Democrats in the Connecticut General Assembly hope to pass health care legislation this year they contend will lower health insurance prices and expand coverage options for individuals and small businesses, arguing Tuesday that it's needed now more than ever given the continuing coronavirus pandemic.

Republican leaders, however, contend the proposal is the wrong way to address the high cost of health care coverage.

The Democrats' wide-ranging bill was the subject of a public hearing held Tuesday by the legislature's Insurance and Real Estate Committee, which is controlled by Democrats. The debate comes as an estimated 180,000 individuals in Connecticut currently have no health insurance coverage, a group that includes many who lost their jobs and employee-sponsored coverage during the pandemic.

“People were losing their health insurance at the worst imaginable time," said state Sen. Matthew Lesser, D-Middletown, the committee's co-chair, who noted how this year's version of the bill is “tailored specifically” to people who've experienced job losses and small businesses struggling financially because of the pandemic.

Under the Democrats' proposal, small businesses with up to 50 employees, nonprofit groups and certain union plans would be allowed to buy into a variety of health care plans offered by the state, known as “the public option.” Additionally, financial subsidies for individuals' insurance coverage, as well as Medicaid and HUSKY insurance eligibility, would be expanded.

Proponents said people living in Connecticut without legal status and working people with disabilities and chronic medical conditions, including “long-haulers” still recovering from COVID-19, would have more affordable options to purchase health insurance coverage, among other provisions of the bill.

“We are not talking about free health care, or a government takeover of an industry, even if that’s what the high-dollar advertising campaigns allege,” said Democratic State Comptroller Kevin Lembo, who would be responsible for offering the plans and assessing an annual fee on certain insurers and health care facilities to help pay for the roughly $50 million initiative. “We are simply talking about allowing others to buy, purchase, pay for access to high-quality health care.”

As in previous years when a “public option” has been proposed, concerns are being raised about the potential negative impact on Connecticut's insurance industry. In written testimony, Stephanie Amato, president of the Connecticut chapter of the National Association of Health Underwriters, said the group fears the “disruption” of a public option could potentially cause private insurance carriers to leave the state.

“Right now, our state is already experiencing record unemployment. We do not want to see this sector start to suffer even more due to government entering the market,” said Amato, who questioned whether a new public option will ultimately make coverage more affordable.

Senate Minority Leader Kevin Kelly, R-Stratford, said Democrats should consider the GOP's plan unveiled this week, which he predicts could lower insurance premiums as much as 20%, 30% or more. He said a panel of “stakeholders,” including representatives of the insurance industry, would establish benchmarks for the growth of health care costs while looking around the country at the best ways to efficiently deliver medical services — an initiative similar to one established in Massachusetts.

“By sharing and everybody working together, they were able to collectively reduce costs,” Kelly said of Massachusetts officials. “And the proof is in the pudding. They reduced it from 10 to 12% down to about 3.5% percent.”

The GOP plans also calls for importing prescription drugs from Canada and creating a reinsurance program that could leverage federal funds to help protect insurers from high-cost claims, a concept Democratic Gov. Ned Lamont has embraced.