With lower income people in Pa. facing health-care loss, religious leaders beg for bailout

Posted: February 23, 2011

HARRISBURG - With more than 41,000 lower-income adults facing loss of their state-subsidized health-care coverage next week, religious leaders Tuesday begged for a last-minute bailout of the program and a social service advocacy group threatened to sue.

The Corbett administration says it has exhausted its funding options and warns that coverage for adultBasic recipients will end Monday.

At a news conference, several church leaders representing hundreds of faith groups said Corbett and nonprofit health insurance providers have a moral obligation to find a way to keep the program alive.

"Surely, Gov. Corbett and his new administration can work for a more just and compassionate solution," said the Rev. Deborah Heisley-Cato, a United Methodist Church district superintendent and one of 230 church leaders who signed a letter in support of adultBasic. "It's part of his constitutional obligation to protect the health and welfare of Pennsylvanians."

Corbett's spokesman, Kevin Harley, said it's a simple matter of money.

He said that the state - which is facing a projected deficit of $4 billion or more - does not have the $56 million needed to keep the program funded through June 30, the end of the fiscal year, and that efforts to seek federal assistance failed.

"We inherited this problem and we've acted responsibly," said Harley.

AdultBasic, created under Republican Gov. Tom Ridge in 2001, was designed to help working men and women who earned too much to qualify for Medicaid but who weren't covered by their employer and could not afford private insurance.

Funded with donations from the state's Blue Cross/Blue Shield companies and from tobacco-lawsuit settlement money, the program now provides bare-bones health coverage to its recipients - 12,000 of whom live in Southeastern Pennsylvania - who pay $36 a month.

The program was supposed to be funded through June 30 - the end of the fiscal year - but a shortfall led to the early end.

Churches and social-service groups say ending health coverage for the chronically ill will cost some people their jobs and amount to a death sentence for others.

"Great numbers of people will be the newly uninsured starting next week, and we already have 1.3 million uninsured," said Jonathan Stein, general counsel for Community Legal Services in Philadelphia. "And we further fear the lives of people will be in jeopardy."

Stein pointed to the state Insurance Department website's adultBasic page, which advises recipients that the cost of ongoing treatments - such as chemotherapy or kidney dialysis - will no longer be covered after Feb. 28.

Stein's organization wrote to Corbett adminstration officials last week alleging the state had violated the law by not informing those served by adultBasic that they may qualify for Medicaid, the federal program for low-income disabled inviduals. As many as 50 percent of adultBasic recipients may qualify for Medicaid, Stein said.

Harley said Tuesday that he disagreed with that assessment and dismissed the possibility of a suit.

"The state gets sued about 70 times a week, so I'm sure they'll sue," Harley said following a ceremony for Black History Month. The governor declined to take questions from reporters.

The Corbett administration blamed its precedecessor for building up an unsustainable program - "It's unfortunate Gov. [Ed] Rendell never lived up to his commitment," said Harley. Rendell, in turn, has contended Corbett's administration should have renegotiated a deal with the Blue Cross/Blue Shield companies to at least fund adultBasic through the spring budget talks.

This month, the Corbett administration asked the federal government to take steps to help keep the program viable, but those requests were denied.

Legislators are scrambling for other ways to keep the program afloat. State Sen. Mike Stack (D., Phila.) has drafted a measure that would utilize a big chunk of the legislature's own oft-criticized accounts - which now total $188 million.

Harley said Corbett "thinks it's a very interesting and good idea."

Sen. Ted Erickson (R., Delaware) said he is working on legislation to create a low-cost insurance program that would have a network of clinics serve as "home" medical facilities for adultBasic recipients. Another plan unveiled by Senate Democrats on Tuesday would split the bulk of the cost - $50 million - between the state and providers, and raise premiums to cover the rest.

But such proposals, even if they win support from the legislature's Republican majority, could take months to be approved.

In the interim, for those who do not qualify for Medicaid, options are few and costly. Independence Blue Cross is opening its subsidized Special Care, a limited-benefits plan, to adultBasic members able to pay $148.70 a month.

For information about adultBasic coverage and alternatives, call the state Insurance Department at 1-800-GO-BASIC (1-800-462-2742) or www.insurance.pa.gov


Contact staff writer Amy Worden at 717-783-2584 or aworden@phillynews.com.

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