TRENTON, N.J. – Gov. Chris Christie ramped up his attacks on New Jersey's largest health insurer Wednesday, claiming that it "brazenly" failed the state's poorest residents by mishandling Medicaid claims, launching a venomous attack against a company that he wants to help finance a fight against opioids.
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As Christie highlighted $16 million in fines against Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield during a news conference in Trenton, his months-long fight to get Horizon to tap into its surplus for $300 million to finance opioid addiction treatment has also become tied in with larger budget negotiations ahead of a looming deadline next Friday.
Lawmakers say that discussions over Horizon and another proposal by Christie to dedicate lottery revenue to the state's public workers pensions are being considered as part of a possible deal that would include a school funding overhaul proposed by Democratic lawmakers.
The proposed $35.5 billion budget is one of Christie's last chances to get lawmakers to negotiate on issues he's passionate about before he leaves office in January.
Lawmakers haven't so far taken up the Horizon or lottery proposals, but because they want him to sign off on a new school funding plan, Democratic Assemblyman and budget chairman Gary Schaer said amid a private meeting of Assembly Democrats that the prospect of striking a deal could be possible.
Christie said Horizon was cited by the state Department of Human Services and the insurance commission for improperly processing hundreds of thousands of Medicaid claims, resulting in backlogs and significantly impacting residents since 2015.
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Asked whether anyone was actually hurt, Christie said "we can't tell that." He cited providers not being paid and raised the question of whether that affected patients. Horizon countered that it's not aware of any members impacted "in any way."
Christie said the violations justify passage of his proposal, which also includes "transparency" provisions to require Horizon to publish more information online and to add spots for public members on the board.
"Horizon just brazenly failed their members and the citizens of New Jersey," he said. "What their multi-million dollar lobbyists and secretive management team worked to make sure we wouldn't notice is that Horizon has been cited repeatedly."
Horizon spokesman Kevin McArdle said the company has made "substantial progress" on the issues and was "blindsided" by the governor's news conference, which comes just over a week before the end of the fiscal year when the Republican governor and Democrat-led Legislature must enact a new budget.
"His comments strongly suggest that this is further retaliation for Horizon's unwillingness to submit to his demand for $300 million from the reserves we hold to protect our members and an abuse of power," McArdle said.
Christie responded to the statement in real time on Wednesday, saying that since the violations predated his February proposal to use Horizon's surplus his comments could "hardly" be considered retaliatory.
The governor didn't immediately furnish copies of the violations Wednesday.
Christie's proposal has come under wider attack, with publisher and businessman Steve Forbes calling the idea "bullying" Wednesday on Twitter. The right-leaning Americans for Prosperity has also said it has concerns with the plan.
Christie is term-limited and has mounted a final-year push to combat opioid drug addiction, which he's also leading nationally for President Donald Trump's commission on the crisis. An interim report is due soon, with final recommendations set for October.
Christie succeeded in enacting legislation that limits initial opioid prescription supplies to five days, but his plan to use Horizon surplus money has gone nowhere.
A balanced budget must be finalized by June 30 or the state's government would shut down. Christie said he was confident the state would avoid a shutdown
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