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The Massachusetts Senate on Tuesday began debating a bill that sets an ambitious goal of reducing projected health care costs in the state by $150 billion over the next 15 years.
House leaders have also introduced a version of the bill, the most sweeping attempt at overhauling health care in the state since then-Gov. Mitt Romney signed a first-in-the-nation universal health care law in 2006.
The bill would limit future growth in health care costs to no higher than annual growth in the overall state economy. It would also create a new state agency that would monitor health care.
The Senate completed action on 114 amendments Tuesday and are expected to resume debate Thursday on the remaining 151 amendments.
Republican leader Bruce Tarr pushed to postpone debate until after the U.S. Supreme Court rules on a challenge to provisions of the 2010 national health care overhaul championed by President Barack Obama, but Tarr's bid was overwhelmingly rejected.
Tarr, R-Gloucester, argued that high court's decision could have an impact on elements of the proposed state law, and that by waiting for a ruling senators could "act in the context of the reality that will exist then, rather than the uncertainty that exists today."
But Sen. Richard Moore, D-Uxbridge, a proponent of the bill, said it would move the state in the right direction toward reining in health care costs.
The proposed legislation would require health care providers to disclose costs of services upon a patient's request and encourage local health care providers to promote prevention of common illnesses.
It also develops a process to track service price variation in which a commission that will determine if the cost differences are valid.
During their debate, the Democratic-controlled Senate discussed dozens of proposed amendments, most notably a government-run, single payer health care system. Some lawmakers expressed concerns over the cost of such a system, however, before the chamber voted down the amendment.
It is unclear when the Senate will vote on the bill. If it passes the chamber, it will head to the state's House of Representatives, which proposed its own health care cost bill last week.
Despite similarities, such as pegging annual growth in health care expenditures to overall growth in the state economy, the goals set by the two branches differ slightly. For example, the Senate proposal would limit growth to the state's Gross State Product (GSP), while the House sets a more aggressive goal of half a percent below GSP.
Gov. Deval Patrick said he tends to lean toward the more ambitious benchmark offered by the House.
"I think the industry can do better than GSP," he said.
The Democratic governor praised lawmakers Tuesday for tackling the high cost of medical care in Massachusetts while expressing reservations about some aspects of cost containment legislation, including a proposal to create a new state agency responsible for monitoring health care expenditures.
He unveiled his own health care cost containment bill in February 2011.
Patrick said both bills have a "lot to like," but he said he was not convinced of the need for a semi-independent authority to oversee the health care market, as proposed by both chambers of the Legislature. The governor called the creation of such agencies that have less public accountability "a bad Massachusetts habit."
Patrick said he believed a new law could be effectively administered within the current framework of state government.
During a question-and-answer period with business leaders following the speech, Patrick also expressed reservations about a proposal in the House version of the bill that would charge an assessment to hospitals or other providers that charge rates more than 20 percent above the median rate in Massachusetts for similar services.
The idea, which has drawn comparisons to the so-called luxury tax assessed on high-spending Major League baseball teams, is aimed at smoothing over market disparities that Attorney General Martha Coakley and others have identified as one of the major drivers of soaring health care costs.
Patrick said he was not sure the assessment was necessary, adding that Coakley's office already had the tools to control unwarranted hospital rates.
"I am a capitalist," the governor said in his speech, assuring the gathering that included hospital and insurance company officials that he had no desire to punish the health care sector, the state's largest employer.
"But I am not a market fundamentalist," he added. "I don't believe the market always gets everything just right. And the health care industry is most certainly not a perfectly rational market."
This program aired on May 16, 2012. The audio for this program is not available.
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