Gov. Ned Lamont said Thursday that efforts to push through a revised public option health care bill came “too late” in the legislative session, and he pledged to revive the issue next year.
“I think we tried to do it too late. It’s a big, important reform and you want to get it right,” he said. “Believe me, we’re going to revisit it. We’re going to bring it back. … Maybe we do it in pieces, but we’re going to get it done.”
After months of heated debate, the so-called public option bill foundered in the Senate late Wednesday. Lawmakers engaged in last-minute talks but ultimately could not muster the support to bring the measure up for a vote.
One Democratic leader said there were plans to strip out additional portions of the already watered-down bill, but legislators ran out of time.
The final version would have required health providers to submit annual reports on the prices they impose, the costs they incur and the payments they receive. State officials would have set yearly benchmarks to contain the swelling cost of care, and worked with providers who exceeded that threshold. There were no penalties if an organization surpassed the benchmarks.
The bill also would have allowed state officials to seek permission from the federal government to import prescription drugs from Canada at discounted prices, and enabled them to pursue a reinsurance waiver to mitigate risk from sizable claims. Insurers and health care centers would have paid an annual fee, and that money could be used to cover large medical bills and keep premiums down.
The fee on insurers was a sticking point in discussion, Senate President Pro Tem Martin Looney said Thursday. Some unions raised concerns about it backfiring and instead driving up the cost of premiums.
“There were too many pieces to get resolved all at once,” Looney said. “We were trying to see at the very end if we could salvage just the drug importation part and reserve the rest for next year, but we ran out of time.”
Senate Republican Leader Len Fasano said some lawmakers were frustrated that the proposal to implement benchmarks did not get a public hearing. It was added to a revised bill later in the session. Republicans also had problems with the reinsurance plan.
“Taxing the insurance companies – which is going to be passed onto the consumer and therefore raise the very rates on the policy you’re trying to reduce – seems somewhat illogical,” Fasano said. Republicans are “in favor of reinsurance, but not the annual fees the insurer would have to pay.”
The public option bill endured several edits.
Rep. Sean Scanlon and Sen. Matthew Lesser, its authors, originally proposed opening the state’s health plan to small companies and nonprofits, forming an advisory council to guide the development of a public option, and creating a discount program to provide savings on prescription drugs.
Those plans were voted out of committee but overhauled in a new draft of the measure that was rolled out last month. The second attempt would have authorized the creation of a “Connecticut Option” – a state-subsidized health plan for small companies and individuals.
To pay for it, lawmakers wanted to re-establish the penalty for failing to comply with the federal health coverage mandate. The bill would have effectively reversed – in Connecticut – Congress’ decision to remove the edict in the Affordable Care Act that all adults have health insurance, either through their jobs, Medicaid or by purchasing it directly.
The revised legislation also included a tax on opioid manufacturers that was expected to raise $20 million per year. Those provisions were stripped from the final version.
Scanlon said compromises with health providers, insurance companies and fellow lawmakers prompted some of the changes, but the bill also ran into difficulty after Comptroller Kevin Lembo told The Hartford Courant that Cigna had threatened to leave the state if the public option cleared the General Assembly. Cigna officials have denied the claim.
Some lawmakers interpreted the insurer’s input as a push for revisions, not an actual threat. But Lembo’s remarks cast a shadow over negotiations.
Leaders in the House vowed to resurrect the issue during the next legislative session, set to begin in February 2020.
“I will tell you on behalf of my caucus that we are going to go right back at it next year and look to expand medical coverage here in the state and make it more affordable for our families,” House Speaker Joe Aresimowicz said. “That’s something we are going to continue to do in the off-season. It’s very important.”
Lamont, who had publicly endorsed the health care reform effort, said Thursday he was disappointed with its conclusion. “It’s not a success,” he said. “We should have passed a bill that brings down the cost of health care for small businesses. … You’ve got to ask the people who talked the bill to death … why did they say, ‘I don’t want to bring down the high cost of health care?’ Because that’s what the bill would have done.”