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N.J. eyes others as it strives for a health plan

TRENTON - Gov. Corzine said finding health insurance for the 1.4 million New Jerseyans who lack it ranks among New Jersey's top problems, but he doesn't expect to solve it in 2008.

TRENTON - Gov. Corzine said finding health insurance for the 1.4 million New Jerseyans who lack it ranks among New Jersey's top problems, but he doesn't expect to solve it in 2008.

He said the state - facing a projected $3 billion budget deficit for next year - cannot afford it.

"We have relatively finite resources," the Democratic Corzine said. "As a matter of fact, I don't even think we have resources."

He also wants to see how other states tackle the issue.

Massachusetts and Vermont passed universal health-insurance coverage last year. Maine was the first state to pass such legislation in 2003. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, at least 10 states have similar plans under review.

"I think somebody once said that states are a great laboratory for experiments, and I'd like to see whether those initiatives are actually working in other states," Corzine said, speaking with reporters last week.

According to the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, which tracks health trends, 15 percent of New Jerseyans lack health insurance, tying it with West Virginia, Idaho, Alabama and Wyoming for the nation's 19th highest rate of uninsured residents.

Of the 1.4 million without coverage, 275,000 are children, the nation's 17th highest rate.

"I think it's one of the single most important issues that we have," Corzine said.

Other states have taken a variety of approaches to provide residents with health-care coverage. Vermont created a plan sold by private companies but subsidized by the state for those who can't afford it.

It's funded by increases in the cigarette tax and a $365-per-employee annual fee imposed on businesses that don't cover workers.

Massachusetts requires all adults to obtain insurance coverage or pay a penalty, unless they prove they can't afford it.

The state set aside $472 million for subsidized plans, while companies with 11 or more workers must offer insurance or pay $295 per worker.

The Massachusetts law has been credited with helping 300,000 people get health insurance, but critics contend taxpayers are bearing a larger share than expected and coverage can cost as much as $662 per month for a middle-class family.

"I think you get mixed reviews about whether they are working or they aren't and what lessons can be learned," Corzine said of other states.

Sen. Joseph Vitale has been working on a plan to require all New Jerseyans to carry health insurance but keep the policies affordable for low-wage earners.

People without insurance would join a state-subsidized plan, with uninsured people enrolled when they show up at a hospital for emergency treatment.

To help pay for the coverage, the state would reallocate $1 billion it now spends to help hospitals care for the uninsured, but Corzine has estimated it could also cost the state another $1 billion to start the program.

Vitale said he hopes to introduce the health-care plan within the next two months.

One plan that is already slated to go into effect in early January, announced earlier by Vitale and Corzine, offers low-cost health insurance for children in families who earn above federal poverty levels. Vitale hopes that plan will help cover as many as 60,000 children.

But ultimately, Corzine said, Congress and the president need to take a lead role in tackling health-insurance woes.

"It's really a federal responsibility," Corzine said.