In Massachusetts Senate Race, Health Care Still Hot Topic

July 16, 2012

In Massachusetts’ contentious U.S. Senate race, few issues divide the two candidates more sharply than the health care law signed by President Barack Obama and upheld by the Supreme Court.

Republican Scott Brown ran for the Senate in 2010 vowing to be the crucial 41st vote needed to block the initiative, which ultimately passed despite his opposition. He remains critical of the law.

His Democratic challenger, Harvard Law School professor Elizabeth Warren, has praised the Affordable Care Act, which was modeled after a 2006 Massachusetts law signed by then-Gov. Mitt Romney, a Republican. Warren said the federal law has helped expand access to health care in Massachusetts and the nation.

Last month’s Supreme Court ruling has only intensified the debate.

The latest salvo came from Brown in response to reports that U.S. employers added only 80,000 jobs in June, a third straight month of weak hiring. The unemployment rate was unchanged at 8.2 percent.

Brown called the numbers “grim” and faulted in part what he said were the “job-killing taxes on individuals, families and small businesses” that Warren supports, including those in the health care law.

“These are bad ideas under normal circumstances, but with our economy teetering on the brink, Professor Warren’s economic prescription would push us over the precipice,” Brown said in a statement.

Warren has been equally emphatic in her support of the law and her criticism of Brown.

“This decision ensures that millions of children, seniors, and families will continue to benefit from health care reform,” Warren said in a statement after the ruling was announced.

Warren has highlighted some of the law’s more popular elements — including banning insurance companies from denying coverage to those with pre-existing medical conditions and allowing adult children to stay on their parents’ insurance until age 26.

“Scott Brown doesn’t spend a lot of time talking about the issues. But he is very clear on one position: Scott Brown wants to repeal the Affordable Care Act,” Warren campaign manager Mindy Myers wrote in a letter to supporters.

One reason the debate is so testy is the role Massachusetts played in helping craft the federal law.

The 2006 state law served as a blueprint for Obama’s law — including one of its most debated elements, the “individual mandate” that requires nearly everyone be insured or pay a tax penalty.

In 2010, 44,000 Massachusetts tax filers were assessed the penalty, a drop from the 67,000 required to pay the penalty in 2007, the first year it was assessed. Since the law took effect, an additional 400,000 individuals have gained insurance, meaning about 98 percent of residents are now covered, according to state officials.

When he was pushing the bill in 2006, Romney favored the mandate, saying it would target “free riders” — those who can afford health coverage but instead rely on emergency rooms for free care, driving up insurance premiums for everyone else.

Romney ended up winning bipartisan support for the measure among Massachusetts lawmakers, including Brown, then a state senator.

Despite their support for the state law, Romney and Brown both say the federal law should be repealed. Brown has said that since Massachusetts passed its own health care overhaul, it doesn’t need a federal law.

Brown has been particularly critical of a 2.3 percent tax on the sale of medical devices included in the federal health care law, which he said would put an added burden on the more than 200 medical device manufacturers in Massachusetts.

More recently, Brown’s campaign has tried to paint Warren as a supporter of a single-payer health care system — a government-run health care system intended to provide universal coverage. Neither Massachusetts’ law nor the law signed by Obama creates such a system.

Brown’s campaign points to a book chapter Warren co-authored in 2008 that stops short of explicitly endorsing a single-payer system.

“We approach the health care debates from a single perspective: maintaining the financial stability of families confronting illness or injury,” Warren and co-author Deborah Thorne wrote. “The most obvious solution would be universal single-payer health care. This would allow people to get the care they need — without risking bankruptcy to pay for it.”

In an interview on NECN after the Supreme Court decision was announced, Warren answered “no” when asked if she supported a single-payer system.

“The point is, what we’ve got to do, is we’ve got to keep moving in the direction of getting more families covered and bringing down the costs of health care, and I think we’ve taken a big step in that direction,” Warren added.

A spokeswoman for Warren said the single-payer idea is just one of “many possible solutions to the health care crisis” that Warren has outlined over the years.

Warren has also said the country shouldn’t revisit the battles of two years ago, but should move forward and focus on job creation, echoing in part Obama’s comments following the court ruling.

Brown’s campaign manager Jim Barnett, however, said voters should reject what he said was Warren’s support for “a radical European-style, single-payer health care scheme.”

The Massachusetts contest is one of the most closely watched in the country, with Democrats and Republicans both viewing the outcome of the race as key to control of the Senate.

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