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Billion Dollar Health Plan Would Raise Salaries

By Mark Scott

Albany, NY – Legislative leaders and Governor Pataki say they have a deal on a multi-billion dollar health care plan. In part, the legislation is designed to boost salaries for health care workers.

The plan is expected to be approved by the State Senate and Assembly by the end of the day Tuesday.

Pataki pushed for sweeping health care legislation that would be financed in two ways. Part of the funding would be generated by a big increase in the state cigarette tax. Much of the rest would come from a hefty fee Albany-based Empire Blue Cross and Blue Shield would pay to become for-profit company. But some advocacy groups want to see the Empire Blue Cross money go to a foundation to benefit the uninsured in New York.

"The normal thing to do is to set up a foundation," said Chuck Bell of the group New Yorkers for Accessible Health Coverage. "We would argue that what New York is doing has legal problems. These are non-profit charitable assets that are not the governor's and legislature's to spend."

Critics say the plan was negotiated by Pataki, the Legislature and the health care industry in secret with no input from the public.

When asked to address the secrecy, Pataki responded, "The process is the process." The governor did say criticism from interest groups is par for the course in Albany.

"Everybody knows from the budget negotiations that when interest groups get a chance to take a shot, they will do it," Pataki said. "We want to see a package that works and comes together as a whole."

The three-year package would provide about one (b) billion dollars more annually for hospitals, nursing homes and other health care facilities to cover pay raises for workers.

Dennis Rivera who represents thousands of health care workers in the state says such help is desperately needed.

"The reality is the health care industry is facing a shortage in critical areas, particulary registered nurses," Rivera said. "We believe it's about time to deal with that problem."

Tuesday's Buffalo News reported hospitals in Western New York will receive $36 million over three years.