2011-03-10 / Local & State

Wagner: Pa. Should Keep adultBasic afloat

By Marc Levy

HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) – Pennsylvania Auditor General Jack Wagner said Thursday that state government should resume funding for a health care insurance program for lower-income adults that just ran out of money after the state spent years systematically diverting a pot of money set aside for the program toward other purposes.

Wagner said Gov. Tom Corbett and lawmakers should adhere to a state law that sets aside money from the state’s 1998 settlement with cigarette manufacturers to extend the heavily state-subsidized adultBasic until 2014.

“Because we’re still stuck in the greatest economic downturn since the Great Depression, now is not the time for the state government to be eliminating or reducing its commitment to help hardworking Pennsylvanians get the medical assistance they need,’’ Wagner said.

Wagner, a Democrat, spoke to reporters as he released a report on how the state Legislature and former Gov. Ed Rendell had begun diverting the tobacco settlement money toward purposes not included in the original 2001 law. Rendell and lawmakers even used $121 million to help the state shoulder a rising pension obligation to public school employees, while emptying a reserve meant to address future health care needs, Wagner said.

If Corbett, a Republican, and lawmakers decide to use tobacco settlement money in ways not described in the 2001 law, they should hold public hearings to discuss new uses for the money, rather than inserting provisions into budget bills that temporarily supersede the 2001 law, Wagner said.

Corbett, the Legislature’s Republican majority leaders and the state’s Blue Cross/Blue Shield insurers have decided not to inject more money into adultBasic, at least for now. As a result, it ended Monday after nine years of operation, leaving more than 40,000 lower-income adults without health insurance or looking for new coverage.

However, the 2001 law remains on the books, and still sets aside 30 percent of the state’s annual tobacco settlement payment – a total of approximately $360 million – for adultBasic and health care for workers with disabilities.

The annual tobacco settlement payment is expected to arrive in April, according to Corbett’s budget office. A spokesman for Corbett, Kevin Harley, said Thursday that the administration has no plans to revive adultBasic and is taking no steps to do so.

“Although if the Legislature were to propose something, certainly the governor would look at it,’’ Harley said.

Harley noted that the governor had liked a proposal by Sen. Michael Stack, DPhiladelphia, to divert a portion of the Legislature’s surplus to extend adultBasic at least through the June 30 end of the fiscal year. That proposal went nowhere in the Republican controlled Senate.

Wagner also said the state Legislature could still rescue adultBasic by using some of the money in its reserve to tide over adultBasic until a funding solution is found.

“ We recommend Gov. Corbett and the General Assembly ... use incoming tobacco settlement funds to pay for adultBasic and to explore all available public and private funding options to bridge the gap until health insurance becomes widely available under national health care reform beginning Jan. 1, 2014,’’ Wagner said.

He said the Blues, as well as private insurers and the state’s charitable foundations could be called upon to help keep the program afloat.

“There is still hope for Pennsylvanians to get health insurance through adultBasic if we put forth the effort and are innovative in the process,’’ Wagner said.

AdultBasic began in 2002 as a basic health insurance program for low- income working adults who weren’t poor enough to qualify for Medicaid or old enough for Medicare. It didn’t cover dental needs or prescription drugs, but it helped cover the cost of major surgeries.

Originally, it was funded by proceeds from the tobacco money. In 2005, the Blues, which were under scrutiny from the Rendell administration for the size of their surpluses, agreed to help finance adultBasic for six years, through Dec. 31, 2010. The additional commitment by the Blues to hundreds of millions of dollars over the life of the agreement allowed Rendell to greatly expand the program.

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