The Star-Ledger

Mandate In Benefits Bill Draws Democratic Attack

Sweeney rule limits out-of-state care for Jersey workers

The Star-Ledger —Friday, June 17, 2011

By Salvador Rizzo and Jarrett Renshaw / The Star-Ledger

Trenton — Democratic legislators mounted a challenge today to eliminate a controversial section of the pension and benefits bill that would bar public employees from getting out-of-state hospital treatment.

The provision, which appeared mid-week in the hotly contested legislation, would put medical care in New York and Philadelphia out of reach for thousands of teachers, firefighters and police officers — unless they paid for it out of pocket at what would be prohibitive costs for most public workers.

While Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester), who inserted the provision into the legislation, said it was intended to benefit New Jersey hospitals and keep down the cost of health care, lawmakers and health care experts said it would have the opposite effect.

Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver (D-Essex) said the provision was one of the few unresolved issues she had with the bill.

"We've got to make sure we're not hurting consumers," she said.

Legislators from both parties said Sweeney took them by surprise with the provision, which allows certain exemptions for workers who live out of state, and for emergency and primary care.

Exceptions would have to be approved by state health officials — and the most expensive procedures like surgeries and X-rays would have to be done at New Jersey hospitals unless it was decided no one could perform them.

"The idea was developed by the Senate president and staff and is meant to keep New Jersey dollars in state and potentially reduce the cost of health care," said Derek Roseman, a spokesman for Sweeney. "This is especially warranted in light of the numerous New Jersey hospitals that have recently had to close."

But Joel Cantor, the director of the Center for State Health Policy at Rutgers University, said yesterday that costs would skyrocket over time.

"Health plans negotiate payment rates with providers and if you tell New Jersey hospitals they don't have any competition, they have no incentive to lower their price," he said. "As a cost-saving idea, this is a terrible idea."

Bill Lavin, president of the state Firefighters Mutual Benevolent Association, said he could only see the proposal benefiting Sweeney's longtime political patron, South Jersey Democratic boss George Norcross.

Inside the Statehouse, legislators were referring to it as the "Norcross provision."

"He's the chairman of Cooper Medical," Lavin said. "And people down in that area would have to go to that hospital rather than go across to Pennsylvania for treatment."

The landmark legislation, which sidesteps the collective bargaining process, is moving through the Legislature rapidly after months of closed-door negotiations.

It was introduced in the Senate on Tuesday, approved by the budget committee Thursday and will go before the full Senate on Monday. In the Assembly, it will be heard by the budget committee on Monday and considered by the full body next Thursday.

State Sen. Richard Codey (D-Essex) and a dozen other Democrats, including Assembly Majority Leader Joseph Cryan (D-Union), said there were no discussions about the out-of-state restriction.

Adam Bauer, a spokesman for the Senate Republicans, said legislators were concerned when they saw it and scrambled to water it down in the 24 hours they had to review the bill.

"It was out of the blue," Bauer said. "None of us can comment on the benefits of the provision because it wasn't us."

He said Republicans were told it was going to be "cost-neutral."

Kevin Roberts, a spokesman for Gov. Chris Christie, said only that the governor supports the bill.

While Christie has said many times that bureaucrats should not decide where patients can seek treatment, Cantor said the bill does exactly that.

"This gets the government into the business of the practice of medicine," he said.

Assemblywomen Nellie Pou (D-Passaic) and Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-Mercer), who sit on the budget committee, said they wanted the provision removed.

Other Democrats who oppose the legislation piled on their criticisms yesterday. "This is dead wrong, dead wrong," said Codey (D-Essex). "This is not about saving money. This is about losing lives."

Sen. Nicholas Sacco (D-Hudson), dismissed a part of the provision that was added after initial opposition that allows partial reimbursement for out-of-state.

"Just imagine the cost of a hospital bed in New York," he said. "They have not shown it would work."

Phyllis Salowe-Kaye, director of New Jersey Citizen Action, a consumer advocacy group, said memebers of her organization were canvassing the state and calling on people to oppose the provision.

"It's absolutely draconian," she said. "It's discriminatory."

Copyright 2011 The Star-Ledger

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