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The Massachusetts House suddenly appears poised this week to pass a multi-pronged children's health bill, which includes provisions addressing behavioral health, the pediatric health workforce and insurance coverage for young people aging out of foster care.
Speaker Robert DeLeo outlined the legislation Monday morning at a briefing with representatives involved in crafting it. The lawmakers said the House will prioritize children's well-being this two-year term, and that the bill aims to break down barriers families face in finding and accessing quality care for their kids.
Lawmakers have all received phone calls from "very, very frustrated" parents and guardians, "many of the times just crying because they have no idea how to get their children help," DeLeo said. In some cases where he's then tried to connect those families with help, DeLeo said he's ended up "just as frustrated as they were."
"Put yourself in their position, and that's what this legislation is all about," DeLeo said.
He was joined by representatives he said had "been at the forefront of fighting for our youngest and most vulnerable residents" — House Ways and Means Chairman Aaron Michlewitz, Health Care Financing Committee co-chair Rep. Jennifer Benson, Judiciary Committee co-chair Rep. Claire Cronin, State Administration and Regulatory Oversight Committee co-chair Rep. Danielle Gregoire, and Rep. Christine Barber.
Some provisions of the legislation come from standalone bills filed by those lawmakers, including Barber's bill aimed at increasing transparency about provider networks and Cronin's proposal to require a Health Policy Commission analysis of children under age 21 with medical complexities, their insurance and availability of care.
Cronin said she has an 8-year-old neighbor who was born with "some very significant and complex medical issues" and was later diagnosed with kidney cancer, further complicating the care she needed. The girl is now in remission, Cronin said, and her mom plans to ride the Pan-Mass Challenge in her honor.
"We hope by obtaining some of this data we will make the road a little easier for parents to navigate but at the same time we will make sure that the children are not receiving fragmented care," she said.
Barber's bill is similar to a bill the Senate Senate unanimously approved last week calling for regular updates of insurers' provider databases. Senators spoke about the ways inaccurate and out-of-date network information can create challenges for patients seeking care, particularly for behavioral health.
DeLeo said the provider directory language in the new House bill is "complementary to what the Senate had done," and Benson said her committee advanced those pieces of legislation early this term.
"They took that up independently," Benson said of the Senate. "But our intention was to roll this into a much larger framework."
Massachusetts Association of Health Plans President Lora Pellegrini said in a statement that her group is "pleased that the bill includes language representing an industry-wide compromise" on provider networks. She called the bill "an important step towards ensuring all children have access to the full spectrum of health care services."
The bill would require MassHealth to cover children who have aged out of foster care until they turn 26, a provision Gregoire said would create parity with young people who are able to remain on their parents' health insurance up to their 26th birthday.
She said the proposed change would affect a "small but very vulnerable population."
The bill, DeLeo said, will also create a pilot program establishing three regional "centers of excellence" in children's behavioral health, to serve as information clearinghouses, and will include measures aimed at gathering more information about school-based health centers, the foster care system and the children's health care workforce.
Michlewitz said his committee is still analyzing costs associated with the bill and that a supplemental spending bill may be needed in the future to fund the centers of excellence program.
Before sketching out additional details on Monday, DeLeo had initially announced plans for a children's health initiative — including a "Children's Wellness Workforce Task Force," care integration efforts and provider network transparency — in a March speech to the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce.
DeLeo said he wants a vote on the bill before lawmakers break for their recess in August and that it's an important enough topic to warrant a "full debate."
Only one House formal session, during which representatives can debate legislation, is currently scheduled for this week, on Wednesday.
Benson said DeLeo had carved out this session as a "child-focused" one, and DeLeo said the House planned to continue addressing children's health through other legislation this term.
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