Candidates split on insurance program

Democrat Dan Onorato endorses 3-year extension

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The candidates for governor are divided on calls for a three-year extension of a program, chiefly funded by the state's Blue Cross/Blue Shield insurers, that provides subsidized health insurance for roughly 45,000 low-income Pennsylvanians.

At a news conference Wednesday at the Birmingham Free Clinic, Allegheny County Executive Dan Onorato, the Democratic nominee, added his voice to calls for the state's tax-exempt Blue Cross/Blue Shield insurers to extend their support for the program.

"This is a big issue for the state," Mr. Onorato said before adding his name to a petition urging the insurance firms to prolong their commitment.

The plan, adultBasic, is dependent on a five-year agreement with the insurers that expires at the end of this year. Mr. Onorato called for a three-year extension until the plan can be supplanted by provisions of the federal health care legislation in 2014.

In testimony before the Legislature, the insurance companies have agreed to a six-month extension but are opposed to a more open-ended renewal. Attorney General Tom Corbett, the Republican candidate, supports the six-month extension but opposes the demands to extend it to three years, a spokesman said.

"To renew it until 2014 could be fiscally irresponsible, particularly since we don't know the full cost of what the national health care bill will be," said Kevin Harley, a spokesman for Mr. Corbett's campaign.

Mr. Harley said the shorter extension would allow the new governor and the Legislature to review the program with insurers and participants.

In 2005, amid state scrutiny of issues including the size of their surpluses, Pennsylvania's four major Blues agreed to give approximately $1 billion through the Community Health Reinvestment Agreement, which funds adultBasic, as well as the Children's Health Insurance Program.

Applying pressure for a renewal, the state House Majority Leader, Rep. Todd Eachus, has introduced legislation that would solidify the terms of the agreement in state law. The measure would increase the firms' contribution rates to a point where the program could be fully funded at current enrollment levels.

In the 2009-10 state fiscal year, support for approximately 45,000 participants was provided by roughly $113 million from the reinvestment agreement and $40 million from the state's share of the revenue from litigation against tobacco firms. Brett Marcy, a spokesman for Mr. Eachus, said the cost of the program for the current fiscal year is projected to be nearly $200 million.

Even at that level, the program, with a waiting list of nearly 400,000 people, addresses only a fraction of eligible applicants. Its income ceiling is 200 percent of the federal poverty level -- $21,600 for an individual, or $36,620 for a family of three. Democratic legislators once had ambitions to increase the program's funding to a point where that waiting list could be drastically reduced, but those goals succumbed to the state's overall post-recession budget crunch.

The chances of a new accord this year are receding quickly. With an election approaching and the state sill grappling with major issues such as whether and how to tax new natural gas producers, the window for negotiations on a renewed accord in the current legislative session is quickly closing.

Politics Editor James O'Toole: or 412-263-1562.


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