Bill for universal
isle health care
barely stays alive

Many who testify say the plan
is premature and needs more work

By Pat Omandam

A bill that would set up a state authority to create and oversee a universal health care system in Hawaii remains alive but appears to be in critical condition at the state Legislature.

The measure, approved by two House committees yesterday, was opposed by Republican legislators along with a few unions, health care organizations and insurers.

"I just don't think we have any business trying to aggressively pursue something that half the country has already shot down as being a bad idea," said state Rep. Bud Stonebraker (R, Kalama Valley-Hawaii Kai), a member of the House Health Committee.

Even Democrats questioned the majority-backed bill during yesterday's joint hearing. Still, House Health Chairman Dennis Arakaki (D, Kalihi Valley) successfully urged majority colleagues on the Health and Human Services panels to approve House Bill 1617 with amendments so discussion of the medically uninsured in Hawaii can continue.

Arakaki said the state spends about $5 billion in health care costs each year, but that money is unequally distributed. He sees no reason why those health care resources can't be utilized by everyone in the state.

"I think the idea is not to be spending more," Arakaki said. "The idea is to spend wisely with what we have."

The measure, as amended, would create a Health Authority Commission to run a statewide health care system. A separate panel would first determine which benefits should be provided to all Hawaii residents, while the five-member commission would come up with an overall plan to make it work.

The bill was sent to the House Labor Committee. Labor Chairman Marcus Oshiro (D, Wahiawa) said yesterday he will likely hear the bill next week.

Proponents believe pooling the premiums people pay for health insurance would allow the commission to contract health care providers to insure all state residents. Hawaii has about a 10 percent uninsured rate.

"The Health Authority will provide a way to pool the vast resources being committed to a very disparate health care delivery system and turn it into a rational efficient service delivery system," said Jory Watland, executive director of the Kalihi Valley Community Foundation.

Watland said that because costs rise for insurance, medications, long-term care and other health services, it is time for the state to establish a central purchasing authority.

Arakaki has said the plan would reduce the gap group that cannot afford private insurance and who don't qualify for Medicaid.

Many of those who testified yesterday lauded the idea, but said the measure is premature and needs much more work.

Rick Tsujimura, who represents State Farm Insurance Co., testified the bill proposes to substitute "the oligopoly of Kaiser and HMSA with the unbridled and unfettered monopoly of a state agency."

State Rep. Lynn Finnegan (R, Kalihi-Foster Village) said she's concerned about the reported waiting lists for health care treatment in the United Kingdom and Canada, where nationwide health care exists.

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