House committee guts governor’s bill

The Associated Press

SANTA FE — With the 30-day legislative session at its midpoint, the governor’s health coverage bill started moving — but only after a House committee gutted it.

The House Health and Government Affairs Committee on Wednesday removed key provisions of Gov. Bill Richardson’s universal coverage plan: requiring New Mexicans to have health insurance, and requiring employers to contribute to a fund to help pay for it.

Instead, under the committee changes, a newly created Health Care Authority would determine by October 2009 what the impact of such a mandate would be.

The requirements in Richardson’s bill were “very onerous for businesses and individuals,” said Republican Rep. Justine Fox-Young of Albuquerque, who offered the amendments.

The committee approved the amended bill and sent it to the Appropriations and Finance Committee.

The governor’s proposal, which aims to extend health coverage to the roughly one-fifth of New Mexicans who are uninsured, is his priority during this legislative session.

But lawmakers appear reluctant to endorse such sweeping changes this year.

Richardson grumbles that while he has compromised on his plan, lawmakers who prefer other alternatives have not.

Legislators, meanwhile, are feeling the squeeze.

“It’s just push, push, push on all of us, without really knowing what we’re doing,” House Health and Government Affairs Chairwoman Mimi Stewart, D-Albuquerque, complained at a committee meeting.

Her committee on Tuesday approved one of the alternatives: creation of a Health Care Authority that would, by next January, develop a plan for “accessible and affordable” health care for all New Mexicans.

That bill has another committee stop, in Appropriations and Finance, before it would reach the full House for a vote.

The governor “will not agree to yet another study of the issue. It has been studied to death,” spokesman Gilbert Gallegos said in a statement posted on the governor’s Web site.
Richardson’s plan is much more comprehensive: require New Mexicans to be insured, and make coverage more accessible through insurance reforms, expanding government programs, and creating a fund that employers who don’t insure their workers would pay into. An authority would oversee the system.

In negotiations with health care advocates, the adminstration agreed to compromises — on the makeup of the authority, for example.

Faced with criticism the governor would have too much control over the system, Richardson agreed to a 10-member authority board, with half the members appointed by the Legislature and half by the governor.

“We have been as open as we possibly can to amendment,” Human Services Secretary Pam Hyde, who is at the center of the talks, told the House committee on Tuesday.

In the Senate, majority Democrats are split on what to do this year about health coverage, and leaders of both parties said they’re worried about money.

Mathematica Policy Research Inc., which has been studying various reform proposals for the Legislature, reported last month that the projected additional cost of Richardson’s proposal over a 5-year period was $72 million.

But Senate Finance Chairman John Arthur Smith, D-Deming, questions the Mathematica figures and says there’s no good data on the cost.

“I think there’s a great deal of concern around the cost,” agreed Senate President Pro Tem Tim Jennings, D-Roswell. Lawmakers are being asked to fund other expensive proposals, including an overhaul of the public school funding formula, he said.

“We have to pay the bills and we have to balance the budget and we cannot deficit spend,” said Senate Republican Leader Stuart Ingle of Portales.

The governor’s bill is HB62. The Health Care Authority bill is HB147.