New Jersey would become one of only a handful of states nationwide with universal health care, under a plan being pitched by the Democratic chairman of the state Senate's health committee.

Sen. Joseph F. Vitale (D., Middlesex) revealed some details of his proposal yesterday, including rough estimates of what it could cost the state.

Vitale said his plan, put together by a team including lawmakers and industry experts, makes economic sense because it would cost less to insure New Jersey's 1.4 million uninsured residents than it costs to pay for their care now at hospitals, often in emergency situations.

"People recognize that we have a moral obligation, as a state, to ensure affordable, high-quality health care for every New Jersey citizen, and this plan will put us on that track," said Vitale, the deputy majority leader.

Vitale was joined at a news conference to unveil his plan by Bob Singer of Ocean County, a Republican member of the Senate Health, Human Services and Senior Citizens Committee; Assemblyman Louis Greenwald (D., Camden), who chairs the Assembly Budget Committee; Assemblyman Neil Cohen (D., Union), who chairs the Assembly Financial Institutions and Insurance Committee; and David Knowlton, president and chief executive officer of the New Jersey Health Care Quality Institute.

Senate President Richard J. Codey (D., Essex) also announced his support for the plan.

But Vitale's plan, which would be phased in over three years, has yet to receive the support of one person whose backing will be needed for it to succeed: Gov. Corzine.

Corzine praised Vitale for his "intelligence and his passion in crafting this proposal, with the cooperation of my administration, to create a universal health-care program." The governor also said he agrees with Vitale on many of the principal elements of the plan, including his focus on coverage for children.

"However, the current fiscal environment limits our ability to do the things we would like to be able to do," Corzine said yesterday. "The public is well aware that there is nothing closer to my own agenda than providing universal health care. But I'm a realist, and I understand that the current budget circumstances may inhibit our ability today to reach that common goal."

The first year of the Vitale plan would focus on providing coverage to uninsured children and their parents by expanding the state's FamilyCare program, which offers free or low-cost health insurance to children in lower-income families.

The first phase would also attempt to reform the health-insurance market in New Jersey to try to bring costs down, particularly for small businesses and the self-insured. Greenwald said that the state has succeeded in lowering auto insurance rates by clearing red tape, and that similar tactics could work for the health-insurance industry.

Vitale said the first phase, which would cost an estimated $28.8 million, would be paid for through unused federal and state funds already allocated to cover health-care costs for low-income residents.

In the second phase of the plan, the state would continue to add eligible residents to FamilyCare as well as create a self-funded, state-sponsored health plan for all residents. The price of the plan to consumers would depend on a family's income and size.

Once the state-sponsored plan is made available, the state would require all residents to have some kind of health insurance.

Vitale said the second phase, which would cost an estimated $1 billion, would eventually be paid for with money the state saves on charity care to hospitals, which reimburses hospitals for caring for the uninsured, premiums from consumers, and other sources. More details of the second phase should be available in May, Vitale said, when he hopes to introduce legislation.

Vitale said the state is spending nearly three quarters of a billion dollars a year on charity care, which he called dysfunctional and inefficient.

Greenwald vowed the plan would not increase taxes.

"We must do this within the means of our existing budget," Greenwald said.

"This bold and decisive plan will provide health care to those previously uninsured residents who could otherwise not afford the cost of coverage, particularly children," said Cohen, who is the Assembly deputy speaker. "Moreover, it will do so at a fraction of what we are currently spending to care for them through catastrophic and charity care."

Massachusetts, Vermont and Maine have passed laws to phase in universal health care and several other states are examining the issue. Vitale said his plan takes into account lessons learned from Massachusetts' experience.

Vitale said that while all the major presidential candidates are proposing their own health-insurance reforms, it will likely be years before any national plan takes effect.

"We have to worry about New Jerseyans now," Vitale said. "We can't wait for national reform."

Health-Care Proposal

Highlights of Sen. Vitale's universal health-care proposal:

The first phase of the plan would expand the state's FamilyCare program for lower-income families. Parents, for example, would be allowed to enroll along with their children.

In the second phase of the plan, the state would create a self-funded, state-sponsored health plan for all New Jersey residents. Premiums would be based on a family's size and income.

Once the state-sponsored health plan is in place, all New Jersey residents would be required to have some form of health insurance.

Residents could be asked to provide proof of health insurance when they file their income tax returns. Those who do not show proof of insurance could be automatically enrolled in the state-sponsored program and charged premiums according to their ability to pay.

SOURCE: Office of Sen. Vitale

Contact staff writer Adrienne Lu at 609-989-8990 or alu@phillynews.com.