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May 29, 2019

Lembo: Public option bill presumed dead, following disputed Cigna threat

Photo | Cigna Cigna headquarters in Bloomfield.

Just last week, Democratic leaders, Comptroller Kevin Lembo and Gov. Ned Lamont were celebrating after supposedly winning enough support to pass a “public option” health insurance plan for Connecticut small businesses, even though insurers have opposed it.

Just six days later, the policy seems like it could be dead.

A Hartford Courant story on Wednesday quoted Lembo as saying that a recent threat from Bloomfield insurer Cigna to “reconsider where they’re domiciled” if Connecticut adopted a public insurance option had doomed the legislation.

Lembo's office confirmed those details to HBJ.

However, Cigna spokesman Brian Henry denied the company made any such threat. It has, however, strongly voiced its opposition to the legislation.

“What we have said is: The only option this proposal gives to the public is to pay more to get less from the healthcare system,” Henry said via email. “This option does not work for the public, for the state, or for the private sector. This is yet another option no one in Connecticut can afford, and in fact threatens the long-term viability and vitality of the state. Bottom line: The proposal as designed is ill-conceived and simply will not work.”

Cigna’s open opposition to a public option mirrors a fierce lobbying attack being made by the state’s health insurance industry, which is a powerful interest group given it employs tens of thousands in the state.

Sen. Matt Lesser (D-Middletown), co-chair of the Insurance and Real Estate Committee and an advocate of the Connecticut Option bill, acknowledged in a telephone interview Wednesday afternoon that the legislation is unlikely to move forward as currently structured. Lesser said there are pieces that may be salvageable this year, such as a provision to import prescription drugs from Canada to lower pharmacy costs.

“I think when we started this effort, nobody was under the illusion that health care was easy,” Lesser said.  “There are parts of the bill we can’t move forward on and we’re going to have to leave for another day.”

Asked about any threat made by Cigna about remaining domiciled in Connecticut, Lesser said “Cigna came out very strongly against the bill” on Tuesday, but he deferred to the company on any communications with the governor or lawmakers.

"I’ll let Cigna speak for themselves on what they did and did not say,” he said.

Lamont’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Update: Lamont's office released a statement just before 4:30 p.m., saying that insurers agree with lawmakers that more needs to be done to lower healthcare costs and improve quality, and calling Cigna a "vital piece of Connecticut's fabric."

"I have been leading the conversations with all stakeholders, including the carriers, to forge a Connecticut Option, which unlike a public option would leverage the significant experience that Connecticut’s healthcare sector brings to the table and create a market-based solution that encourages private carriers to sell better quality plans at a lower cost," Lamont said. "I remain committed to the Connecticut Option but understand that for legislation of this magnitude to be successful, the proposal must leverage the best thinking from all stakeholders, including the carriers."

The controversial legislation called for creation of a “Connecticut Option” health insurance plan to be designed by the Office of Health Strategy in conjunction with consumer advocates and healthcare policy experts.

Supporters claimed the plan’s premiums could be up to 20 percent lower than private plans. Insurance companies would have been able to offer the plan through their own provider networks or through a network developed by the comptroller’s office, officials said. The plan would also be sold on Connecticut’s insurance exchange. 

Officials said the proposal also restored a reinsurance program meant to reduce premiums.

Besides insurers, the Connecticut Business & Industry Association has also opposed the public-option plan, arguing it will be too costly for the state to start up and oversee.

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