Universal health care for New York?

By Trevor T. Alford
The Legislative Gazette (Albany, N.Y.), June 13, 2011
Looking to follow in the footsteps of Vermont, which passed legislation May 26 leading toward a single-payer health care system in that state, two lawmakers are pushing for the adoption of a public health option in New York.

Sen. Thomas Duane and Assembly Health Committee Chairman Richard Gottfried were joined at a press conference June 7 by a number of advocates who support a single-payer health care system. Physicians, nurses, religious leaders and labor representatives all appeared with the lawmakers to support legislation they are sponsoring to create a publicly funded and government-managed health care system in New York state.

Their bill (S.5425/A.7860) would enact the New York State Health Plan, which would create a single, government-run agency to oversee the financing of health care throughout the state. On May 19, the bill was referred to the Senate Finance Committee and to the Assembly Health Committee.

The bill has been introduced by Gottfried, D-Manhattan, in every consecutive session since 1992, the only year it passed in the Assembly. It was first picked up in the Senate by New York's Attorney General Eric Schneiderman in 1999 when he was a state senator. Duane, D-Chelsea, has stepped up in Schneiderman's absence.

"Let's see whether a public option can compete with private insurance," said Duane. "We believe a public option will be cheaper and more efficient and provide better health care. The private sector says that's not true, but you know what, we're willing to compete."

"Our current health care coverage system is overwhelmingly accountable to insurance company stockholders," said Gottfried. "We think we can do a whole lot better if it is accountable to the public."

Duane says New York already engages in single-payer insurance through programs such as Medicare and Child Health Plus, which New Yorkers pay into and get health care as a result.

"Public health care already exists in our state and in our nation," said Duane. "There's nothing to be feared. In fact the great experiment would be to let us compete against private insurers, and I think we'll stand up and do better."

The legislation would establish the New York Health Plan as a public-benefit corporation and establish the New York Health Trust Fund, which would provide the funding for health care costs.

State and local money from Medicaid and Medicare would be pooled into the fund, along with payroll premiums — 8 percent by the employer and 2 percent by the employee — and any funds that previously went into health-based services that would be covered by the single-payer health plan.

According to the sponsors, removing private insurance companies from the system would free up more than $5 billion in the health care system currently used to pay for administrative positions and for the billing and collecting of debt for hospitals.

"This legislation is not just slapped together," said Dr. Garrett Adams, the national president of Physicians for a National Health Program. "I looked at it, and it's very carefully thought out. The bottom line — the best part of it is — it will help New York people, it will help everyone."

Laurie Wen, the executive director of the New York Metro Chapter of Physicians for a National Health Program, said the physicians from her local chapter are stifled by the insurance companies.

"The No. 1 complaint I hear from my physician members is 'my hands are tied,'" Wen said. "The private insurance industry will not let me do the job I was trained to do. I went to medical school to help people, to treat people, to give them care, but I spend all my time fighting the insurance industry doing paperwork, and my patients come in much sicker than they need to be.'"

According to Shaun Flynn, director of governmental affairs of the New York State Nurses Association, nurses have come to the conclusion that single-payer health care is necessary to control escalating costs for their patients.

"One of the things that we've found in talking with our members who interact with patients every day is that there's a common theme here," Flynn said. "Over the last decade people have seen the value of their health insurance coverage diminish while their costs have skyrocketed."

Omar Kutty, a spokesman with Healthcare NOW! of New York City, says popular opinion polls in the United States should be an indication of the wide support for a single payer system.

"Single payer, or the concept of single payer, consistently polls at over 50 percent. We can assume that in a blue state like New York it has considerably higher support than that," Kutty said.

In July 2009 a poll taken by the Kaiser Family Foundation, which researches health trends, found that 58 percent of those polled supported a "Medicare-for-all" program, while 38 percent opposed such a measure. This poll surveyed 1,205 Americans and has a margin of error of 3 percentage points.

The Rev. Harlan E. Ratmeyer, pastor of the First Reformed Church of Bethlehem and manager of the Department of Pastoral Care at Albany Medical Center, spoke about the inappropriateness of private insurance companies being involved in medicine.

Ratmeyer said he believed that medicine has been taken a hold of by "some forces that really distort the joy of medicine and the vocation of medicine. It all turns into business and profit margins."

"This is a no-brainer for labor because one of the first things you do in contract negotiations, is negotiate against yourselves," said Wayne Bayer, a representative of the Public Employee Federation. "What do you want, a better wage or do you want health care benefits? This would take health care benefits off the table."

Bayer also said such a bill would free up entrepreneurs to leave a job and pursue independent careers because they would no longer need to fear losing their employee health coverage.