The Riverside Foundation donated $1 million

One million Virginians — 15 percent of the state's population — don't have health insurance.

A proposed pilot program funded partly by a Riverside Foundation donation will attempt to insure the uninsured in Hampton Roads.

Gov. Timothy M. Kaine on Monday announced a budget amendment that would use $500,000 a year over two years to help offset health-insurance premiums for low-income Virginians who work in small businesses.

That money will match a $1 million donation from the Riverside Foundation, the charitable arm of the Riverside Health System, said Marilyn B. Tavenner, state Secretary of Health and Human Resources.

Legislators will consider the proposed amendment during an April 23 session.

The pilot program, slated to begin in July, will provide premium assistance to low-income, uninsured workers employed by businesses of two to 50 employees. The employer and employee would each cover one-third of the cost. The pilot program will pay the remaining third, up to $75 per month.

The program will target people at 200 percent of the poverty level or less who work for businesses that do not offer health insurance and have not offered it in the last six months, Tavenner said.

She hopes to reach 1,500 to 2,000 people and evaluate the program after two years.

"We are really excited about this," Tavenner said. "Two-thirds of Virginia's uninsured work. They just work for small employers (who cannot afford health insurance). They tend to earn low wages and can't afford the premiums. It's targeted to help the working uninsured."

The state funds will come from a surplus of fees charged by the Department of Health to evaluate health insurance companies, Tavenner said.

Both the House of Delegates and the Senate proposed similar programs, but those proposals weren't funded. When the Riverside Foundation found out the concept was stalling, it came forward with a matching gift, said Rick Pearce, president of the Riverside Health System.

"The idea is to make available the same benefits of people who are fortunate to have health insurance," Pearce said. "There are huge gaps with the quality and level of care provided to different people, and the uninsured are kind of forgotten. We should be trying different approaches. I think it's very clear there are problems with what we're doing today. I think the status quo is becoming less acceptable to more and more people."

The pilot program has the backing of State Del. Phil Hamilton, R-Newport News, who was among those who originally proposed legislation on this program.

In 2006, he crafted legislation that allowed small businesses to pool resources to get better deals on health insurance coverage for their employees. So far, the program has had no takers, Hamilton said. Perhaps the new pilot program could piggyback on the 2006 legislation, he said.

"I wholeheartedly endorse the project," he said. "If that's excess funds, it looks like it could be a win-win situation, where we actually expand public-private partnerships and we provide incentives, so that maybe some small businesses can provide health-insurance coverage to people who are currently uninsured."

Eventually, the cost of providing health care to the uninsured comes out of the pockets of taxpayers, Hamilton said.

"They've got to get paid somehow," Hamilton said of health providers, "and to get paid, they increase their rates."


Published: April 15, 2008