The Star-Ledger

Advocates: Health Care Will Still Elude Many In N.J.

The Star-Ledger — Wednesday, December 2, 2009

By Trish G. Graber

Health insurance will continue to be out of reach for many cash-strapped and unemployed New Jerseyans in the coming year even if Congress enacts a health care reform bill, according to two consumer advocacy groups who released separate reports yesterday.

In many households, expenses outpace incomes, according to the New Jersey Consumer Voices for Coverage coalition, and even families with insurance coverage put off needed health treatments because of the high cost.

The coalition is urging Congress to consider what "affordable" really means in New Jersey, where the cost of living surpasses that of many other states.

"Our concern is that whatever happens with national health care reform, that we make sure that New Jersey families are taken care of, are protected and are guaranteed access to affordable health coverage," said Eve Weissman, a coalition member.

The Senate began debate this week on a national health care reform bill, which would require families making 200 percent of the federal poverty level — about $40,000 a year for a family of four — to pay annual premiums of 6.3 percent of their income, or about $2,307, according to the coalition.

The House bill calls for families of four at that income level to pay premiums at 5.5 percent of their income, or approximately $2,014 annually.

"People below 200 percent of the poverty level really do not have any money available to contribute to the cost of health care," Weissman said.

At the same time, the cost of coverage for unemployed people is becoming more expensive as they lose federal subsidies that have allowed them to keep their employers' health care coverage, according to the nonprofit national consumer advocacy group Families USA.

As many as 7 million unemployed people need Congress to approve legislation before the end of the year to prevent them from losing those subsidies, the group said.

Those who were the first to enroll in a nine-month federal program that paid 65 percent of their monthly health care premiums lost those benefits yesterday.

Millions more will follow by the time the program expires in September 2010, unless lawmakers renew the program, said Families USA executive director Ron Pollack. He also said most people won't try to keep their health care.

"They will defer care with the onset of disease or pain — delay going to a doctor,'' he said. "For those people who do get timely care or go to an ER, it's going to mean they are going to go into substantial debt.''

Rep. Frank Pallone (D-N.J.), chairman of the congressional health subcommittee, said he thinks there is support to extend the subsidy program in the lower house "hopefully by the end of the year."

Consumer coalition members said a national reform bill should contain an income-based sliding scale covering families earning between 200 percent and 400 percent of the federal poverty level. For a family of four, that would be an income between $40,000 and $80,000. They said the government should cover health care entirely for families making less than 200 percent of the poverty level.

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