Hugh McQuaid / ctnewsjunkie photo
State Comptroller Kevin Lembo (Hugh McQuaid / ctnewsjunkie photo)

HARTFORD, CT — Democratic lawmakers and state officials believe the latest election was a mandate on health insurance reform, and at the top of their agenda is a government-sponsored public health insurance option.

It was unclear Thursday what a public option would look like since there were no details provided at a press conference on the north steps of the state Capitol. However, it was clearly something Democratic lawmakers are looking at as one way to lower health insurance costs for Connecticut individuals and businesses.

“We hear the same thing over and over again, that there isn’t enough competition in the market today, that prices are too high and that people who can afford the premium, often can’t afford the deductible,” Sen. Matt Lesser, who co-chairs the Insurance and Real Estate Committee, said.

There’s uncertainty coming out of Washington when it comes to the Affordable Care Act and whether federal subsidies will continue for the approximately 100,000 who purchase insurance with one of two private carriers on the exchange.

State Comptroller Kevin Lembo says a public option would help lower costs because the state doesn’t have to worry about shareholders or being profitable. The state also has negotiating power with nearly 60,000 lives in the Connecticut Partnership plan and 200,000 state employees.

“We are not an insurance company. We don’t run an insurance company out of my office but we contract with the biggest insurance companies in the country,” Lembo said.

Hugh McQuaid / ctnewsjunkie photo
Sen. Matt Lesser (Hugh McQuaid / ctnewsjunkie photo)

Earlier this year before COVID-19 hit, Lembo proposed a public option that would allow small businesses, nonprofits, and labor unions to join the state-run Connecticut Partnership plan, which already includes non-state employees such as municipalities and boards of education as members.

The vision earlier this year was to expand that to cover small businesses, nonprofits and eventually individuals. According to the legislation that died when the session ended due to COVID-19, the plans would be sold and underwritten through Lembo’s office. They would compete with plans sold by the private sector both on and off the exchange.

“Assuming this is the same version of government-run health care pushed by the Comptroller in years past, the health insurers in the state will adamantly oppose it,” Susan Halpin, executive director of the Connecticut Health Plan Association, said Thursday.

“It establishes a false promise that’s already proven unsustainable in the limited form it exists today,” Halpin said. “The Partnership Plan has run multimillion dollar deficits over the past few years. At the same time, it sets the state up to compete with its own signature industry on an un-level playing field. When you peel back the layers of the onion, the proposal just doesn’t work and it does more harm than good.”

As far as who would pay for it, if the medical claims ever exceeded the premium, Lembo said, “What happens is the backstop is the state of Connecticut. I’m not gonna, like, run away from that.”

Republican lawmakers also opposed the public option proposal.

“I am mindful that whatever new taxpayer-funded program they want, it will threaten thousands of jobs in the insurance industry and harm the pandemic recovery we all hope for,” incoming Minority Leader Vincent Candelora, R-North Branford, said. “Considering the latest projection of a $25 million deficiency in the state employee health account and the historical insolvency of the CT Partnership Plan, I’m particularly concerned about another long-term broken promise.”

Incoming Senate Republican Leader Kevin Kelly, R-Stratford, said Republicans want to reduce the cost of healthcare just as much as Democrats, they just have a different approach.

“What is the primary driver and that is the medical cost,” Kelly said. He said getting that cost down will be the key to lowering health insurance costs across the board.

He said Republicans have put forward proposals that would reduce premiums by up to 20%.

“But the real difference between the two plans is, frankly, jobs. We have a flagship industry, better known as the insurance industry—we fashion ourselves as the Insurance Capital of the world,” Kelly said. “Democrat leadership wants to go into direct competition with that flagship industry and we would be losing Connecticut jobs.”

Rep. Sean Scanlon, D-Guilford, said the public option is not going to be a panacea. He said the state of Connecticut gave Democrats a “mandate to work on this issue.”

“We had 800,00 people lose their job in the last six months. Many of those people who lost their jobs, also lost their health insurance, so the issue of finding quality affordable health care, just became top of mind to hundreds of thousands of people and families in our state,” Scanlon said.