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November 15, 2019

Veltri, Lembo aim to influence CT health policy debates with new tool

HBJ Photo | Matt Pilon Comptroller Kevin Lembo in Bushnell Park.

Hoping to influence and inform healthcare policy debates in Connecticut in the years ahead, the state comptroller and Office of Health Strategy are developing a new way to measure how healthcare costs impact households’ ability to afford other basic needs.

The so-called “healthcare affordability standard” aims to calculate how much money individuals and families around the state must earn in order to afford health care without compromising other basic needs like food, housing and child care.

The tool would determine the extent to which healthcare costs are undercutting other basic needs for Connecticut residents.

An advisory committee formed by the two agencies to design the standard has met several times this year, and hopes to launch the tool in the spring of 2020. 

The healthcare affordability standard would build on a longtime alternative measure to the 
federal poverty level, known as the Self-Sufficiency Standard (SSS).

It assesses the amount of income a household requires to afford housing, child care, food, transportation and health care without any outside financial assistance. 

SSS, developed by the Center for Women's Welfare at the University of Washington, is billed as superior to the federal government’s poverty measure, which has been criticized as no longer useful or accurate, since the formula doesn’t vary by geography, overemphasizes food costs and makes dated assumptions about stay-at-home mothers.

The federal poverty level (which increased in Connecticut last year) uses a formula that produces much lower income levels than those deemed needed by SSS. Indeed, a full-time worker earning Connecticut’s $11 an hour minimum wage falls well short of the SSS line (by half in New London, for example).

A new SSS update for Connecticut, performed by the University of Washington’s Diana Pearce on behalf of the comptroller and OHS, finds that 44 to 48 percent of Connecticut households are below the self-sufficiency standard, which varies by location and family composition.

Between 2005 and 2019, the average self-sufficiency wage for a family of two adults and two children increased 31 percent, while the cost of healthcare rose by 77 percent, according to the report. Meanwhile, the state’s median wage grew by 21 percent over that period.

SSS methodology assumes employer-sponsored health insurance, which covers a majority of Connecticut’s working-age population, but those plans are still unaffordable for some, Pearce wrote.

In a statement, OHS Executive Director Victoria Veltri called the SSS update an “important first step.”

“This report helps us understand where we are now so we can enact health policy that works for everyone,” Veltri said.

Comptroller Kevin Lembo said its unacceptable when families are forced to choose between between groceries and needed medications.

“Once we can answer essential questions about the cost and affordability of health care, then we can inform rational health care policies,” he said.

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