Health Care Exchange Act supporters push for bill

TRENTON – With the possibility of a veto looming, supporters of a bill that would provide more health insurance options for the uninsured in New Jersey implored the governor to heed their call.

Backers of the Health Benefit Exchange Act, including lawmakers and business owners, called on Gov. Chris Christie today to sign the bill they say will provide health care access to the underinsured as well as make the market more affordable for small-business owners.

They said the governor has until Thursday to sign the bill or issue an absolute or conditional veto.

Prime sponsor Assemblyman Herb Conaway, (D-7), Delanco, said the bill has strong conflict-of-interest protections regarding pre- and postemployment of those who would serve on the eight-member board that would run the exchange.

In addition, he said it will offer tax credits to assist with premiums that would enable businesses to keep good workers, and hospitals will receive payment for treating patients whose care currently goes uncompensated.

“I’ve been carrying this baby quite a while,’’ he said of his commitment, and said there is an urgent need to put the Exchange in place. There are about 1.3 million uninsured people in New Jersey, the advocates said.

The Exchange is part of the state’s end of the national Affordable Care Act, the Obama administration health care overhaul whose fate is in the hands of the U.S. Supreme Court.

Opponents have urged the administration to do nothing because the high court may render it a moot point, but Conaway brushed those arguments aside.

“The state can go forward with the Exchange anyway,’’ he said. “It can stand on its own two feet.”

Yet the opposition strengthened its calls as well.

Americans for Prosperity, the conservative group led by former Bogota Mayor and onetime gubernatorial candidate Steve Lonegan, blasted what it said are the hidden costs that will be imposed on residents if the bill becomes law.

“Gov. Christie has promised to hold the line on taxes but if he does not veto the Health Care Exchange Act this week, New Jerseyans will not only be facing a tax increase but a massive one at that,” Lonegan said this afternoon in a release.

“The tax surcharges and assessments that will be levied on insurers for non-compliance will be passed right on to consumers through higher and higher premiums.”

Conaway did mention today that some insurers already have “jacked up rates in advance of the law.’’

Among those who joined in support of the bill are a small-business owner from Holmdel.

Samia Bahsoun, owner of S2 Associates International, said she has run companies with as few as two employees and as many as 70 workers, and the cost of health insurance – a basic family plan for one employee – can exceed $1,500 a month.

She said the Exchange will help reduce their health care costs and help them become more competitive in the global market where they do business but cannot battle European businesses for whom health care is not such a burdensome cost.

“An employee is not a line item on a balance sheet,’’ she said. “An employee is equity. We have to train them, they become a real asset to your company, and then we want to retain them.’’

Another quarter heard from was part-time college faculty.

Teresa Politano, a lecturer at Rutgers University,  said higher education is hiring more part-timers, she said, but buying into the state’s health care plan is not an option for many. “This is the face of the uninsured,” she said, “people in New Jersey with PhDs.”

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