Citing Tax Question, Mass. Gov. Romney Hesitates Over Health Plan

Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney has held off on saying whether he’ll support a sweeping health care reform bill crafted by legislative leaders until he can determine if it would require a tax increase to pay for it.

Romney said he supports a provision in the bill requiring everyone in the state to obtain health insurance, much the way the state requires all car owners to have auto insurance. Romney said the so-called “individual mandate” is key to bringing health care costs down for everyone.

But Romney said he needs more information about another portion of the bill that would require businesses that don’t offer insurance to their workers to pay a so-called health care assessment. Romney is opposed to new taxes, but has signed off on an array of fee increases.

“An assessment can be a tax or it can could be something that’s different from that. It depends on how it’s applied,” said Romney.

Romney said he supports programs allowing workers to purchase health insurance on a pre-tax basis. Employers can set up the programs for their workers without being required to contribute any money to their health plans.

“It’s one thing to ask a business to establish a plan, it’s another thing to ask them to pay part of the premiums of their employees,” Romney said. “In one case it will feel like a tax, in another case it’s more of an assessment to establish a program.”

The question of whether to charge businesses a health care assessment proved a major sticking point that nearly derailed the bill in the Legislature.

Members of the House had pushed for an assessment, but the Senate initially resisted. Early last week, the Senate approved a stripped-down version of the bill that required everyone to have insurance, but didn’t include the assessment.

During a closed-door meeting Friday between House Speaker Salvatore DiMasi, Senate President Robert Travaglini and members of the business community, Travaglini agreed to the assessment.

Further details continue to be worked out by a six-member House and Senate committee. But the tentative deal broke a legislative logjam that had threatened the bill, designed to dramatically expand health care in the state and preserve $385 million in annual federal Medicaid funds.

The committee met Monday to continue working out a final compromise bill based on the agreement announced Friday, according to Kimberly Haberlin, a spokeswoman for DiMasi,

“I think we’re on track to have something out in the next couple of weeks,” she said.

Romney, who is weighing a run for the Republican presidential nomination in 2008, has said passing a landmark health care bill in Massachusetts is one of his top priorities.