NorthJersey.com

Seeking N.J. Health Care Relief

The Bergen Record (NorthJersey.com) — Wednesday, November 14, 2007

By BOB GROVES
STAFF WRITER

New Jersey needs to somehow partner private and public insurance plans to make health care accessible and affordable to everyone, experts and politicians said Tuesday.

Keeping costs down is also crucial for health care reform, state Sen. Joseph Vitale told a conference at the Rutgers Labor Education Center.

"If we don't do something to control unnecessary costs, in 10 years we'll find ourselves broke," said Vitale, D-Middlesex, chairman of the state Senate health, human services and senior citizens committee.

"Universal health care is wonderful, but if we can't pay for it, or if it's not sustainable," no plan will work, and uninsured and underinsured citizens particularly will suffer, he said.

More than 200 health care providers and advocates attended the event, sponsored by New Jersey Citizen Action, NJ-AARP, the Elder Rights Alliance of New Jersey and 40 other groups. Speakers from California, Massachusetts, Maine and Wisconsin outlined health reforms in their states.

New Jersey has 1.3 million uninsured residents, including 300,000 illegal aliens as well as 380,000 adults and children who are eligible for state health coverage but have not enrolled in the program, he said.

State legislators are working at how to give undocumented residents and uninsured patients appropriate care, but to keep them from hospital emergency rooms except for real emergencies, Vitale said.

"We're spending hundreds of thousands on uncompensated care, and seeing more hospitals close" because they are not reimbursed sufficiently by the state for charity care they give to indigent patients, he said.

Vitale said it would be better to invest charity care dollars in affordable care through market reform and a partnership of private and public coverage. New Jersey cannot wait years for national health care reform, he said.

"When nearly 80 percent of people are more concerned about losing health care than they are about crime or terrorism or losing their jobs, it says something," Vitale said.

Roger Hickey, co-director of Campaign for America's Future, a Washington-based advocacy group, said presidential candidates should consider a "guaranteed choice" health plan developed at Yale University.

This universal plan would require employers to provide a good health benefits package to their workers, or pay into a public fund to cover their employees, Hickey said.

Individuals and families would be able to choose between several private insurance plans, with regulated sets of benefits and costs, he said. Or they could take a public plan similar to Medicare, which would compete with the private insurance companies.

One study showed that "at least half the population would eventually choose the public plan, due to its better efficiency and benefits," Hickey said.

New Jersey's $380-million-a-year Family Care program for low-income residents is successful but "under attack" by conservatives in Washington, said Heather Howard, policy counsel to Governor Corzine. Lawmakers are negotiating a bill to renew the five-year plan, which covers 124,000 children and 80,000 parents in the state, and which expires at the end of the week.

"We want to reduce the number of uninsured in New Jersey," Howard said, "but we're having to play defense to programs."

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