Conn. Weighs Employer Health Fund Fee

March 9, 2005

Companies in Connecticut with 100 or more employees could be forced to pay a fee to help cover their workers’ health insurance expenses if they don’t already offer coverage, under a preliminary legislative proposal announced this week.

The plan was presented in response to a new state report that showed Wal-Mart, Stop & Shop and Dunkin’ Donuts atop a list of companies whose workers use the state’s HUSKY insurance program for lower-income people.

The concept is one of several that lawmakers are considering this year to help extend health care coverage to lower-income, uninsured adults who cannot afford their employer’s health insurance or do not receive coverage as part of their benefit package.

Lawmakers are also investigating how different companies define full- and part-time employees and how long they make their employees wait for health insurance coverage.

“We’re looking at different aspects of the question,” said Senate Majority Leader Martin Looney, D-New Haven. “These are working people of very modest means who are struggling.”

The focus on health insurance for the working poor comes as legislators consider whether to extend the HUSKY program to about 13,000 parents of poor children for three more months. The House has already approved the legislation and the Senate was expected to pass it Wednesday.

In the meantime, lawmakers are trying to determine whether to continue that coverage for the parents into the future. Extending the coverage indefinitely could cost taxpayers $54 million to $72 million a year, depending on various estimates.

It’s a financially difficult proposal this year, considering the new fiscal year that begins July 1 is about $1.2 billion in deficit, according to an estimate by the governor’s office.

House Majority Leader Christopher Donovan, D-Meriden, said legislators would not be debating whether to extend the HUSKY program if some of the state’s largest retailers provided health insurance to their workers.

Wal-Mart, Stop & Shop and Dunkin’ Donuts employ more than 2,600 adults who are parents or caretakers of children on the HUSKY A program. Most of those adults are also receiving state health coverage, the Office of Legislative Research determined.

“Go up to the counter and pay for health care,” Donovan told the retailers during a news conference.

He is backing the bill that would require employers with 100 or more workers to pay a fee to cover their employees through the state’s Municipal Employee Health Insurance Program, or else show they already provide affordable coverage. A public hearing on the bill, which is still being written, is scheduled for March 17.

Bonnie Stewart, counsel for the Connecticut Business and Industry Association, said she believes the legislation would affect companies that employ as few as 20 employees. She said such a mandate could create a financial hardship for small to medium businesses.

She said CBIA is concerned that lawmakers aren’t addressing what she sees as the real problem: the high cost of health insurance. She said Connecticut already ranks fourth in the nation with employers who provide health insurance coverage.

“The efforts by employers in our state are significant already,” Stewart said. “At this point, the one thing that could be done to improve that would be addressing the issue of affordability.”

Copyright 2005 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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