CTNJ file photo
2007 rally for Universial Health Care in Bushnell Park (CTNJ file photo)

The debate on universal health care was postponed last year because the 2007 General Assembly wanted to study the issue before passing legislation like its neighboring states.

In the absence of a major statewide policy on access to affordable health care, the 2008 General Assembly did pass five smaller health care bills being praised by health care advocates.

With only a few days left in the session, the General Assembly was able to approve all five bills:

-A bill to establish a new Health Equity Commission, whose mission will be to eliminate disparities in the health status of minorities;

-A bill to expand a pilot program, known as Money Follows the Person, designed to help transition people from nursing homes to less restrictive community settings;

-A bill amending the Medicaid program to include hospice services for low income people who are terminally ill;

-A mental health bill that eliminates the requirement for a three-day stay in an acute care hospital setting before an insurance plan will allow coverage of medically necessary psychological services in a residential facility, and;

-A bill opening the state employee health insurance pool to municipal, nonprofit, and small business employees.

State Healthcare Advocate Kevin Lembo praised the legislature for creating the new Health Equity Commission. In a press release sent earlier this week, Lembo illustrated the need for the commission, citing a 2005 study that showed 265 more Black people died per day than Caucasians in 1998.

“This shocking disparity is the equivalent of crashing a Boeing 777 jet filled with Black Americans every day for a full year,” Lembo said.

In a separate release Lembo also praised the passage of the mental health care bill, SB 167, which eliminates the hurdle to mental health services.

“Many men, women and children are left floundering in their communities because, according to the current law, they don’t qualify for residential coverage,” Lembo said. “Residential care is a vital service on the mental health care continuum. It is the provider and patient who should decide the most appropriate treatment and level of care.”

This bill, if it’s signed by the governor, will give “children and adults suffering from eating disorders and other serious psychological impairments a real chance for care they need to cope and transition back into their everyday life with the skills to thrive.”

The Connecticut Association for Home Care and Hospice praised the passage of SB 558, which amends the state’ Medicaid program to include hospice services for low income people who are terminally ill and SB 561 which expands the Money Follows the Person pilot.

“More people will be able to avoid institutional care and taxpayers are guaranteed to save money,” Brian Ellsworth, president and CEO of the Connecticut Association for Home Care and Hospice, said. In 2006 alone the home care program saved the state more than $115 million by preventing or delaying nursing home placement.

But with the good news always comes the bad. The state’s current budget situation prevented home care agencies from receiving a cost of living adjustment this year and the federal Medicare program is reducing its payments for home health care.

“The stark reality is that more than two-thirds of our member agencies are losing money on patient care services,” Ellsworth said. “And that number is sure to rise unless something is done.”

The plan to increase nursing home staffing ratios, touted as historic by Democratic leaders in the legislature, fizzled as lawmakers realized they would be unable to increase spending more than the 4 percent in the fiscal 2009 budget approved last year.

The Connecticut Health Care Partnership bill, which allows municipalities, nonprofits, and small business to join the state employee health insurance pool, is awaiting the Gov. M. Jodi Rell’s signature. Wednesday evening Rell expressed reservations about signing the bill, because insurers are balking at the idea and have said they may rebid the current rate if the pool is opened, possibly leaving a $54 million hole in the current year’s budget.