HARRISBURG - In June, Gov. Rendell called on Senate Republican leaders to strike a deal on expanding health insurance for the uninsured before the end of the budget season.
He repeated his plea in the waning days of the legislative session last month.
Yesterday, Rendell - armed with new figures on the uninsured, and buoyed by the presidential election of universal-health-care advocate Barack Obama - asked the Senate to return to the Capitol to take action on his health-care proposal before the end of the year.
The words were barely out of the governor's mouth when Senate Republicans, who control the chamber, declined the invitation, saying they would take up health care next year. The Democratic-controlled House has passed Rendell's proposal.
"We continue to be ready and willing to work on health-care issues, which remain a priority for Senate Republicans," said Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi (R., Delaware). "In the current economic downturn, with Pennsylvania facing a $565 million revenue shortfall, our top priority must be to ensure that we can continue to provide existing services under these difficult conditions."
Rendell argues that most of the funding needed to add more people to the state-sponsored health-insurance program exists, in a tobacco sales-tax account set aside for health-care purposes, and says federal matching funds would make up the difference.
He says it would cost $1.9 billion to cover 176,000 low-income people by 2012. The program would add coverage for prescription drugs and some behavioral-health services. The number would include the 47,000 people already enrolled in the "adult basic" program and 129,000 on the waiting list.
Administration officials said the waiting list has grown by 10,000 since early October and point to a new study by Families USA, a liberal-leaning health-care advocacy group, that said that nearly two people a day die in Pennsylvania because of a lack of health insurance.
Senate Republican leaders say they want to wait and see what Obama proposes on health care next year, so that any new state plan is "fully compatible with federal laws."
Rendell argues that Pennsylvania should act now, because Obama has said his proposal could take years to roll out.
"This plan is a perfect bridge for health care," Rendell told reporters on a conference call yesterday.
He said he hoped Republican leaders would come to the table now, because, he said, it's what their constituents want.
"There is pressure to do the right thing," said Rendell. "Health care is the number-one issue other than the economy. ... Plenty of residents in Sen. Pileggi's district are losing health care."
Pileggi said he would not renege on a promise to end lame-duck legislative sessions and added that he thinks the 35 newly elected members of the House and Senate should have a voice in the health-care discussion.
Good government groups have long sought to abolish post-election sessions, saying lawmakers who are not returning in January cannot be held accountable for their decisions.
Rendell yesterday also reiterated his pledge not to continue to extend state subsidies to cover medical malpractice insurance for doctors - a $1 billion program that he initiated five years ago - until a health insurance expansion plan is approved.
Caught in the debate is the future of the Pennsylvania Health Care Cost Containment Council, whose funding expires on Nov. 30. A spokesman said Rendell was exploring ways to extend the life of the council.