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State Legislature Approves New Health Plan

By Mark Scott

Albany, NY – The State Legislature has approved a multi-billion-dollar health care plan for New York. In part, the legislation is designed to boost salaries for nurses, home health care aides and others in the health care industry. It will be partially financed by another increase in the state's cigarette tax.

Governor Pataki and legislative leaders announced they had reached a bipartisan agreement on the plan Tuesday just as the union representing health care workers was holding a rally in Albany in support of it.

"We're taking care of the people who are taking care of the people who are important to us," Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver told the crowd of cheering workers.

The deal will increase the tax on a pack of cigarettes by another 39 cents, bringing the overall tax to $1.50 per pack. The value of the plan is estimated by legislative leaders at $3.5 billion over three years. Buffalo area hospitals are expected to receive $36 million dollars.

Pataki said the plan will alleviate a shortage in the health care work force -- especially among nurses and home health aides -- by boosting industry salaries. The agreement came quickly among the Republican governor, Republican-controlled Senate and Democratic run Assembly.

"It's not a partisan issue whether or not our parents get the best care in a nursing home," Pataki said. "It's not a partisan issue whether our children have access to quality health care and the best possible health insurance. All of us want that."

Even in a state Capitol where almost everything of substance is decided in backrooms, the negotiations over were extraordinarily secretive. Critics like Rachel Leon of the advocacy group Common Cause have been complaining about that for days.

"You can never underestimate how dysfunctional and how secretive this government is," she said. "It's the opposite of an open democracy."

But Pataki defended the secrecy, saying he didn't want the plan to come out a piece at a time, allowing interest groups the opportunity to attack the sections they didn't like.

The health care plan is also raising concerns among Democrats in the Erie County Legislature. Minority Leader Charles Swanick says legislators have received information that the plan involves a significant local share. Swanick said the county could be facing millions of dollars in added costs.

"This has been such a secretive process that it's unfair to all of us," Swanick said. "There should be an open opportunity for discussion on the merits of the issue and how it will be funded."

Swanick says this year state mandates will cost the county $337 million, while the county raises just $153 million in property taxes. Swanick says he doesn't want to raise property taxes to cover more mandated costs.