Christine Stuart / ctnewsjunkie photo
Paul Mounds, Lamont’s chief operating officer meets with members of the clergy Monday (Christine Stuart / ctnewsjunkie photo)

HARTFORD, CT — Seven faith leaders quietly walked into Gov. Ned Lamont’s Capitol office Monday and asked for a meeting regarding a public option. They walked out with Paul Mounds, Lamont’s Chief Operating Officer, but with no guarantees the governor would support the legislation.

There are currently two bills weaving their way through the legislative process that would allow state Comptroller Kevin Lembo to move forward with developing a plan to allow small business owners to join the state employee health insurance pool.

CLICK TO VOTE ON SB 134: An Act Opening The State Employee Health Insurance Plan To Small Business Employees

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One bill is on the House calendar and one is on the Senate calendar.

In a May 7 letter to Lamont, faith leaders expressed their concern about what they saw as a reversal on the issue. It was their understanding that Lamont supported a public option following a meeting in March.

“Unfortunately you have reversed your position with regard to the small business public option aspect specifically as well as your general hope for a public option,” Rev. Tracy Johnson Russell and Pastor Rodney Wade wrote.

CLICK TO VOTE ON HB 7267: An Act Concerning Public Options For Health Care In Connecticut

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They never received a response to the letter so they showed up in person Monday.

Teran Loeppke, a United Methodist clergy member who was part of the group, said, “for the governor to reverse his position on this is just horrifying.”

Johnson Russell said they asked for a meeting because they believe it’s really important that he supports a public option.

“I believe healthcare is a right for all people,” Johnson Russell told Mounds.

The Rev. Marie Alford-Harkey, president and CEO of Religious Institute in Bridgeport, said, “I’m a social justice organization. I base my own advocacy in this area around my faith in Jesus Christ and in knowing that Jesus healed people and didn’t ask for co-pays or anything else.”

She said one of her staff members avoids going to the doctor because he knows he can’t afford it.

The Rev. Joshua Pawelek, of the of the Unitarian Universalist Society East, said when the Affordable Care Act came out it seemed to work, but it’s not working anymore.

He said they don’t believe the public option will be affordable for everyone, “but it’s going to be one step on the road to a more universal system.”

Pawelek said in March that Lamont seemed supportive, but the group is worried that his proximity to the business and insurance communities, coupled with a large advertising campaign, might sway the freshman governor.

“We’re concerned the insurance lobby is offering up alternatives that are untenable,” Pawelek said.

Mounds met with the group in a conference room and heard their concerns.

He told them that the governor is still having conversations and wants to find a solution going forward.

“The cost of healthcare is crippling to Connecticut families and employers alike,” Lamont said in a statement. “Although we all agree we need to lower the cost, there are a number of ways to achieve that without overly burdening our taxpayers. I’m working with my partners in government and healthcare leaders to develop a ‘Connecticut Option,’ which I believe both responsibly addresses the cost of healthcare and leverages the considerable expertise of leading employers in our state. Everyone needs to be at the table when it comes to protecting what is most important — the health and wellbeing of our state’s families.”

Lawmakers who support a public option are also concerned Lamont may be taking the concerns of the insurance industry into consideration.

Sen. Matt Lesser, D-Middletown, and Rep. Sean Scanlon, D-Guilford, held a round table Monday morning with small business owners who shared their struggles with finding affordable health insurance for themselves and their families.

The roundtable was held at the same time a coalition of insurance companies issued a press release warning against approving a public option.

“Small group health risk is very volatile and requires substantial reserves and expertise to manage unforeseen utilization,” Jeff Hogan, an insurance broker and consultant, said. “There is absolutely nothing to prove or suggest that the state can or will provide a sustainable small group offering that is cheaper or better than what the excellent professional health payers already offer in the open market.”

But small business owners and nonprofits were willing to take a chance on this type of public option, which has never been tried before.

“The rate of change in the health insurance rates is outpacing our ability to increase salaries,” said Seth Powers, of the Center for Children with Special Needs.

Powers employs about 25 people. He said he went to shop for insurance after he saw his rates increasing $5,000 to $8,000 a year, per employee. He said one plan he was offered had a low deductible, but would have flown people to the Caribbean and put them up in a five-star hotel if they needed surgery, because it was cheaper.

Lembo said he hears the stories all the time.

“Small businesses are sick and tired of being unable to find or keep skilled workers, unable to compete with corporate benefit packages, facing double-digit increases in costs for overly complex and confusing health care coverage, unpredictable and unstable health care costs while they pay for nothing — high-deductible plans where employees never see $1 of benefit,” Lembo has said.

But the industry is concerned about the potential impact a plan offered through a third-party administrator.

“There are 20,000 good paying health plan jobs in the Hartford region that are being recruited by other states,” Steve Jewett, a spokesperson for the Insurance Matters to Connecticut coalition, said. “As a state, we need to stay competitive and support the growth of the industry here, which includes pushing back against legislation that says government-run insurance is a better model and supporting legislation that will keep a high-skilled workforce in state.”