Mass. Lawmakers Promise Health Insurance Plan By Next Month

By | October 12, 2005

House Speaker Salvatore DiMasi vowed to deliver a bill dramatically expanding health care coverage to the uninsured in Massachusetts but shied away from offering specifics.

DiMasi said the bill, which he promised to place on Gov. Mitt Romney’s desk in the next six weeks, will ‘significantly reduce the number of the uninsured.”

“We will ask individuals to take more responsibility for obtaining health coverage,” DiMasi said. “Businesses that currently do not offer insurance will be encouraged to do so.”

But DiMasi stopped short of saying he would require every Massachusetts citizen to obtain health care, either through their employer, government programs or purchased privately. Romney supports the so-called “individual mandate.”

DiMasi also avoided promising universal health coverage, saying the state should try to cover as many of the uninsured as possible.

DiMasi’s comments, his most extensive yet on the topic, came during a speech to health care providers and top political leaders sponsored by the Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts Foundation at the Kennedy Library.

House leaders have been criticized for taking too long to address the complex task of expanding health care to the state’s more than 500,000 uninsured. Romney and Senate President Robert Travaglini unveiled their own health care proposals months ago.

DiMasi defended the House, saying its role will be to look at all the health care proposals and sift out the best elements of each.

Any final plan should create affordable premiums, benefits that are adequate and target ethnic and racial minorities who have higher numbers of uninsured, DiMasi said.

But he went into few details about how to pay for any expansion, saying the state must find “new and creative ways” to fill holes in the health care system, “whether that be reallocating revenues, spending our health care dollars more efficiently, or distributing our collective resources more equitably.”

Advocacy groups have said the best way to guarantee universal health care is by increasing taxes, either the sale tax, income tax or cigarette tax.

Lawmakers have been reluctant to raise the specter of new taxes and Romney said his plan wouldn’t require tax hikes.

Travaglini said he was reassured by DiMasi’s pledge to move quickly.

“That’s a significant boost to this discussion. We are well on our way,” Travaglini said after the speech. “We are going to reach consensus.”

Travaglini’s plan would provide coverage to half of the state’s uninsured residents by the end of 2006 by encouraging insurers to offer affordable coverage to self-employed workers, small business employees and others who can’t afford insurance.

Romney’s proposal would insure all state residents without coverage are covered by 2009. It would create a low-cost “Commonwealth Care” health plan, would enroll more eligible people in Medicaid, and eventually overhaul the way the state reimburses hospitals and doctors for caring for the uninsured.

Timothy R. Murphy, Romney’s secretary of health and human services, welcomed the House focus on health care, but said theadministration remains opposed to tax increases. He said additional state resources can be poured into health care without new taxes.

“We don’t need to raise taxes,” he said.

The advocacy group Health Care for All has also offered a plan to insure all residents, in part by raising taxes.

John McDonough, the group’s executive director, said he isn’t expecting lawmakers to approve a universal health care plan, but is hopeful that whatever bill is finally approved will dramatically chip away at the number of the uninsured.

The best way to guarantee that is to share the burden, he said.

“The public wants a shared effort and that means the individual has a piece of it, employers have a piece of it and the government has a piece of it,” he said.

Dimasi said he is determined to deliver the best bill he can to Romney’s desk before the Legislatures breaks from its formal session.

“We can do this,” he said.

Copyright 2005 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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