In the news

Hartford Courant
By
Rinker Buck

Kevin Galvin, a former president of the West Hartford Chamber of Commerce, is starting 2011 with a new task after 25 years as a small-business owner — sifting through bids from insurance companies for a health care plan for his employees.

Under the terms of the Affordable Health Care Act passed last March, as of Jan. 1 Galvin will receive tax credits for up to 35 percent of the cost of the premiums he has to pay — benefits that will increase to 50 percent of his health insurance costs in three years.

"Now that I know I can afford health care for my company, I'm more willing to bring on more employees, and they will be better employees, too, because they'll want to work for a company that offers health care," said Galvin.

But if the new Republican majority in the U.S. House of Representatives gets its way this week, Galvin will be one of 53,902 small businesses in Connecticut that will lose those tax credits for health insurance. As the first major business of the new Congress, Republican leaders have introduced the "Repealing the Job-Killing Health Care Law Act" for a vote on Wednesday, hoping to repeal a signature act of the Obama administration.

That vote will be largely symbolic — the Democratic majority in the U.S. Senate is not expected even to consider the House repeal bill, and President Barack Obama would probably veto any repeal that clears Congress. But the national debate over health care reform that will dominate Washington this week will provide a revealing year-after review of the measure, and give both ordinary Americans and the health care industry a chance to assess what "Obamacare" has already wrought.

Connecticut has a lot at stake in the debate. If the health care law is repealed, the state government and Connecticut's network of 29 hospitals are scheduled to lose upward of $250 million in federal funds that are already reaching Connecticut under the law. And hundreds of thousands of Connecticut residents already benefiting from health care reform would be affected.

According to reports prepared by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Congress and the Connecticut Department of Public Health, repeal would immediately affect these Connecticut residents:

• 9,050 children between the ages of 18 and 26 who, under health care reform, can remain on their parents' health care plan until they find jobs that provide insurance coverage.

• 32,205 seniors who have already received a $250 federal check to help pay for prescription drug costs after they fell into the "doughnut hole" of coverage once their drug costs reached $2,800. This year, seniors will receive a 50 percent discount on brand-name drugs once they fall into the doughnut hole, and by 2020 the doughnut hole will be eliminated.

• 191,534 children that federal health officials estimate have pre-existing conditions who can no longer be denied coverage when their families change health insurance plans.

• 547,000 seniors with Medicare coverage who will no longer have to provide a co-payment for preventive services such as mammograms, colonoscopies and diabetes screening.

• 130 of Connecticut's largest employers — corporations, school systems and town governments — have already qualified for federal subsidies to continue to cover thousands of employees who retire at age 55 but who are not yet eligible for Medicare.

The approximately $250 million in savings that the state of Connecticut and its hospitals would lose under repeal include:

• $25 million in federal funding for children covered under Connecticut's HUSKY and CHIP programs.

• $50 million in federal funds that Connecticut won by becoming the first state in the country to convert state-administered health care for the poor to Medicaid funding.

• An estimated $80 million in increased fees to Connecticut hospitals because they will now be reimbursed for care to the poor at higher Medicaid rates.

• $45.8 million in federal grants and tax credits created by the reform law to cover a wide array of needs, from supporting capital improvements at hospitals and improving cancer care to supporting lower-cost clinics managed by nurses.

But opponents of the law say that most of the economies offered in health care reform are illusory and will discourage job growth by making it more expensive for companies to offer health insurance as a benefit.

"A lot of the provisions of the bill aren't really benefits, and they are flawed," said Alex Cortes.

Cortes is the chairman of DeFundIt.org, a national group that raised money last year to support Congressional candidates opposed to the Obama health care bill and that is now lobbying in Washington for repeal.

"Take covering children under their parents' plans, up to age 26. Does it really take you four years after college to find a job?" Cortes asked. "The $250 payment to seniors doesn't really close the doughnut hole [for prescription drugs]. The Democrats who voted for this know that. It was just an effort to buy the votes of seniors after the original legislation creating the doughnut hole proved unpopular."

Cortes says that the problem of insuring children with pre-existing conditions "is a very real problem" that might have to be addressed by a government program, but that the Obama health care reform forces insurance companies to accept losses, placing an unfair burden on private enterprise.

"The problem with so many of the provisions of the health care bill is that the Democrats didn't consider secondary effects," Cortes said. "All of it sounds great in the abstract, but when you get down to the specifics, companies can't afford it."

Advocates of the reform act say that many of its provisions are already having a considerable effect on hospitals and will gradually reduce costs.

"Almost every hospital in Connecticut is already making dramatic changes in the way they deliver care in order to win the competitive grants offered by the health care bill," said U.S. Rep. Chris Murphy, D-5th District. "Reform is already stimulating vital change that saves money, improves care, but that can't be seen by the naked eye. Repeal could stop these favorable changes in their tracks."

Some Connecticut residents say that they won't be deterred by this week's debate in Congress, and are ready to sign up for the new health care benefits. Colleen O'Connor, the tax collector of Simsbury, said that she'll be signing up two of her daughters, who are under 26, as soon as they qualify under the town of Simsbury's plan.

"Just walking around town hall a couple of weeks ago, we took an informal survey of parents who will be putting their kids back on their insurance because of the reform act," O'Connor said. "We came up with 12 kids — and that's just in town hall, not including the police department, the town garage or the library. If they repeal this law, a lot of people are going to be stuck."

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