COLUMBIA -- A coalition of medical, insurance and business leaders today will propose a starting point for extending health care coverage to the 700,000 South Carolinians without it.
Their plan centers on raising the state's 7-cent cigarette tax to 90 cents per pack -- nearly triple the proposed increase now before lawmakers to provide medical insurance for 160,000 persons.
It is the first proposal with specific recommendations on how money gained by taxing smokers more should pay for health care instead of to provide income-tax cuts.
The main features:
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n Expanding assistance to people in lower income brackets to make medical insurance available and affordable.
n Giving individuals and businesses with up to 25 employees tax credits as high as $2,500 to help pay for health insurance.
Those changes are a blueprint for improvement but not "a magical fix for all the health problems that face us," the proposal says.
"It doesn't cover everyone in one fell swoop," said Thornton Kirby, president of the S.C. Hospital Association. "If it works, it is the path we can go down."
The plan was developed by the S.C. Medical Association, S.C. Chamber of Commerce and major health insurers in addition to the state's 100 hospitals.
It will be presented today to a Senate Finance subcommittee considering a cigarette tax hike.
An increase of 30 cents per pack already has been approved by the House.
Some lawmakers say the proposed 83-cent-per-pack increase is too ambitious.
"My gut feeling is, we won't go that high," said Sen. Thomas Alexander, R-Oconee, a subcommittee member.
A 30- or 40-cent increase is more likely, Alexander said, since that would bring South Carolina's lowest-in-the-nation rate closer to other Southeastern states.
That amount still is enough for a more modest start on the plan, supporters said.
"It gives us a framework to expand forward" no matter the size of the tax hike, said Robbie Kerr, a former state Health and Human Services director who helped develop the package.
There is one major difference that plan has with what other cigarette-tax hike advocates want: It wouldn't expand smoking-prevention efforts.
The plan attempts to meet Gov. Mark Sanford halfway on his demand for no new taxes through a tax swap different from his approach.
It would allot half of the revenue from the smoking tax increase for tax credits for those who buy health insurance.
Doing that is vital to encourage small companies to offer health insurance to their workers, state Chamber of Commerce spokeswoman Marcia Purday said.
Supporters of the plan don't estimate how many companies would take advantage of the proposal.
Sanford is looking over the plan, but he still wants to devote all the money gained by raising the cigarette tax to cutting the state income tax.
"Any tax increase not offset in its totality is not something we can support," Sanford spokesman Joel Sawyer said.