Asbury Park Press

Plan To Mandate Health Insurance For NJ Kids Advances

Asbury Park Press — Friday, May 16, 2008

By JONATHAN TAMARI
GANNETT STATE BUREAU

A plan to mandate health insurance for all New Jersey children and expand coverage for some parents, the first step in an attempt to bring universal health care to the state, began working its way through the Legislature Thursday.

The proposal, spearheaded by Sen. Joseph Vitale, D–Middlesex, and also backed by Sen. Robert Singer, R-Ocean, was unanimously approved by the Senate health committee and received a public endorsement from Senate President Richard J. Codey, D-Essex. But questions remain over whether the state can afford the plan.

"I don't believe as a state and as a committee that we could ever have a more important mission than expanding health coverage," Vitale said. "I know we're in a very tough fiscal climate in New Jersey, but not investing in the future of our children will have a much more negative impact."

The plan advanced Thursday aims to eventually reach some 240,000 uninsured children and 77,000 uninsured adults, out of the roughly 1.4 million New Jerseyans without health coverage. It calls for an increased effort to enroll children in the state's FamilyCare health plan and expand eligibility for parents to include those earning up to twice the poverty level, or $42,400 for a family of four.

Vitale has said he would introduce a second phase of his plan, to reach all New Jerseyans, later this year.

Codey took a rare step of personally testifying in a committee in favor of the bill.

"It's everybody's right, not a privilege, to get access to good quality health care," Codey said.

Codey said he hoped Vitale's bill would be signed into law by the end of June.

Gov. Jon S. Corzine, who backs the idea of universal health care but has called for restrained state spending, has questioned whether the state can afford Vitale's proposal now.

"We can't spend more than we take in, so new – or expanded – programs would require additional budget cuts," Corzine spokeswoman Lilo Stainton wrote in an e-mail.

When Vitale unveiled his plan in March, he estimated the first phase, which would start enrolling uninsured children and adults, would cost the state around $29 million. Thursday he said the amount would depend on how many children and parents actually sign up.

His plan would set aside $1 million to expand enrollment in FamilyCare, which is already open to all New Jersey children.

Vitale said the costs for expanding FamilyCare would be far exceeded by the savings the state would see in charity-care payments it makes each year to hospitals that treat uninsured patients. He added that the federal government would chip in far more than the state to help cover children.

Singer said children who have insurance will receive care on a consistent basis, helping to avoid expensive emergency treatments.

For nearly four hours, health advocacy, hospital, and business groups testified largely in favor of Vitale's plan. The main objections came from those who said it would be unfair to impose an insurance requirement on people who might not be able to afford coverage.

"If the mandate is not affordable, it simply won't work," said Ev Liebman of New Jersey Citizen Action. "People can't and won't and shouldn't have to buy something they cannot afford."

Sen. Loretta Weinberg, D–Bergen, supported the bill but said further proposals should do more to require insurance companies to make their offerings less expensive.

The plan now heads to the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee. It has not moved in the Assembly.

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