TRENTON, N.J. (AP) — As a legislative battle intensifies over making public workers in New Jersey pay sharply more for pension and health benefits, some Democrats are vowing to fight a provision deep inside the bill that limits access to out-of-state medical care.

The proposal restricts use of out-of-state doctors and hospitals unless similar care isn’t available in-state. There are some exceptions, like emergency care, and employees would have to be offered a plan that allowed unrestricted use of out-of-state care. That option would cost more on a plan that’s already rising significantly from current levels.

“I’d like to see that whole section done away with entirely,” said Assemblywoman Nellie Pou, of Paterson. “That would be the right first step.”

Elizabeth Mayor Chris Bollwage said the city’s lawyers will contest the provision unless it’s amended.

Pou and Assemblywomen Bonnie Watson Coleman, of Trenton, said they’ll challenge it when the bill is debated by an Assembly budget panel on Monday. And lawyer David Fox, who represents the Firefighter’s Mutual Benevolent Association, said the union would file a lawsuit if the legislation is signed into law as is.

“There’s no legitimate basis for it,” Fox said of the limitation opponents want removed from the bill. “If we can’t do it politically, we’ll do it legally or through the attorney general.”

The Senate Republican caucus exposed the clause when the bill was hastily printed and distributed last week. With Republican Gov. Chris Christie firmly behind the legislation, Republicans stand ready to vote for it. But they were caught off-guard by the out-of-state limitation, found near the end of the 120-page bill.

The state teachers union then produced a scathing 30-second television ad accusing Senate President Stephen Sweeney, the bill sponsor, of “doing the bidding” for his mentor, South Jersey political boss George Norcross III. Norcross, as chairman of the Cooper Health System and Cooper University Hospital, could benefit financially from the provision, according to the ad.

Norcross, who has been a Sweeney friend since childhood and helped with his political rise, denied the ad’s allegation.
Sweeney said the provision was inserted to create incentives for public workers to use in-state hospitals, which are struggling financially.

“The truth is that our state is home to nationally recognized hospitals and doctors that are just as good or better as those found anywhere else, and we should be doing everything we can to support them and keep our health care dollars closer to home,” Sweeney said.
This is the second time in recent months the Sweeney-Norcross alliance has been questioned publicly over health care legislation.

In April, The New York Times wrote about a Sweeney-sponsored proposal barring new members from enrolling in the State Health Benefits Plan. Norcross owns a large health insurance brokerage that had been losing customers to the program Sweeney sought to rein in, according to the article, which analyzed state health plan records. The provision was dropped.

Fox said of the in-state care incentive: “We don’t know if it enhances improperly somebody’s interest.”
Watson Coleman called the issue of out-of-state care “ridiculous.”

“Why shouldn’t everyone have access to the best care that’s available?” she asked.

The legislation would change health and pension benefits for the 500,000 public workers, including teachers, firefighters and police officers, and state, county and local employees, all of whom would see their out-of-pocket costs rise. They would be charged a portion of their health insurance premiums based on income and would be forced to make higher pension contributions.

The retirement age would rise, from 62 to 65, for new hires, and retirees would see an end, at least temporarily, to automatic cost-of-living increases. Retirees would continue to get free health care.

The pension and retirement health care systems are shy of their eventual liabilities by a combined $110 billion.

There is broad agreement on the need for higher pension contributions, and for the state to begin paying its share, to shore up the retirement system.

There is less agreement over health care. Christie and the Democrats who lead the Legislature agree on the proposed reforms. However, the unions vehemently oppose the loss of collective bargaining over health care. Many Democrats agree.

More union rallies are planned for Monday outside the Statehouse as the proposal is voted on in the Senate and gets its first public hearing in the Assembly. A final legislative vote could come as early as Thursday.

Days ago, Assemblyman Jason O’Donnell, of Bayonne, introduced a bill to adjust pension contributions identical to what Sweeney proposes without addressing health care costs.

(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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