy needs. Elsewhere, lawmakers enacted HB 5792 to require lawn sprinklers installed on residential properties after July 1, 2010, to be equipped with sensors that shut sprinklers down when enough rainfall is detected.
- Preserving State Land: SB 1082 requires the Farmland Preservation Advisory Board to review any state-owned agricultural land, excluding Department of Environmental Protection land, to evaluate permanent preservation methods and make recommendations for further preservation action. Similarly, lawmakers enacted HB 6584 to create guidelines for the designation of Connecticut Heritage Areas.
- Smart Growth: Lawmakers enacted HB 6585 to give municipalities the ability to implement cost saving measures and offer real property tax reform through voluntary regional cooperation. To improve access to walking and biking trails, lawmakers enacted SB 735 requiring at least 1% of state and municipal transportation fund to be spent on providing new and improving existing pedestrian ways.
- Missed Opportunity: Unfortunately, Gov. Rell vetoed SB 1033 which would have provided tax credits for the development of green buildings.