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Gov. to Turn Up Heat On Lawmakers

By Winthrop Quigley
Journal Staff Writer
    SANTA FE— An angry Bill Richardson told reporters Wednesday that state lawmakers, by gutting his health care financing bill, have shirked their responsibility to New Mexico's 400,000 uninsured residents.
    The governor, vowing to "turn up the heat," said at a news conference, "I'm going to the public in New Mexico. They should tell their legislators to stop worrying about extraneous issues and focus on health care."
    Richardson also promised to veto the bill as amended earlier Wednesday by the House committee. He urged the House Appropriations and Finance Committee, the bill's next stop, to restore it to its original form.
    Meanwhile, the committee chair promised to push a competing measure to set up a state-run system known as the Health Security Act, which replaces private health insurance for most residents with a single public funding source.
    Here's what the committee did:
  • On a bipartisan 5-3 vote, it removed provisions that would have required everyone to have health insurance or some form of publicly funded coverage.
  • It killed a tax on employers who don't provide their workers with health insurance. That tax, relatively small compared with the cost of providing insurance, is supposed to help fund public health coverage programs.
  • The committee then gave the amended bill a do-pass recommendation on a 6-1 vote.
        Richardson said that as it now stands, the bill insures no one. "(And) it fails to provide the money to take care of everybody," he said.
  • It left intact provisions that would require insurance companies to insure everyone, regardless of health status, a concept called guaranteed issue— a mandate the industry says is unacceptable without the provision requiring everyone to be insured.
        "Without the individual mandate we risk losing healthy people (from the insurance pool) who make it viable to support guaranteed issue," said Diane Fisher, Presbyterian Healthcare Services chief counsel.
  • The committee voted 6-1 to recommend passage of the amended legislation.
    Defense of changes
        Rep. Justine Fox-Young, R-Albuquerque, who proposed the amendments, told the Journal that "an overwhelming number of New Mexicans are opposed to government health care and are opposed to us mandating health insurance."
        Committee chairwoman Mimi Stewart of Albuquerque was one of the Democrats supporting the amendments.
        Stewart said she hopes her committee will pass out the Health Security Act today.
        She said Richardson's bill shores up the insurance industry at the expense of working people.
        "There are thousands of people for whom this system doesn't work," Stewart said. Coverage is inadequate, premiums are too expensive, companies deny needed care and the system is too complicated, she said.
        "Do we really want our money to go to a highly profitable industry at the expense of working people?" she asked.
        "Many legislators have thanked me for the committee's action today, and many of them were Appropriations Committee members," Stewart said later Wednesday.
        While both dislike the governor's bill, Fox-Young's agenda is completely different from Stewart's.
        She said the state should reduce the uninsured rate by allowing companies to offer low-cost catastrophic policies, giving employers incentives to provide insurance to workers, making health savings accounts easier to buy and making sure entitlement programs like Medicaid are working.
        Rep. John Heaton, D-Carlsbad, who sponsored the governor's bill, said mandatory insurance and a requirement that businesses support public health coverage programs are ways to level the field businesses compete on and force individuals to take responsibility for their own health care. Since the cost of health care is shifted to people who buy insurance, businesses that don't offer it get "a free ride," he said.
        The bill's chief business backer, the Greater Albuquerque Chamber of Commerce, can't support the amended bill, said lobbyist Jacqueline DuBose Christensen.
        "We're very disappointed," she said.
        Richardson and lawmakers have tussled since the session began two weeks ago over the composition of a health care authority board that the bill creates to oversee the state's health system. The bill the committee recommended contains a compromise on board membership but strips the governor of the power to appoint the authority's executive director.
        The amended bill would still require a number of state-funded insurance pools, including coverage plans for retired public employees, to be consolidated under the control of the health care authority.
        Legislators have "concentrated on the health care authority," Richardson said at his news conference. "They've concentrated on the bureaucracy, not on helping people."
        "I want the public to know that so far this is a do-nothing Legislature," he said.