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Modern Healthcare

Pushing its proposal; Blue Shield of Calif. touts new wide-ranging plan

by Laura B. Benko
June 2, 2003

Amid growing debate over how best to cover the state's 6.6 million uninsured, Blue Shield of California has earmarked almost $1 million to promote the universal healthcare plan it has championed since late last year.

Through its Blue Shield of California Foundation, the insurer last week awarded a $940,000 grant to the New America Foundation, a Washington-based public policy institute, to fund a series of 10 research papers aimed at fleshing out a statewide universal coverage proposal first unveiled by Blue Shield President and Chief Executive Officer Bruce Bodaken in December 2002.

The two-year project also will include an extensive public education campaign to familiarize consumers, legislators and employers with the plan, the core features of which have been incorporated into a bill introduced to the state Legislature in February by Assemblywoman Rebecca Cohn, a Democrat. The bill is now before the Appropriations Committee but isn't expected to reach the Assembly floor before next year.

Blue Shield spokesman Tom Epstein said the grant is designed to further the insurer's goal of eventually expanding Bodaken's universal coverage proposal nationwide. ''We've always said that while we're going to push the proposal in California, there needs to be a national solution,'' Epstein said. ''The idea is to have a lot of questions answered by the time there's a new congressional session in 2005.''

Bodaken's plan, dubbed ''Universal Coverage, Universal Responsibility,'' would require all employers to provide a basic benefits package to their workers or pay into a pool that provides coverage. Outreach strategies would be developed to enroll every eligible resident in the state's public health programs. Residents who remain uninsured would have to buy private policies, with the state subsidizing those who could not afford the full cost.

The grant is the latest in a string of efforts by Blue Shield and its foundation to advance the proposal. The San Francisco-based insurer released a cost analysis of the proposal in April and has commissioned an independent panel of healthcare experts to design the basic benefits package by early summer (April 28, p. 12). Meanwhile, the Blue Shield and New America foundations on June 11 plan to host a panel discussion on mandated coverage featuring U.S. Sen. John Breaux (D-La.), who is advancing a similar plan on the national level (April 14, p. 28).

Some consumer advocates, however, have cast a cynical eye on Blue Shield's efforts, the grant included. The Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights, Santa Monica, Calif., criticized Bodaken's proposal as ''a money grab by insurers,'' because they would be guaranteed new members but would not be subject to cost controls.

''Theirs is a bill designed by insurers for insurers, so it's not surprising that they're investing so heavily in promoting it,'' said Jerry Flanagan, director of the advocacy group's California Health Consensus Project.

By contrast, a universal coverage bill introduced in May by Maine Gov. John Baldacci aims to fund universal coverage statewide partly by adding a 4.1% surcharge to all private health plans' premium revenues, a proposal that has the state's insurers up in arms (May 26, p. 6). Under the bill, insurers' profit margins and administrative spending would also be regulated by a new,
quasi-public agency.

Just two weeks before Blue Shield announced its grant, Flanagan's group launched a Web site designed ''to encourage consumers, employers, hospital administrators and healthcare providers to come to a consensus on universal healthcare.''