Op-Ed: Memo to Gov. Chris Christie — Hands off Horizon

Drew Harris | May 17, 2017 | Opinion
The plan to raid Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield reserves to pay for drug treatment programs is truly a case of robbing Peter to pay Paul

Drew Harris
Opiate addiction in New Jersey is a major public health issue, but so is access to affordable health coverage. Gov. Chris Christie’s plan to raid the Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield reserves to pay for drug treatment programs is truly a case of stealing from Peter to pay Paul. 

Horizon is the state’s largest health insurance company, covering over half of the commercially insured families in the state; 70 percent of New Jerseyans with individual coverage through the exchange; more than half of those who rely on Medicaid; and a growing number of seniors who have chosen a Medicare Advantage plan. Any action that weakens its financial security puts at risk the health of millions of New Jerseyans. These are perilous times for the health insurance marketplace and the governor shouldn’t sap the strength of an institution that is trusted by so many New Jerseyans to protect their health and give them peace of mind. 

Horizon is not a state-owned or state-run institution. As a not-for-profit, it exists solely to serve the needs of its subscribers, and its assets should be dedicated to its unique healthcare mission. The considerable equity built up in the company is the result of decades of premium payments by individuals and employers who have purchased their insurance products. Sound management has resulted in a strong bottom line and an “A” credit rating from S&P. The $2.4 billion Horizon holds in reserve is, in essence, a safety net that protects its 3.8 million policyholders from unexpected costs, economic changes, and uncertainty in the healthcare marketplace. It is, without question, vital to its everyday business practices. 

It is a tragedy that a growing number of our fellow citizens succumb to the ravages of opioid addiction. We need more and better drug treatment programs. We need new and innovative ways to prevent addictions from even starting. More generally, we need greater investments in public health to help prevent all kinds of disease.

Addiction affects more than just Horizon subscribers. It is an equal-opportunity affliction impacting rich and poor, insured and uninsured. The burden to address this crisis should be borne by all. Government has a vital role to play in ensuring people get the care they need, but the funding should come from the general fund not a tax on the customers of just one company. 

Unfortunately, inappropriate raiding of health assets is not new in New Jersey. To plug a hole in the budget, our state government usurped billions in tobacco settlement dollars awarded to the state as compensation for the high cost of caring for people harmed by smoking and the incalculable damage done to people suffering from tobacco-related illness. This money should have been earmarked for controlling smoking and other public-health challenges. Instead, we missed a great opportunity to keep healthcare costs down and make New Jersey healthier. 
Let’s not make this mistake again. Horizon’s reserve isn’t a fat piggybank to crack open when the state runs short of tax dollars to address a public-health emergency. If we did, we would surely pay the price in the near future with higher premiums, more uninsured families, and poorer health outcomes.