The poor and the vulnerable are the focus of an election-year battle in the New Jersey Assembly over health care. At issue:
• A proposal to charge a copayment for state-provided HIV/AIDS and Medicaid prescriptions; a fee that would be shouldered by the poorest residents. AARP opposes it.
• A multi-year fight to lift the veil on serious medical errors, so-called never events because they should never occur. AARP champions it.
• A proposal to make it tougher to qualify for FamilyCare, the state’s low-cost or no-cost health insurance program, at a time when more families are going without health insurance. AARP wants to keep current eligibility.
Gov. Jon Corzine, D, wants to save $6 million by charging copays for state-provided HIV/AIDS and Medicaid prescriptions. Copays would begin at $2, with a $10 monthly cap, a nominal sum for most people.
But Allison C. Kuiken, executive director of Bentley Assisted Living in Branchville, knows the pain that every copay can inflict. One of every five residents at her facility in this small, leafy borough is on Medicaid.
“They really can’t afford to pay anything else if they’re going to have any quality of life,” Kuiken said. “It takes away their dignity when they can’t afford to pay for basic necessities.”
Another bill in the General Assembly, a proposed hospital error accountability law, would expand the hospital performance report to publish not just the number of preventable errors but also where they occurred, enabling consumers to compare data and make educated health care decisions. AARP New Jersey has fought for disclosure of life-threatening medical errors for several years, over objections from the medical establishment.
Another element of the Corzine budget would make it harder for some parents to qualify for FamilyCare, less than a year after income limits were eased in a bid to cover more families. Despite the state’s goal to have all children covered by health insurance, more than 13 percent are still uninsured.
Mary Coogan, assistant director of the private Association for Children of New Jersey, points to numerous studies showing that parents who have health insurance are more likely to get health coverage for their children. “The last time that the state cut back on parent enrollment, there was a drop in enrollment of kids,” Coogan said.
Douglas Johnston, AARP New Jersey senior manager for advocacy, said rising unemployment makes FamilyCare even more critical. In the last year, more than 130,000 residents lost their jobs.
“As the economic situation worsens, AARP expects more individuals will be losing employer-sponsored health insurance. A freeze on adult enrollment in the FamilyCare program could have a devastating impact on these newly uninsured families,” Johnston said. “Access to affordable health care via FamilyCare should be increased, not denied.”
Douglas Hulette is a freelance writer based in Lawrenceville, NJ.