New Mexico Governor Backs Down on Universal Mandate

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As part of his 2008 health care reform push, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson (D) has signed into law a measure that will make it more difficult for insurance companies to rescind coverage for people who develop serious medical conditions.

The new law, signed March 4, was one of few victories Richardson was able to claim after he was forced to compromise on a portion of his "universal health care" proposal, which faced stiff opposition from a coalition of advocacy groups.

Analysts responded positively to Richardson's January concession, welcoming a chance to look at other means of reform besides a health insurance mandate.

"By and large this is a positive result," said J.P. Wieske, director of state affairs for the Alexandria-based Council for Affordable Health Insurance. "The governor relied too much on mathematical data to create his plan, and missed out on free-market opportunities."

Proposed Universal Mandate

"Richardson's proposal--requiring all New Mexicans to be covered by expanded government programs or private insurance--includes creation of an authority that critics say would be too controlled by the governor, who would effectively appoint all but one of its 11 members," wrote journalist Deborah Baker in the Contra Costa Times on January 24.

In light of the criticism, Baker noted, "[State] Human Services Secretary Pam Hyde told [the House Health and Government Affairs Committee] the administration is willing to discuss making the authority more independent."

"Hopefully, this group will actually study the issue," said Wieske. "Too often, though, these groups focus on additional government control to solve problems. Sometimes, they should acknowledge that government has been part of the problem.

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"For example," Wieske asked, "why are 50 percent of the uninsured in New Mexico already eligible for existing programs? Merely solving this problem would give New Mexico one of the lowest uninsured rates in the country."

'Good First Step'

"Sitting and talking is a good first step," said Charlotte Roybal, executive director of the Health Care for All Campaign, adding "we don't know if insurance-based [reform] is the answer, and that's what the governor's bill at this point would lock us into."

Wieske recommends consideration of free-market approaches in addition to the usual government-run proposals. "Companies like United Health Care, Assurant, and Wellpoint are creating affordable plans that target the uninsured," he said.

State government officials "should also look to Tennessee, where Gov. Bredesen focused on segments of the uninsured rather than trying to solve the myriad of issues with a single solution," Wieske said.

Market Reforms Superior

Diana Ernst, a health care policy fellow at the San Francisco-based Pacific Research Institute, said, "Health care costs are at the center of the problem, and other states have good ideas to lower health care costs by deregulating their state health care systems."

Ernst recommends New Mexico consider Florida Gov. Charlie Crist's idea to allow businesses to leverage their buying power together to provide cheaper insurance for employees, or Missouri's idea to allow small business owners to make pretax contributions to health plans that their employees select individually.

"New Mexico also imposes many benefit mandates on the individual insurance market," Ernst noted. "If the state allowed a greater spectrum of health plans, then individual, portable health insurance options might be more affordable for individuals who don't want to rely on their employers or the government for insurance."

Any of these ideas would be lasting and practical solutions to health care problems and superior to additional bureaucratic authority, Ernst concluded.

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