Douglas and Legislature close to agreement on health care

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(Host) Governor Jim Douglas says he and the Legislature are very close to agreement on health care reform legislation.

A deal on health care would help clear the way for this year’s legislative session to adjourn.

VPR’s John Dillon reports:

(Sound of play from the Statehouse lawn)

(Dillon) Outside in the bright sunshine, lawmakers and lobbyists toss a football on the Statehouse lawn.

On the wide granite steps, cafeteria workers grill up an outdoor barbecue.

(Sizzling sounds)

(Dillon) These are all signs of spring in Montpelier. They’re also indications that the work of the 2006 Legislature is drawing to a close.

Governor Jim Douglas didn’t join the play on the lawn outside. But he told reporters he’s optimistic that he and the democratically controlled legislature can agree on health care reform legislation.

(Douglas) “The House and Senate have worked very, very hard. The bill has improved steadily over the course of the Legislative session. And I think we’re very, very close to working out our remaining differences.”

(Dillon) The bill is supposed to make health care more accessible and more affordable. It sets up a new state-subsidized insurance product called Catamount health that would cover about 25,000 people. It also focuses on treatment of chronic diseases in an attempt to control costs.

Douglas says he still has concerns about the underlying financial assumptions in the legislation. The Legislature assumes a 4.5% growth in medical inflation. The Douglas Administration says that’s an unrealistic projection.

(Douglas) “My greatest concern is that the bill be fiscally responsible. We need to have accurate realistic projections on the trend rates, on the anticipated savings from the chronic care initiative, on the revenue impact of the cigarette tax. We have to make sure that we’re not sitting here a couple of years from now and talking about not only a big Medicaid deficit but a Catamount deficit too.”

(Dillon) The governor also wants the legislature to make substantive policy changes. He’s raised an issue that he’s brought up frequently before: he wants a commitment that private insurance companies will offer the Catamount health plan.

He acknowledged that this is an old area of disagreement between his administration and the legislature.

(Douglas) “Well, nothing that we haven’t talked about in the past. The areas regarding a true commitment to the private sector as the entity that bears the risk and furnishes insurance.”

(Dillon) Legislative leaders say they’re willing to bend on the technical details. But they say they don’t want to re-open negotiations on matters of policy. House Speaker Gaye Symington said some of the administration’s questions have already been asked and answered.

(Symington) “And I look for the opportunity to help the administration understand the extent to which we believe we’ve responded to those concerns.”

(Dillon) Democrat John Tracy, the chairman of the House Health Care Committee, sounded a little more frustrated.

(Tracy) “We’ve been at this for almost two years now. They’re the ones who can’t get off the dime. We’re off the dime. We are off the dime. And when they keep bringing up the same stuff that they’ve been talking about for two years – no, we’re done. We’ve listened to you. We’ve tried to address your concerns. You keep pulling another thing out of your pocket – saying, what about this?’ Sure, but, hell but It’s time to get off the dime! We have done our work. We’re ready to sign a bill.”

(Dillon) House and Senate negotiators have also reached agreement on state budget, and the capital construction bill.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m John Dillon in Montpelier.

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