2009-06-18 / Features

Health Debate In Pa. House Hits Partisan Divide

By Mark Scolforo ASSOCIATED PRESS WRITER

HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) - A measure to add 85,000 lower-income adults to a state-subsidized health insurance program was prepped for a final vote in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives on Wednesday, but there were signs that deep partisan divisions could eventually doom the proposal.

The Democratic majority defeated many of the dozens of Republican sponsored amendments as they got the bill into position for a final vote in the chamber that could occur as early as Monday.

The bill, sponsored by Majority Leader Todd Eachus, DLuzerne, would expand the state's adultBasic program in an effort to reduce its current waiting list of 236,000. It also would add new coverage for prescription drugs, chronic disease management, preventive care and behavioral health.

Eachus said the bill would improve thousands of lives. The program currently serves 46,000 adults ages 18 through 65.

"We cannot, in good conscience, allow residents of this commonwealth to spend another day worried about what will happen to them and their families if they get sick or are injured,'' he said.

Money for the expansion would come from a 2 percent tax on nonprofit health insurance companies, a surplus in the state's fund to help doctors pay malpractice premiums and by reducing the reporting time for abandoned and unclaimed property from five years to four. The state also would be able to tap into new sources of federal funding.

Eachus' spokesman Brett Marcy said the state's cost in the first year would be about $20 million less because of additional federal money and changes in the way the program is structured.

Democrats held together in four hours of voting on the amendments, suggesting the bill is likely to pass the chamber next week. But it will face long odds in the Republican-controlled state Senate, which during the last session allowed a similar measure to die.

Successful amendments on Wednesday eliminated eligibility for foreigners who do not have permanent legal alien status and added a loan forgiveness program for new primary care doctors, pediatricians, obstetricians and gynecologists who agree to practice in the state for a decade.

Republicans noted the U.S. Senate was about to consider its own approach to widening health coverage.

"Why would we, as Pennsylvania lawmakers, be embarking on any health care or Medicaid expansion that necessarily relies on federal approval when the federal rules - indeed, arguably, the entire federal system - might be changed in a matter of months,'' said Minority Whip Mike Turzai, R-Allegheny.

Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi, R-Delaware, said Eachus' bill relied too heavily on revenue that will not be available in the long term and said there was a better approach.

"We think that the most efficient use of the resources is to expand direct access to clinics rather than provide insurance coverage to the small percentage of those who are uninsured,'' Pileggi said.

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