TRENTON -- On the eve of his budget address, two legislators said Gov. Chris Christie may look to tap the reserve account of Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield of New Jersey to grab up to $300 million for the state spending plan.
Assembly Budget Chairman Gary Schaer (D-Passaic) and Senate Health Committee Chairman Joseph Vitale (D-Middlesex) confirmed to NJ Advance Media Monday they've heard the Christie administration is exploring the option of acquiring $300 million from the financial reserves of Horizon, a not-for-profit health insurance company.
The legislators said they did were not certain whether Christie would include the proposal in his budget address on Tuesday.
Christie's spokesman Brian Murray did not respond to an email seeking comment.
See why Horizon paid $3M in bonuses to N.J. doctors
Horizon, New Jersey's largest insurance carrier, with 3.8 million members, is uniquely structured. It is a tax-paying health service corporation created by state law in 1942 that until its restructuring in 1992, was known as the "insurer of last resort" for the poor, according to its website.
Vitale said he heard the governor wanted Horizon to make a "donation," or for the state to obtain the money through the legislative process. The money would be used opioid epidemic, Vitale said.
"If the governor is looking to squeeze upwards of $300 million out of Horizon, it would require legislation," Vitale said. "I would want to know exactly what the money would be used for, and even if it is appropriate to raid that fund."
Schaer said he would not support the idea no matter how much the state is struggling to raise revenue.
Taking $300 million from Horizon's reserve account "would have a dramatic effect on its credit rating," Schaer said. "On what basis is the governor suggesting doing this? This goes against his long-standing belief against budget gimmicks and one-shots, and is not good fiscal policy."
According to Horizon's website, the company had $11.5 billion in revenue and held $2.8 billion in its capital reserves in 2015.
If Christie proposes it, this would not be the first time the state looked to Horizon for cash.
In 2005, leaders in the state Assembly cast Horizon officials as profiteers who were sitting on a billion-dollar surplus. The Assembly wanted the money to help fund property tax rebates, but the idea, opposed at the time by then-Gov. Richard Codey, was abandoned.
Codey (D-Essex) issued a statement Monday that said he would not support any sort of "restructuring" of Horizon.
"While Congress contemplates dismantling the Affordable Care Act, we should be focused on how we can protect New Jersey's health care consumers from losing coverage and strengthening the state's oldest and largest health insurer, not potentially weakening it at such a fragile time in the market place," Codey's statement said.
At several moments in its history, Horizon has considered converting to a for-profit company -- a move that would generate a substantial windfall for the state budget.
Horizon's spokesman Kevin McArdle said the company did not have "any specific information as to what the governor will propose in his budget address tomorrow, nor have we been asked to change to our structure."
Susan K. Livio may be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @SusanKLivio. Find NJ.com Politics on Facebook.
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