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Sen. Vitale Discusses Health-Care Plan

Vitale, residents discuss health-care coverage at forum

Home News Tribune / MyCentralJersey.com — Wednesday, July 16, 2008

By RICK MALWITZ
STAFF WRITER

East Brunswick — Thirty area residents came to the Home News Tribune on Tuesday night to listen and to vent, as State Sen. Joseph Vitale explained plans to extend health care coverage to all New Jersey residents.

"New Jersey has to do something dramatic. The way it's working now is, it's not working," said Vitale, who represents the 19th District in northern Middlesex County and serves as chairman of the senate's Health, Human Services, and Senior Citizens committees.

The frustration expressed at the forum hosted by the newspaper Tuesday night was not unexpected.

"In some ways, they have the right to be angry," Vitale said Wednesday. "They compare what we're trying to do with their frustration over other promises – property tax reform, school funding. This is dramatic what we're doing. There is an appropriate level of skepticism."

Under the current system, which leaves 1.3 million residents uninsured, hospitals provided about $1.4 billion in charity-care costs last year. They were reimbursed by the taxpayers for only $620 million, according to Vitale.

He also said insurance premiums paid by businesses and individuals cost an extra 10 to 15 percent to cover costs linked to the uninsured.

As for the uninsured, Vitale explained they often seek care at the most expensive venue – the hospital emergency room, where it costs the system $350 every time someone walks through the door, compared to about $40 when they go to a neighborhood clinic.

The goal, said Vitale, is to entice every resident to obtain health insurance by 2011, calling the possession of an insurance card, "The gateway to care."

Last week the state took the first step, when Gov. Jon Corzine signed legislation expanding the FamilyCare program to provide coverage for parents earning up to 200 percent of the poverty level, which for a family of four is $42,000.

Currently the program includes 124,000 children and 97,000 adults in families earning up to 133 percent of the federal poverty level.

If the state can add 240,000 children and 57,000 adults to the program – through subsidies tied to family income – the taxpayers will save $913 annually for every adult enrolled.

In addition to taxpayer costs, the current system has crippled the state's hospitals.

According to the New Jersey Hospital Association, seven hospitals have closed in the state in the last 18 months, and Muhlenberg Regional Medical Center in Plainfield is planning to close. Of the 75 hospitals that will remain, half are losing money, and five have declared bankruptcy.

FamilyCare was started in the 1990s and was gaining momentum until 2000 when Gov. Jim McGreevey, citing budgetary needs, suspended new enrollments.

Suspension of the program saved the state $40 million. However, the cost of providing charity care to those unable to join the program, cost an estimated $100 million, according to Vitale.

Vitale did the math: "In order to save $40 million in the budget, we lost $60 million."

The second phase of the program outlined by Vitale – to begin at an undetermined time – would lift the threshold above 200 percent of the poverty level, with the goal of covering the rest of the 1 million uninsured citizens.

Left out of the program would be the estimated 300,000 undocumented immigrants – a main point of frustration for several residents who attended the forum.

Federal law requires hospitals to treat undocumented immigrants, no questions asked, said Vitale.

Though the law applies to all 50 states, John Rucki of Sayreville, co-chairman of the New Jersey Citizens for Immigration Control, said that a program that offers generous care for undocumented immigrants in New Jersey would mean the Rio Grande will no longer be the most popular river for illegal aliens to cross. "The most popular rivers will be the Hudson and the Delaware," said Rucki.

Fran Michaels of Metuchen said any system that allows insurance companies to make medical decisions is overlooking the fact that "The insurance companies are practicing medicine without a license."

Frank Salado of Perth Amboy, who heads the Dominican Association in the city, feared that the state's role in health insurance would mirror problems with auto insurance in the 1980s, when the Joint Underwriters Association had scandalous costs. Salado also expressed concern about the cost of medical-malpractice insurance, citing one doctor he knows who has a $150,000 annual premium.

Another resident at the forum cited the E-ZPass program as another failure of the state.

Vitale allowed how there was a scandal at the beginning of the E-ZPass program, with no bid contracts. Since then, problems have have been ironed out. "Without E-ZPass, it would have taken me 10 more minutes," to drive on the turnpike from his office in Woodbridge to the newspaper's office in East Brunswick.

Rare praise for Vitale was expressed by Eve Weissman of New Jersey Citizen Action, which describes itself as the state's largest public advocacy group. She said of the effort to insure the uninsured, Vitale has done, "More than any person in the state to make this happen."

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