N.Y. Assembly passes universal health care bill

By Dan Goldberg
Capital New York, May 27, 2015

The state Assembly on Wednesday voted for a single-payer health bill, the first time in more than two decades the chamber has taken up the measure.

The vote was 89-47, an overwhelming but largely symbolic step toward universal health insurance. The bill now heads to the Republican-controlled Senate where it is not expected to pass. 

Assemblyman Richard Gottfried, chair of the health committee, gave an impassioned speech on the floor in support of the New York Health Act, arguing that it was long past time for New Yorkers to rid themselves of the intrusive insurance companies whose goal is to deny claims rather than provide care.

"You do not have to be an Einstein to understand New York Health is the right choice for New York," Gottfried said.

Gottfried, a Democrat from Manhattan, spent the legislative session barnstorming the state, trying to gain support for his bill, which would be funded through a progressive income tax and payroll assessments. There would be a net savings of $45 billion in health spending by 2019, Gottfried said, based on an analysis from Dr. Gerald Friedman, a professor at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, though that figure was attacked by Republicans.

The bill, Gottfried said, would lower costs by getting rid of insurance companies. It would lower administrative costs and allow doctors to focus their time on treating patients instead of fighting for reimbursements.

"What will bring down health care costs is taking out of the equation the more than 20 percent we now spend on administrators whose job it is to fight with insurance companies," he said.

The plan's benefits, Gottfried said, would be more generous than any plan on the current market, and there would be no co-pays or deductibles. The bill would also require a care coordinator for every member, though that coordinator is not empowered to choose the type of care a patient receives.

For some Republicans, it was all too good to be true. 

"This bill promises remarkable things for New York State residents," said Assemblyman Andy Goodell, a Republican from Chautauqua. "It says providers, 'you'll be paid a lot more money,' and it says to the employees 'you'll contribute a lot less money,' and it says to the patients 'you'll have much broader access,' and to the employers 'you'll pay $45 billion less.' My background is in math and economics and I haven't been able to figure out how this all works. ... There is no free lunch, there is no free health care."

Leslie Moran, spokeswoman for the New York Health Plan Association, which represents insurers, said the bill "represents an unrealistic, utopian view of a universal health care system where everyone would be covered, everything would be covered and the system would magically pay for it all."

One problem, pointed out by Republicans, is that the offering, while generous, is the opposite of what public health officials are pushing, including those in the Cuomo administration, who have professed that insurance systems, and high deductibles and co-pays help ensure people use the health system judiciously instead of opting for more, often unnecessary, care.

"There is a role for insurance companies," state health commissioner Dr. Howard Zucker said Wednesday before the debate.

The last time a universal health care bill was on the Assembly floor was 1992. It passed but the debate was sidelined because of federal efforts to reform health care, which ultimately failed under the Clinton administration. 

The passing of the Affordable Care Act, which subsidizes private insurance for people below a certain income level, was a valid effort, Gottfried said, but ultimately served to highlight why the system needs to be entirely scrapped.

"I think the A.C.A. has made it clear to people ... there are profound problems in our health care system that cannot be addressed by incremental change in that system," Gottfried said.

Wiping out an industry — even the insurance industry — was not seen as popular by many Republicans who worried about the loss of jobs and what might happen should this plan fail.

Goodell asked why the state should go down this road when when Medicaid — a government run insurance program for lower-income residents — is expensive, burdensome and not well liked.

"Why would we want to expand that type of approach," he asked.

Gottfried responded that his bill would improve Medicaid by putting everyone into one pot. He would, he said, eliminate the two-tiered system. There'd be no greater risk of fraud under this law than in the current Medicaid program.

Republicans also pointed out how much was left to be done. The income tax rates have yet to be decided, but would likely cost the highest earners more than they currently pay for health insurance, while subsidizing lower income residents.

The analysis provided by Gottfried estimates no income tax on the first $25,000, an income tax of 9 percent on income between $25,0001 and $50,000, graduating to 16 percent tax for income over $200,000.

The legislation is also not specific on how to deal with residents of New York State who retire to another state.

That would have to be resolved at a later date, Gottfried said.

"Though we have numerous pages on this legislation, we have numerous holes also," said Al Graf, a Republican from Holbrook. "There is no way I can go back to my constituents and tell them you may have coverage in the future. ... This is an exercise in insanity."

Moran said there is no certainty that providers would accept government set reimbursement, though Gottfried said almost all would receive more for their services than they are currently being paid.

The bill also "completely disregards the economic contribution of health plans — both to the state and to local communities," Moran said.

Joseph Borelli, a Republican from Staten Island, cited Vermont, which tried and failed to enact a single-payer health system.

Vermont's collapse has been a cautionary tale for even the most enthusiastic supporters of government sponsored health insurance, but Gottfried was having none of it.

"New York ... bears no resemblance to Vermont," Gottfried said. "The bill bears very little resemblance to Vermont. Their financing system is different. The two have absolutely nothing to do with one another, nothing! Why don't you ask me whether New York will flood Just like Texas flooded if we enact this plan. The weather in Texas has as much to do with this as Vermont does."

Read the bill here:

N.Y. Assembly votes for universal health coverage

By Michael Virtanen, Associated Press
Democrat & Chronicle (Rochester, N.Y.), May 27, 2015

ALBANY – The New York Assembly voted 89-47 on Wednesday for legislation to establish publicly funded universal health coverage in a so-called single payer system.

All New Yorkers could enroll. Backers said it would extend coverage to the uninsured and reduce rising costs by taking insurance companies and their costs out of the mix.

With no patient premiums, deductibles or co-payments for hospital and doctor visits, testing, drugs or other care, New York Health would pay providers through collectively negotiated rates. It would be funded through a progressive payroll tax paid 80 percent by employers and 20 percent by employees.

Also, waivers would be sought so federal funds now received for New Yorkers in Medicare, Medicaid and Child Health Plus would apply.

"Employers are shifting more and more health care costs to workers or are dropping it entirely," said Assemblyman Richard Gottfried, chief sponsor. "The only ones who benefit are the insurance companies."

The Manhattan Democrat estimated universal care would save New Yorkers more than $45 billion annually, cutting the statewide total cost for health care to about $255 billion in 2019.

Assembly Republicans doubted Gottfried's estimate and questioned what would happen to everyone now employed by insurance companies.

"All I can say right now I think this is the last think New York state needs as far as an additional cost," said Assemblywoman Jane Corwin, an Erie County Republican. She said they're still trying to grapple now with the cost of the federal Affordable Care Act. That extended health care coverage to about 1 million New Yorkers, more than half in Medicaid and the others in private insurance with possible tax subsidies to offset costs.

An identical bill hasn't advanced in the state Senate and isn't expected to before the legislative session ends in June. Senate Health Committee Chairman Kemp Hannon said Wednesday that Gottfried's bill faces two major hurdles, resistance from senior citizens to giving up Medicare for a new state program and obtaining federal waivers to apply Medicaid and Medicare funding to support it.