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Vt. quietly launches new program of health coverage for uninsured

The state has begun accepting applications for its new Catamount Health program, designed to provide insurance to an estimated 65,000 Vermonters without it.

"It's a real milestone," said state Rep. Mark Larson, D-Burlington, a member of the Legislature's Commission on Health Care Reform. "A lot of work went into getting to this point, both by the Legislature and the administration. It is nice that people are seeing that the health care reforms that we made are real."

State officials believe about half the 65,000 uninsured are eligible for traditional state-subsidized health programs including Medicaid. The others have incomes too high for Medicaid, but not high enough to bring private health insurance within reach.

Catamount Health offers the uninsured the opportunity to buy insurance offered by two private carriers -- Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Vermont or MVP Health Care -- and pay premiums ranging from $60 to $393 per month for a single person, depending on income.

Coverage includes preventive care, doctors' office visits, prescription drugs and hospitalization. Co-payments are required for some services, but not for others, including immunizations and mammograms.

Jeanne Keller, president of Keller & Fuller, a health policy-consulting firm in Burlington, said she hopes legislators give the program time to work before trying to expand it.

"I don't see how they could have any valid information this whole session," Keller said. It will be at least a year before solid data on enrollment, costs and other trends will be available, she said. "You just have to be patient."

John McClaughry, president of the Ethan Allen Institute in Kirby, said he worries that insurers will not be able to offer coverage at the prices set by Catamount Health for very long.

"I think the major mistake they made is mandating such a rich policy for people who have had nothing," McClaughry said. "My own prediction is by 2009, the carriers can't offer what the state forced them to."



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