Magazine article The American Prospect

Why Not Connecticut? A Model Grass-Roots Organizing Campaign Mobilizes Public Opinion for Universal Coverage-In a State Long Dominated by Private Insurers

Magazine article The American Prospect

Why Not Connecticut? A Model Grass-Roots Organizing Campaign Mobilizes Public Opinion for Universal Coverage-In a State Long Dominated by Private Insurers

Article excerpt

States even with takeovers and significant layoffs in the industry--might be the last state conventional wisdom would expect to break new ground in the fight for universal health care. But it could well happen. Strong advocates and legislative proponents, significant business support for real change, and an innovative health-care foundation implementing a well-funded broad-based organizing campaign are positioning Connecticut to provide national leadership on the issue.

Connecticut's legislature has strong advocates for universal coverage in its top leadership, including state House Majority Leader Christopher Donovan and state Senate President Donald Williams. The 2007 legislative session expanded Con necticut's HUSKY health-insurance program for uninsured children and their low-income parents, and increased funding for community- and school-based clinics. But for the long term, the most important action--led by Donovan and Williams--was to create two state authorities that are charged with, in Williams' words, "moving our state toward universal health-care coverage."

The more important of the two, the HealthFirst Connecticut Authority, has the responsibility to provide the legislature by Dec. 1 with recommendations to achieve and pay for universal health care. The other authority, the State-Wide Primary Care Access Authority, is charged with developing a proposal for a universal primary health-care system by the end of this year and then producing a plan to implement the system by July 2010.

Signaling the activist direction the legislative leadership hopes these authorities will take, Tom Swan, the director of the Connecticut Citizen Action Group and probably the state's most visible proponent of a single-payer system, was appointed co-chair by state House Speaker James Amann, along with Margaret Flinter, former president of the Connecticut Nurses Association who helps run a network of health clinics. Not surprisingly, these and other appointments of people who appear sympathetic to ambitious universal plans have raised the hackles of the state's largest business lobbying organization, the Connecticut Business and Industry Association (CBIA).

However, other business groups, feeling the pinch of health-care costs, are surprisingly supportive. Kate Gervais, who has been organizing a small business health-care network, says there are "hundreds, if not thousands, of small and medium-size businesses are ready for reform," though she notes that there is a "deep-seated lack of trust in government, and many don't believe anything will ever change." As Christopher Bruhl, president and CEO of the Business Council of Fairfield County, says: "The current situation is untenable and the business community knows it. Broad reform of the health-care system, starting with a focus on wellness and condition management, is the only way to bring affordability, access, and equity in health-care to businesses and their employees." However, the two 600--maybe 6,000--pound gorillas of Connecticut's business community, the insurance industry and CBIA, remain deeply skeptical of the need for a comprehensive universal system.

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A test of the willingness of the legislature to move toward any universal healthcare plan is the Connecticut Health Care Partnership, a proposal by state Majority Leader Donovan, which would allow municipalities, small businesses, and nonprofits to opt in to the state employee health-insurance plan purchasing pool, the state's largest health-care purchasing pool, leading to increased bargaining power and lower administrative costs. Donovan has held meetings in 22 towns and claims many cities are expected to save over $1 million each year. "It's especially attractive because everyone will know they have the 'same health coverage as the governor.'" On the other hand, Eric George, CBIA'S associate counsel, says: "We have serious concerns. The bill doesn't insure one new person. …

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