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Patrick Signs Health Care Cost Containment Bill

Gov. Deval Patrick is surrounded by administration officials and lawmakers as he signs the health care cost control bill into law Monday at the State House. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

Gov. Deval Patrick is surrounded by administration officials and lawmakers as he signs the health care cost control bill into law Monday at the State House. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

BOSTON — A bill that will adjust virtually every piece of the state’s health care system is now law. Gov. Deval Patrick signed the legislation Monday morning in a packed State House hall.

“Massachusetts has been a model for access to health care,” Patrick reminded the crowd. Now, “we become the first to crack the code on costs.”

Hundreds of health care leaders joined Patrick Monday to endorse the law.

“It’s a very big deal,” said Ralph de la Torre, CEO at Steward Health Care, the state’s second-largest hospital network. “We’re starting to deal with the second part of health care reform. The first part was increasing access and expanding coverage to everybody. Now the second part is figuring out how to contain costs so that it doesn’t impact businesses and society in general. It’s a clear move in the right direction.”

Patrick, who made tackling health care costs a top priority, gave credit to the broad coalition that helped to pass the state’s access law and seems to be holding together to lower costs.

“I thank this coalition of leaders and advocates, of disparate and sometimes-competing interests, for coming together and sticking together for the greater good,” Patrick said. “That’s not only what it’s taken and will take to lower health care costs, that’s what it takes to make a real community. And it’s one of which I am proud to be a part. Congratulations one and all.”

The law aims to keep health care cost increases in line with the rest of the state’s economy.

Members of the coalition, including Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce President Paul Guzzi, say the most important piece of the law is a new statewide target. It aims to keep health care cost increases in line with the rest of the state’s economy.

“Setting the goal of state economic growth as the ceiling of health care costs is dramatically important,” Guzzi said. “It’s the beginning of the next part of the journey. We’re excited about it and committed to making it work.”

The law says health care costs must stop growing faster than other household and business expenses, as of next year. While many hospitals and physicians say that’s not realistic, Lora Pellegrini, president of the Massachusetts Association of Health Plans, says having the target in place is important.

“Folks know there’s a microscope on health care costs,” she said. “So if somebody misbehaves and they’re trying to look for high rates and they’re unjustified, I think there’s a very public conversation that’s going on about those things.”

It’s a conversation that must now get down to details. The Patrick administration will set up a new agency and appoint members of an independent board to keep the state on track to hold down costs.

Brian Rosman, with the patient advocacy group Health Care for All, has high expectations.

“This has the possibility of being totally transformative,” he said. “[By] making our health care system more responsive to patient need, paying for higher quality, making doctors and hospitals work on behalf of the patient rather than on behalf of who’s paying them, but only if the implementation goes the right way. The next step is actually much harder.”

Some health policy experts aren’t convinced the law has the possibility of lowering costs.

“Not only does it revert back to many of the failed top-down approaches that government has tried in the past for cost containment,” warned Josh Archambault with the Pioneer Institute, “but it also adds hundreds of millions of dollars in new surcharges, fees and penalties that ultimately get passed on to consumers in the form of higher health care costs and health insurance premiums.”

Still, the comments of these analysts, consumer groups, hospital executives, health plans, business leaders and Patrick stand in stark contrast to health care fights under way in many states and in the nation’s capital. And to some, the idea that Massachusetts is trying to curb the cost of a dominant industry makes this law particularly remarkable.

“Political leaders and health care leaders in this state understand that it’s in their interests, and the interests of patients, to take this issue on instead of saying, ‘Don’t touch it,’ ” said Len Fishman, CEO at Hebrew Senior Life, “which is what most other states do with their main economic driver.”

Fishman says he’s proud that Massachusetts is looking ahead and realizing that “health care will bring the country to its knees if we don’t do something about it. You can’t spend twice as much as the average Western nation, and then be on a trajectory to increase that significantly, and remain an international leader.”

Which is another reason this Massachusetts law, whether it succeeds or fails, has again put the state under a microscope.

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