Christine Stuart / ctnewsjunkie photo
Sen. Matt Lesser, D-Middletown, co-chairs the Insurance and Real Estate Committee (Christine Stuart / ctnewsjunkie photo)

HARTFORD, CT — A public option for health insurance was one of the most controversial issues during the last legislative session, but Senate Democratic lawmakers believe they can get it over the finish line in an election year.

Last year a proposal to allow small businesses to purchase state-run health insurance was stripped from the legislation after the insurance industry objected.

Senate Democrats vowed to revive the legislation this year at a Legislative Office Building press conference, but were murky about the details.

Asked if he had any details about the public option, Sen. Matt Lesser, D-Middletown, said “the short answer is no.”

Lesser said they will make those details available after continued conversations with stakeholders.

“Last year Gov. Lamont articulated what I thought was a bold vision of lowering health insurance costs by 20% for families and small businesses across the state,” Lesser said. “And until we come up with a plan that does that and there is broad consensus on, then I think all options are on the table.”

He said the one that makes the most sense to him is allowing members of the public to purchase the same state-run health insurance he has as a state lawmaker.

However, “the details we are going to hold on at the moment,” Lesser said.

Last year’s bill originally envisioned small businesses being able to buy into the state-run health insurance plans created for cities, towns, and boards of education. Another version of the bill required companies to lower their premiums by 20 percent and if they didn’t then the state would consider a true state-run health insurance plan.

But the final iteration of the bill included none of that. The bill that reached the House included federal waivers for reinsurance, which would allow the federal government to cover the costs of some of the most expensive claims; a measure to allow Connecticut to import drugs from Canada, which would require federal approval; and it would have created a “cost containment commission” to monitor price changes by health care providers in an effort to keep prices low.

The public option language was stripped from the bill after Comptroller Kevin Lembo walked into a Hartford Courant editorial board meeting on May 29 and told the newspaper that the deal for a state-run health insurance pool unraveled after Cigna’s CEO, David Cordani, threatened to move his company out of Connecticut if the legislation was approved.

A spokesman for Cigna denied any such threat, but at that point lawmakers were afraid to move forward with a proposal that would impact one of the state’s most prominent industries.

Susan Halpin, executive director of the Connecticut Association of Health Plans, reiterated the sentiment Tuesday.

“As a primary industry in the state of Connecticut we would be opposed to any government-run health care plan that competes with the private market,” Halpin said.

Lesser gave little consideration to the insurance industry Tuesday.

“Believe it or not we’re elected by the voters and not insurance companies,” Lesser said. “I think we value their involvement in Connecticut and they’re a major employer, but the thing I’ve heard and the experts agree upon is the cost of unaffordable health insurance is a tax on the economy as a whole.”

He said if they’re going to help people alleviate the burden on their pocketbooks “it’s lowering health insurance costs and I don’t think that can wait another year.”

Lesser’s remarks come on the same day as the second largest physicians organization in the United States endorsed a single-payer healthcare system to achieve universal insurance coverage.

The American College of Physicians recommended transitioning to a system that achieves universal coverage with essential benefits and lower administrative costs through two potential approaches: a single payer financing system or a publicly-financed coverage option with regulated private insurance.

The American Medical Association House of Delegates voted in June to maintain its opposition to a single-payer system.

Sen. Kevin Kelly, R-Stratford, the ranking Republican on the Insurance and Real Estate Committee, said he was surprised to hear that a public option was still part of the conversation.

“I have serious concerns about creating a taxpayer backed public option. It could put Connecticut on a path toward doing away with private insurance, destroying the state’s health insurance industry and putting thousands of workers at risk of losing their jobs,” Kelly said. “Connecticut’s current public option, Medicaid, is not the gold standard we should be pushing everyone toward. At our bipartisan meetings on health care that began after last session we have not focused on a public option.”

Those bipartisan conversations have also included the governor’s staff.

“I think we’re going to do a lot on healthcare this session,” Gov. Ned Lamont said Monday declining to comment specifically on a public option.

At the end of the last legislative session Lamont promised to make it a priority this year.

Senate Republican Leader Len Fasano pointed out that traditionally health care policy has not been a partisan issue in Connecticut.

“Connecticut’s bipartisan health care reforms have made our state a national leader in addressing problems like surprise billing and high prescription drug costs,” Fasano said. “But one-sided proposals like a public option that are formulated without all voices and ideas at the table have never proven successful for our state. A public option could move our state closer to substandard coverage.”

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