Candidates for Ohio Governor Push Health Care Reforms

September 5, 2006

The two major candidates for governor want to embark Ohio on experiments that would expand health care coverage for the uninsured, including enrolling the poor in low-cost group purchasing plans.

With an estimated 46.6 million Americans without health insurance, governors across the nation have been taking unprecedented steps to reform health care in their states, citing no clear direction from Washington for federal changes. In Ohio, a state whose governor’s race is being closely watched ahead of the 2008 presidential election, about 1.3 million people lack health insurance.

Massachusetts has captured the reform spotlight with a universal health insurance plan that aims to have everyone in the state obtain insurance by July 2007, and gives them help to get it with a combination of state subsidies and sliding-scale premiums.

“Many hardworking Ohioans cannot afford even basic health care for themselves and their families,” said Ohio Democratic candidate Ted Strickland, a U.S. congressman who refuses to accept the federal government’s health insurance benefit for employees. Strickland said he’s not willing to take the benefit while so many people in his rural southeast Ohio district, which includes parts of Appalachia, lack coverage. He and his wife pay several thousand dollars a year for private insurance.

Both Strickland and his Republican opponent, Ken Blackwell, have policy proposals that borrow aspects of the Massachusetts program.

Part of Strickland’s plan is to subsidize insurance premiums for about 300,000 low-income Ohioans who aren’t eligible for Medicaid, the state-federal health care program for the needy and disabled. Cost would approach $550 million over the first two years, but Ohio taxpayers wouldn’t bear the cost _ funds will come from federal Medicaid money that Ohio isn’t currently applying for, he said.

Strickland said an additional 1 million uninsured Ohioans could be offered coverage through the creation of the Ohio Healthcare Exchange, a voluntary private-public venture that would pool money from insurance companies and small businesses to make premiums more affordable.

Blackwell, Ohio’s secretary of state, said he’d expand coverage by requiring insurers to increase the age a young adult can remain on a family insurance policy to 29.

Right now the age varies. Depending on the type of policy that a family has, private coverage can expire for young adults when they turn 19. For full-time students it usually expires at around age 23.

Blackwell also wants to set up accounts for the uninsured that would allow them to accumulate money to buy private health plans. The accounts would be funded with a mix of individual contributions, government subsidies and voluntary payments from businesses that don’t offer employees coverage, he said.

Blackwell on Wednesday filed a complaint with the Ohio Elections Commission, objecting to a recent Strickland television ad that claims the Republican would force every uninsured Ohioan to buy health insurance through one of Blackwell’s proposed accounts, regardless of whether people could afford it.

“If someone can’t afford it, that’s where Medicaid kicks in,” Blackwell said.

Cathy Levine, executive director of the nonprofit Universal Health Care Action Network in Columbus, said both candidates show a willingness to think boldly and creatively.

But it’s a mistake to think Ohio can completely copy the Massachusetts plan, she said. Massachusetts has fewer people without health insurance, about 372,000, and the state has greatly expanded its Medicaid program for the poor, which allows it to do things such as penalize individuals on their state income taxes if they don’t purchase a health plan.

Levine also said Strickland and Blackwell need to better explain the types of low-cost insurance plans they intend to make available to the uninsured.

“If it’s not a high-quality, adequate package of benefits that meets a person’s medical needs, then it won’t be meaningful,” Levine said.

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