Governor of No? - On health care, governor can stand with the people

July 1, 2009
The Connecticut Post

With two landmark health care reform bills now on her desk, Gov. M. Jodi Rell has to decide whose side she is on -- small businesses and families struggling under the weight of high health care costs, or the state's health insurance industry, which has a big stake in preserving the costly status quo. Will she allow precedent-setting health care reforms to proceed, or will she, for the second year in a row, be the "Governor of No"?

The two bills, the Connecticut Healthcare Partnership and SustiNet, promise relief from high health care costs by creating the choice of a public health insurance plan. With a handful of private insurance companies assuming a chokehold over the Connecticut market, residents saw their premiums rise 8.2 times faster than wages from 2000 to 2007. As premiums skyrocketed, profits of the nation's largest private insurance companies went up 428 percent. The Partnership and SustiNet would address this mounting crisis by creating new options for Connecticut businesses and families, and infusing the market with competition.

Naturally, big health insurance interests, represented by the Connecticut Business and Industry Association, are opposed, as the competition could threaten their profits. Gov. Rell sided with CBIA last year when she vetoed a similar version of the Partnership. Connecticut legislators have given Gov. Rell a second chance to show whose side she is on -- small businesses and families, or the entrenched interests of CBIA.

The Connecticut Healthcare Partnership and SustiNet vary in scope and mechanics, but the basic principle behind both is the same: when you have a lot of people bargaining together, you get a better deal. The Partnership would self insure the 200,000-member state employee health insurance plan and open it up to small businesses, nonprofits and municipalities, generating significant bargaining power and savings. The measure would save the state $70 million upon its implementation. SustiNet would create the choice of a public health insurance plan for residents and businesses as part of a broader reform initiative that is estimated to extend coverage to 98 percent of the state's population and save employers $1.35 billion.

With more options to choose from, and greater bargaining power at their back, small businesses and their employees stand to gain from both bills. Not surprisingly, a number of small-business groups, including Small Businesses for Health Care Reform and the Business Advisory Council to HealthCare4Every1, have stood up to vocally support the bills.

In opposition is CBIA, which has considerable stakes in maintaining the costly status quo. Its board of directors includes top executives from CIGNA HealthCare, Aetna, Health Net of the Northeast, Alexion Pharmaceuticals, and the HMO ConnectiCare.

CBIA is not a neutral voice in this debate. It has a fully-owned, for-profit subsidiary, CBIA Services Corp., which sells health insurance and other services to small businesses. According to 2008 tax filings, this subsidiary generated more than $14 million of the two groups' combined $23 million annual revenue stream. It's no wonder CBIA opposes these pioneering health care bills. If signed by Gov. Rell, the bills would create direct competition for CBIA. It could either lose market share or be forced to become more competitive -- a possible hit to the group's bottom line, but a boon to small businesses.

In Washington, D.C., the health care reform debate is centered on whether to provide all Americans with the choice of a public health insurance plan. The American people have resoundingly said that they want this choice. A poll released by The New York Times recently shows that 72 percent of Americans want a public insurance option to compete with private insurance. As chief executive, Gov. Rell has a unique opportunity to enact and oversee the implementation of public plan choice in Connecticut, and show the rest of the country how it is done.

As our country moves toward a watershed moment in the decades-long struggle to bring quality, affordable health care to all Americans, Gov. Rell faces a clear choice. She can side with the entrenched interests who have stood in the way of reform for their own profit, or she can help Connecticut move forward as a national model for reform. She has a chance to be the "Governor of Yes." For the sake of Connecticut and of the country, let's hope she takes it.

Adam Thompson is the Senior Health Care Policy Specialist at Progressive States Network, a national nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that works to enact progressive legislation in all 50 states.