Sending a sharp rebuke to Gov. Mitt Romney, House lawmakers voted overwhelmingly to overturn his vetoes to the state’s landmark health care law, including the controversial $295 fee on businesses who don’t offer insurance.
The predominantly Democratic House broke from debate of the state budget to begin the override process, first voting to restore a portion of the law guaranteeing dental benefits to Medicaid recipients.
The House overrides had been expected, and Senate President Robert Travaglini said that he expects the Senate will override all eight of Romney’s vetoes. The Republican governor’s spokesman said the differences were not essential to the larger goal of health care coverage.
Debate lasted only a few minutes before the House voted 136-20 in the override of the $295 annual, per-worker fee on businesses with more than 11 workers that don’t offer insurance. Romney said the fee is unnecessary and wouldn’t raise that much money.
Democratic leaders said it was important because the law already asks individuals and the state to take some responsibility to expand health care, and businesses should be required to chip in, too.
‘”This assessment forces everyone to contribute equally. This forces everyone to participate,” said Ronald Mariano, D-Quincy.
Rep. Vinny deMacedo, R-Plymouth, called on lawmakers to sustain Romney’s veto of the assessment, saying it unfairly targets some struggling, smaller businesses.
“These are the small mom and pops that can’t afford insurance for themselves, let alone their employees,” he said.
Romney had vetoed the dental benefit saying 60 percent of employers in Massachusetts don’t offer the benefit to their workers. He also said the provision was unsustainable because it would cost $75 million a year.
Rep. Patricia Walrath, D-Stow, said the price tag for the dental benefit is closer to $42 million. She said lawmakers reluctantly cut the dental benefit in 2002 during the state’s fiscal plunge. She said people on Medicaid deserve access to health care for their teeth and eyes.
“They can’t get jobs without teeth,” Walrath said.
Rep. Mary Rogeness, R-Longmeadow, defended Romney’s veto saying the cost could jeopardize the success of the new law.
The House overturned four of the vetoes during the afternoon and then returned in the evening to override the remaining four, including a provision to give MassHealth coverage to so-called “special status aliens,” legal immigrants who have come with the sponsorship of an individual who agreed to be financial responsible for them.
Romney said the law should take into account the financial status of the sponsor. The House overrode the veto by a 137-19 vote.
House Speaker Salvatore DiMasi said the vetoes reflected the House’s determination to provide access to health care to everyone in the state.
“An overwhelming majority of House members have gone on record in support of the principle of shared responsibility in order to achieve universal coverage here in Massachusetts,” said DiMasi, D-Boston, in a written statement.
Romney’s communications director Eric Fehrnstrom said the vetoes were relatively minor compared with the sweeping ambitions of the new law.
“These differences with the Legislature are not essential to the goal of getting everyone covered with insurance,” Fehrnstrom said.
The House overrides came as Romney was defending the new health care initiative to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in Washington. The law is intended to require coverage for nearly all of Massachusetts’ estimated 550,000 uninsured.
The law would require everyone in Massachusetts be insured by July 2007, providing subsidies and sliding-scale premiums to get poor and low-income residents into health plans. Those deemed able to afford insurance but who still refuse will face increasing tax penalties.
In Washington, Romney fended off criticism of the new law.
“Most impressions at this point are inaccurate and partially baked,” Romney told reporters after his chamber of commerce speech.
Foes have labeled the plan a big-government solution that does little to curb the state’s high health care costs. A Wall Street Journal editorial this week entitled “Mitt’s Market Misfire” rapped the measure for failing to reform state regulations that drive up costs.
Romney, a possible candidate for the 2008 GOP presidential nomination, will need to court conservatives who dominate the Republican primary contests should he decide to run. The health care law is the signature accomplishment of his tenure in office.
“Some of my libertarian friends forget is that today everybody who doesn’t have insurance is getting free coverage from the government,” Romney said.