Lawmakers to focus on under-insured Vermonters

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(Host) One of the top issues facing the 2008 Legislature will be an effort to make health care insurance more affordable for under-insured Vermonters.

While there’s bi-partisan support for a proposal to provide small businesses with lower cost policies, there’s no agreement on how to pay for it.

VPR’s Bob Kinzel reports.

(Kinzel) When lawmakers passed Catamount Health Care in 2006, the major goal of the program was to provide coverage to some of the state’s 65,000 people who are uninsured.

Now the Legislature’s focus is going to shift to under-insured Vermonters who are employed by small businesses.

Most of these employees have expensive policies that contain very high deductibles – a situation that leaves them with a lot of financial exposure in the event that they get sick.

These employees aren’t eligible for Catamount because they currently have insurance.

Senate President Peter Shumlin says the state’s small business community is facing a crisis over how to pay for health insurance coverage:

(Shumlin) "We are facing a crisis and this is a crisis that affects every single Vermonter. It affects the ability to live here. We all know that we wish the federal government would solve the problem, but frankly Vermont might freeze over before the federal government solves the problem. The states are going to have to act. Vermont is going to have to lead and when Vermont leads others follow."

(Kinzel) The new small business program would provide a comprehensive benefit package at a cost that’s 25 percent less than current market prices. All employees would be required to participate in wellness programs for these policies.

House Speaker Gaye Symington says the program is needed because the current system doesn’t work for many small businesses:

(Symington) "The status quo isn’t working. That is going to lead us all into bankruptcy. It is belly up just about and that’s what Vermonters are saying is what we’ve got isn’t working and we’re trying to take the step from there building on what we do right but removing barriers that exist between Vermonters and the health care they need when they need it."

(Kinzel) It’s estimated that it will cost between 12 and 25 million dollars to pay for this program – Shumlin and Symington say it will be up to legislative committees to figure out how to pay for it.

Governor Jim Douglas says he also wants to focus on under-insured Vermonters but Douglas says the program must be paid for using existing revenue and not require a tax increase:

(Douglas) "Anything we pass has to be sustainable. We just can’t pass some bill that promises lots of health care at low cost to a new part of our population that isn’t going to hold up under financial scrutiny after a few years. So I think it’s important to determine what our priorities are and if this is one of them we’ll have to work it out in our budget."

(Kinzel) Lawmakers are also expected to consider a plan to allow young adult children to stay on their parents’ policies until they turn 26 because one-fourth of all uninsured people in Vermont are in this younger age group.

For VPR News I’m Bob Kinzel in Montpelier.


AP Photo/Toby Talbot

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