Christie should keep hands out of Blue Cross policyholders' pockets

Gov. Christie delivers his budget address in February at the New Jersey State House in Trenton, N.J.

Gov. Christie is ready to ram ahead with an ill-advised power play that would allow the state to raid the reserves of New Jersey’s biggest insurer, which could drive up health care costs for millions of policyholders.

To get his way Christie is threatening to derail a new education funding formula unless Horizon Blue Cross/Blue Shield hands over $300 million. He would use the money to cover much-needed therapy for the state’s opioid addiction victims.

That sounds good, but one version of the legislation outlining the plan uses the magic words “including but not limited to” in discussing help for opioid victims. Such wide-open language is like giving a 12-year old the keys to the car.

Raiding Horizon puts its fiscal health and the health care of 3.8 million policyholders at risk. If there is not enough money to cover their health expenses, policyholders will suffer higher costs or fewer services.

To justify his raid, Christie says he’s trying to make Horizon’s operations more transparent. That’s sounds good, too, but this move has more to do with inflating up Christie’s disappointing tenure.

Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D., Gloucester) seems to be playing along with his buddy in trying to rush passage of a bill that few legislators have had a chance to digest. It was introduced last Thursday, announced Sunday, heard Monday, and could be passed Thursday.

The speed of this raid makes it impossible to consider all the bill’s points. But Horizon hasn’t helped its argument that its reserves should be left alone. It has yet to offer a plausible explanation for paying its CEO, Robert Marino, $4.5 million last year, including a $3 million bonus. Nine other executives got bonuses of $1.4 million to $2.5 million each.

Both sides say they only want to do what’s best for policyholders, but their own interests are crystal clear.

If the politicians want to help policyholders, they should make quality service, cost cutting, and real transparency their goals, and not just finding another source of funds for state programs. If transparency is their goal, the process should reflect it. Provide the time needed to carefully examine the bill. Otherwise, this is hypocrisy.

New transparency rules for Horizon should add members of the public to the decision-making process. Let them learn how insurance rates are set and what’s considered a safe level of reserve funds. Once that’s established, any money left over should go to the policyholders by slowing down rate hikes or reversing them.

As a health services corporation, Horizon pays some taxes but is exempt from others. That’s fitting. It should pay a price for the privilege of writing policies in New Jersey. But it shouldn’t be subject to pilfering to pay for a governor’s pet projects, no matter how noble that project may be.

With Washington mucking around with health care, it is particularly important for New Jersey to take care of its people.  Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto (D., Hudson) says he won’t put the Horizon bill up for a vote. But the unexpected is not unusual in Trenton. Constituents, especially those insured by Horizon, need to tell their legislators to keep their hands to themselves.