N.J.'s top concern: Cost of insurance Candidates for Congress are offering a wealth of initiatives to cut health-care costs.

Posted: October 09, 2008

When typical New Jersey workers take a look at their paychecks, they see an increasing amount of money taken out for health care - an amount that covers, on average, about a quarter of its cost.

Residents are looking to the November election in hopes of getting some relief.

"Everything is going up but my husband's salary," said Pat Katz, of Pennsauken, only half joking.

A former information-technology worker, the 60-year-old Katz said she is going out to dinner less often, cutting back on vacation plans and recently started shopping at Wal-Mart for generic drugs.

Candidates in the most significant federal races in South Jersey say they have plans to help Katz and other voters by cutting health costs - something Democrats and Republicans alike seem to agree has to happen.

A recent Kaiser Family Foundation study found that while the cost of family coverage increased 78 percent nationally since 2001, wages went up only 19 percent. The average total cost of family coverage is $12,106, with workers shouldering $3,281 - 27 percent of the total - said the study by Kaiser, a health-care think tank.

U.S. Sen. Frank Lautenberg's staff said he has been working to reduce health-care costs by focusing on disease prevention and early treatment. He also has worked to stop insurers from denying coverage because of preexisting medical conditions. To cut provider costs, he has supported electronic medical records to reduce hospital and physician paperwork.

Lautenberg's staff said he believes every American should have access to affordable quality health care.

He supports the idea of letting small businesses bargain together to get lower insurance premiums. So does Republican candidate Richard Zimmer, a former congressman.

Zimmer also calls for cutting down medical-malpractice lawsuits, which raise doctor and hospital premiums - costs that are passed on to the consumer.

He would give workers a tax break on health-insurance costs and let them cross state lines to buy it.

"I can buy a car in Pennsylvania. Why can't I buy insurance there?" he asked.

States regulate insurance companies, generally, to make sure residents get adequate coverage.

Zimmer said, "I have an open mind on whether federal regulations would be required as a backstop [to protect buyers of out-of-state health-care insurance]. Somebody would have to point out to me and state where mandated coverage is inadequate."

Before the big federal bailout stole the show, the main economic issue keeping New Jersey voters awake at night was health-care costs.

In August, Quinnipiac University asked 1,187 likely voters what worried them the most about their personal finances; 23 percent ranked health-care costs behind the winner - gasoline prices at 28 percent. In September, health-care costs won, with 28 percent of the respondents then putting it at the top of their lists.

In the 3d Congressional District race, Republican Chris Myers, the mayor of Medford, would also allow interstate sales of health insurance.

He calls for "universal access to quality and affordable health care for all Americans." But he would not want a government-run health system.

Myers would cut medical paperwork and take a hard line on Medicaid and Medicare fraud. At the same time, he would give hospitals and doctors higher fees from the federal entitlement programs.

His Democratic opponent, State Sen. John Adler, of Camden County, would increase funding for medical research, especially stem-cell research; expand preventative health-care programs, and increase reimbursements for providers.

Adler said he supports covering all Americans, which he argues would lower premiums.

"Right now, those of us who have insurance are subsidizing those who don't have insurance," he said. "It would be a lot cheaper to get everybody insured, get people treated early and get the costs under control that way."

Contact staff writer Cynthia Burton at 856-779-3858 or cburton@phillynews.com.

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