KINGSTON — Constance Rudd, a 77-year-old retiree, said it was getting Lyme disease this year from a tick bite that helped turn her into a staunch supporter of a single-payer approach to health insurance coverage.
"I found out I'm not as immortal as I thought I was," the Ulster County resident said Monday after demonstrating in support of legislation that would radically transform how medical care is financed in New York, with advocates calling for a state government takeover of the current approach of health insurers offering a menu of plans.
At a hearing on matching bills that have been filed in the state Assembly and Senate, a panel of lawmakers listened to former patients share stories of what they called aggravating experiences with health insurers. They also heard from representatives of the insurance industry who warned a single payer, government-run system would be unaffordable without delivering on the promises touted by the legislation.
Single payer systems, said Leslie Moran, vice president of the New York Health Plan Association, an umbrella group for the private and nonprofit insurers, "fail to provide timely access to high-quality, innovative medical care to all individuals."
She also said undoing a system that now provides coverage to more than 95 percent of state residents and replacing it with a government-controlled coverage would wipe out options now popular with consumers and result in "massive tax increases."
The New York proposal would create a statewide system that would be similar to the "Medicare for all" plans touted by several candidates for the Democratic Party's presidential nomination. The idea has gained some traction among Democrats in both New York and nationally, with California Gov. Gavin Newsom having embraced the concept last year on his way to winning election in his state.
Under the plan advanced in Albany, New Yorkers would no longer have to pay premiums, deductibles, co-pays or out of network charges, advocates said.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, has been chilly to the proposal, suggesting it would be preferable for such sweeping changes to be made at the federal level.
Business groups and Republicans, meanwhile, warn that having a single payer health system in the state could attract people who can't afford private insurance to move to New York in order to get government-paid treatment for chronic illnesses, while healthy people may leave New York to avoid higher taxes.
At Monday's hearing, several current and former hospital patients, or relatives of patients, described frustrations in getting approved for coverage for various tests and treatments, contending decisions appeared to be based on saving money for insurers more than they were to provide care.
Wendell Potter, a former executive with global insurance provider Cigna who has become an advocate for single payer, said the current system is marred by soaring premiums and higher deductibles and co-pays for consumers,
"It's a matter of when, not if," Potter said of a national Medicare-for-all system. Potter noted he once compiled the arguments against having a single payer system for the insurance industry, contending those points are designed to "scare" Americans into rejecting Medicare for all.
But Greg Biryla, director of the New York chapter of the National Federation of Independent Businesses, said the legislation would kill jobs by driving up costs for employers. Mandatory payroll taxes that would accompany the New York Health Act, the title of the bill, would force employers that do not offer coverage now to pay $1,200 to $1,800 per worker annually, he said.
Biryla said 36 percent of New York businesses with fewer than 50 employees now provide health insurance to their workers.
Responding to claims that a single payer system would be unaffordable at a time when state finances are tight, a co-sponsor of the legislation, Assemblyman Kevin Cahill, D-Kingston, told CNHI: "Everyone wants to discuss one half of the equation. That's the taxation part. But they are leaving out the $30 billion that will be saved by the general public not having the bills they have now to pay for their health insurance."
Joe Mahoney covers the New York Statehouse for CNHI's newspapers and websites. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org