TRENTON –Senator Joseph F. Vitale, a longtime advocate for affordable and accessible health care coverage, announced Monday an ambitious and transformational health care reform package aimed at covering all New Jersey residents by the year 2011.
“A poll released last week, conducted by AARP, showed that 3 in 4 New Jerseyans want significant change in the way we provide health care in the Garden State,” said Vitale, D-Middlesex, the chair of the Senate Health Committee. “This is an idea whose time has come, as more New Jersey families are struggling with the high cost of health care and more state residents than ever before worry that they may be one serious illness away from bankruptcy. People recognize that we have a moral obligation, as a state, to ensure affordable, high-quality health care for every New Jersey citizen, and this plan will put us on that track.”
Vitale was joined at a news conference in the Statehouse Annex by Senator Bob Singer, a member of the Senate Health panel; Assemblyman Louis Greenwald, D-Camden, the Chair of the Assembly Budget Committee; Assemblyman Neil Cohen, D-Union, the Chair of the Assembly Financial Institutions and Insurance Committee; and David Knowlton, President and CEO of the New Jersey Health Care Quality Institute (NJHCQI).
“There is no quicker, nor surer, means of improving health care quality in New Jersey than to insure our citizens and there is no better group to begin this journey with than our children,” said Knowlton. “The investment we make today in improved health care access and quality for our young people will pay immense dividends for all of us in the years to come. Today is an important day for New Jersey’s future.”
“I am proud to be here today to make a stand for improved health care,” said Singer, R-Ocean, Monmouth, Mercer and Burlington. “Quite frankly, health care access and affordability for everyone is not a Democratic or Republican issue – it is an American issue. I am ready to work with Senator Vitale to find the relatively small amount of savings in the budget we will need to get this vital program started.”
Vitale’s plan would, in the first year, focus on uninsured children in New Jersey. Under the plan, the State would ramp up efforts to enroll uninsured children in New Jersey FamilyCare, an existing program which provides subsidized access to health care for children of families who earn less than 350% of the federal poverty level, or $74,200 annually for a family of four. For uninsured families who earn more than the threshold, FamilyCare coverage can be purchased at an affordable rate from the State of New Jersey – and at no cost to the state – under a program announced in December of last year.
“Most of the infrastructure to enroll kids is already in place,” said Vitale, who authored the legislation creating FamilyCare. “The funding is guaranteed in the coming fiscal year. All this would take is for the State of New Jersey to make the commitment and embark on a serious effort to identify and enroll uninsured kids who need access to high-quality care.”
In the first phase of the plan, uninsured children would be automatically enrolled in Medicaid or one of the FamilyCare income tiers whenever they go to a point of health care access – such as a doctor’s office, pharmacy or hospital. By focusing on children first, New Jersey will come closer to meeting federal enrollment guidelines for the State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP), preserving additional matching federal dollars which were threatened to be cut last year, Vitale said.
“A key part of the success of this plan will be making the most of our state’s health care investment, and that includes qualifying for the biggest federal match possible,” said Vitale. “We specifically wanted to focus on kids up front to maximize federal funding of our efforts. New Jersey cannot solve the problem of health care access for the uninsured in a vacuum, and as we move towards universal coverage, we are going to take advantage of all the help we can get.”
The first phase of Vitale’s plan also includes market-level reforms to the individual and small business insurance markets, to bring down coverage rates and make health care access more affordable for self-insured individuals and small employers.
The second half of Vitale’s plan, which will be introduced next year, would create a self-funded, State-sponsored health plan for all individuals. Coverage would be offered at an affordable rate with subsidies available for those in greatest need, so that people would only pay what they can afford. Only after affordable health care access is available to all New Jerseyans will the state move to require all state residents to have health insurance, in a model similar to the one currently in place in Massachusetts, he said.
“I think it’s naive to think that New Jersey can mandate health insurance coverage without doing our due-diligence to control soaring health care costs and provide affordable health care coverage,” said Vitale. “Obviously, an individual mandate on health insurance has benefits, and people bear some responsibility for their own health care. But unless we put access at a price point where people can afford it, we cannot, in good conscience, require health coverage for all individuals in the Garden State.”
Vitale said his phased-in approach to health care would ultimately replace New Jersey’s charity care program, in which the State covers a portion of the expense hospitals incur in providing health care access to the uninsured. Vitale noted that New Jersey spends nearly three-quarters of a billion dollars annually on this “dysfunctional, inefficient” system.
“Through New Jersey charity care, we’re driving uninsured people to the emergency room for even minor medical attention,” said Vitale. “The State Commission of Investigation pointed out tens of millions of dollars which are wasted each year through lax oversight and outright fraud in charity care. In New Jersey, we can no longer afford the status quo when it comes to how we pay for our obligation of health care access to those in need.”
According to studies by the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, 1.4 million New Jersey residents currently do not have health insurance. Of that 1.4 million people, 275,000 are children.
“In New Jersey, one of the richest states in the nation, more than one million people without health insurance is inexcusable,” said Vitale. “We have a societal obligation to provide access to high-quality health care for New Jersey residents at all income levels. Good health cannot be a luxury for the financially-secure, but must be a fundamental right offered to all citizens.”
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