Mass. Closer to Employer Charge, Individual Mandate for Health Coverage

Massachusetts moved a step closer to dramatically expanding health coverage last week after House Speaker Salvatore DiMasi and Senate President Robert Travaglini said they’ve broken a legislative impasse blocking a major overhaul of health care.

Appearing at a joint Statehouse press conference on Friday, the two Democratic leaders said they’ve reached agreement on the broad principles of a bill designed to cut the number of the uninsured in Massachusetts. It will be up to a six-member House and Senate conference committee to work out the details.

“The logjam that has been existing in the past is no longer existing,” Travaglini said. “Significant progress has been made.”

A key part of the deal was the decision by the Senate to agree to impose a health care assessment on businesses that don’t offer their workers insurance. The House had pushed for the assessment, which the Senate initially resisted.

“We have agreed that those who are presently non-providing have a responsibility to contribute,” Travaglini said.

The plan will also include a requirement that everyone in Massachusetts obtain insurance, a so-called “individual mandate.”

The breakthrough followed a meeting earlier in the day in Travaglini’s office attended by DiMasi and members of the business community. Both leaders said the meeting was key to getting negotiations back on track.

“We’ve agreed in principle what we need to accomplish,” DiMasi said. “Many parts of the Senate and the House bills will be included.”

Gov. Mitt Romney, who flew to Utah on Friday, issued a written statement praising the announcement.

“I am pleased the impasse has been broken and that progress is being made,” Romney said. “I need to see more details before commenting in full, but I look forward to reviewing the bill as it moves along.”

Travaglini said he and DiMasi called Romney to inform him of the agreement before going public. He said they hoped to deliver a bill that Romney could support.

Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, who helped with the negotiations, praised the deal.

“Weve fought over the years to expand access to quality, affordable health care and today were one step closer to keeping our promise,” he said.

Health care advocates also praised the compromise, but said they needed to see more details.

“We’ve said pretty consistently we would be willing to accept a responsible form of an individual mandate if it was also paired with a clear employer responsibility,” said John McDonough of Health Care for All. “It seems from what we are hearing that both elements are there.”

Michael Widmer, president of the business-backed Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation, attended the closed door meeting with Travaglini and DiMasi.

He said most in the business community could live with an assessment on employers whose workers are not offered health insurance and who must rely on the so-called “free care pool,” which reimburses hospitals for people without insurance.

“That is an appropriate issue of fairness,” Widmer said.

Widmer said the agreement, if it ultimately becomes law, could put Massachusetts ahead of the nation.

“After months of stalemate this can put Massachusetts on a path of true reform in contrast to the rest of the country that is cutting back on health care,” he said.

The breakthrough comes just days after the Senate approved a stripped-down version of the bill. Travaglini said the bill was designed to protect $385 million in annual federal Medicaid dollars that the state could lose if it doesn’t have a new health care plan in place by July 1.

The stripped down Senate bill was designed to help insure about 300,000 of the state’s estimated more than half a million uninsured individuals, although some health care advocates said the 300,000 figure was optimistic at best.

Last year both the House and Senate approved more ambitious health care bills, but negotiations on a compromise on those bills stalled after DiMasi and Travaglini failed to reach common ground

Friday’s announcement means those negotiations can begin again.