Tuesday, November 10, 2009

State Republicans pan health care bill

health care reform

State Republican leaders are protesting the congressional health care reform plan, arguing that reform will hurt the state's budget.

Flanked by about 15 legislative leaders, former Health and Human Services commissioner John Stephen told the press yesterday that the health care reform bill just passed by the U.S. House "will be devastating to state budgets." The bill must still pass the U.S. Senate, and Stephen urged the state's senators to vote against it.

"This will lead New Hampshire down the road of a sales or income tax," Stephen said. "These are called unfunded mandates, and we can't afford them."

The state has about 142,500 uninsured residents. Stephen said the bill will force states to expand efforts to enroll people in Medicaid who are eligible for coverage but have chosen not to sign up. That could cost $434 million over the next 10 years. Stephen estimated the state will pay an additional $111 million over six years, beginning in 2015, to pay for expanded Medicaid coverage for healthy adults making up to 150 percent of the federal poverty limit. The bill would also restructure the "disproportionate share hospital" program, which reimburses states for charitable care, which could cost the state $157 million in 2017 and slightly more in the following years.

In total, Stephen argued that the state could lose $1.2 billion under the House bill. The state would also be prohibited from reducing Medicaid eligibility or benefits.

"It's the largest program in the state budget and it couldn't be effectively managed by the commissioner and the department," Stephen said. "It's an unacceptable overreach of the federal government."

State Sen. Jeb Bradley, a Wolfeboro Republican, said he has sponsored legislation that would preclude the state from paying extra Medicaid expenses mandated by the federal government, unless the state Legislature authorized those expenses. It is unclear whether the state has the ability to challenge the federal government that way. Bradley also introduced legislation to allow New Hampshire residents to buy health insurance across state lines.

Other speakers who opposed the bill included Republican U.S. Congressional candidates Jennifer Horn, Frank Guinta and Bob Bestani. "Under cover of dark, (House Speaker Nancy) Pelosi, (U.S. Rep. Paul) Hodes, and Congress voted to socialize health care in America," said Horn, who is running for the 2nd District seat.

Hodes has said the legislation will help small businesses. But Horn said small businesses would be hurt by a fine levied on those who do not provide health insurance. "It will hurt everyone its supposed to help," Horn said.

Guinta, who is running against Bestani for the 1st Congressional District's Republican nomination, said the bill would downshift costs from the federal government to the states. "$1.2 billion over 10 years is an unacceptable unfunded mandate," he said.

House Republican Leader Sherm Packard called the House bill the "groundwork for a total federal takeover of the system," while Rep. Andrew Renzullo called it a "financial and medical disaster."

State Democrats accused Republicans of trying to block meaningful reform that would cover uninsured Granite Staters. "This is political theater," said Democratic spokesman Derek Richer. "All they've been doing is saying no, no, no."

Ned Helms, a former state Health and Human Services commissioner and co-chairman of President Obama's New Hampshire campaign, said health care is already hurting the state, with people losing their coverage and small businesses suffering from high insurance premiums.

"For (Republicans) to ignore the people in the state who don't have coverage, to ignore the fact businesses are begin pummeled with increasing premiums, to ignore the bill that has innovative ways to pay for health care . . . (to say) I think you ought to drop whole thing because maybe years from now it might hit the budget," Helms said. "These are people who can turn their back on reform of health care."

Helms said he finds it offensive that Stephen believes the U.S. "doesn't have the capacity to do what every industrialized country has done."

Helms said there are cushions in the bill to protect small businesses. And the bill will actually reduce the deficit, according to the Congressional Budget Office. "I think the country's ready, and I think we'll get it done," Helms said.