Groups Resist Baker Push On MassHealth

Updated at 4:30 p.m.

BOSTON — Groups representing people dependent on state health insurance programs are resisting Gov. Charlie Baker's push for authority to make major changes in the MassHealth program.

Advocacy groups on Monday were delivering letters to Baker administration officials and legislative leaders expressing opposition to powers sought by Baker in his emergency legislation (H 49) to balance the state budget. Baker has requested authority to restructure MassHealth benefits "to the extent permitted by federal law."

Activists say a version of Baker's bill drafted by the House Ways and Means Committee does not include the powers sought by Baker, who has described reining in MassHealth costs as "critical" to budget-balancing as well investing in other state programs and services. A Senate spokesman said Monday that the upper chamber's version is also unlikely to include the powers.

In fiscal year 2015, the budget for MassHealth, the state-federal Medicaid insurance program, hit $13.5 billion, up from a fiscal 2014 budget of $11.9 billion.

"As Governor, we know you have very difficult decisions to make regarding the budget and the well-being of Massachusetts. But we, as advocates for low-income beneficiaries, are obliged to raise our concerns to lawmakers over plans that we think will harm the people we serve," the advocacy groups wrote in their letter.

Baker said on Monday he would not comment on the House and Senate versions of his bill until he had a chance to see them.

"But I am pleased that the House and Senate both seemed pretty interested in moving pretty quickly on our proposals because that would give the lieutenant governor and I, and the rest of the administration, an opportunity to move pretty quickly on what we need to do to file our budget, which is now due in three weeks," Baker said.

If the House takes up a budget fix bill this week, the Senate is likely to follow later in the week, a Senate spokesman said.

A Baker administration spokesman said they plan to continue an "open and transparent dialogue" with lawmakers and advocates on reforms they call necessary for the long-term sustainability of MassHealth.

"The administration's deficit reduction solution was carefully and responsibly crafted to include no additional taxes or reductions in aid for local aid, homelessness and human services," spokesman Billy Pitman said in a statement.

Baker is seeking to close a $768 million gap in the $36.5 billion fiscal 2015 budget, with less than five months left in fiscal year 2015. Legislative approval is needed for $282 million of the proposal, according to his budget office.

Baker's health and human services chief Marylou Sudders briefed advocates, including many who signed the letter, on the proposal last week.

If lawmakers do not include the expanded powers in their version of Baker's budget-cutting proposal that they send to the governor's desk, the administration, which is also working on its fiscal 2016 budget proposal, will likely file separate legislation.

The activists said the governor has a right and obligation to attempt to reduce the budget deficit.

"In a long list of options, you're always going to have some that shouldn't be there," said Al Norman, executive director of Mass. Home Care, one of the signers of the letter. "This is one we'd like to see them drop."

"We have to act to try to protect those populations," he added.

Other signatories to the letter include officials from the Boston Center for Independent Living, the Massachusetts Association of Older Americans, the Mass Senior Action Council, Health Law Advocates, the Disability Law Center, SEIU 1199 United Healthcare Workers East, the Disability Policy Consortium, and the Arc of Greater Plymouth, among others.

"There need to be checks and balances to ensure that the mission of MassHealth to care for people in the least-restrictive setting is not transformed - that homelessness and institutionalization are not increased, as may result from planned cuts to [personal care attendant] and [adult foster care] services," the letter said.

At a Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce breakfast last week, Baker noted the 13 percent increase in MassHealth spending in the last fiscal year, saying the increase is felt across state government.

"It's critical not just for the MassHealth program but for the rest of health and human services and the rest of state government, and local government, by the way, that we bring this program into some degree of financial sustainability and integrity, because if we don't solve that problem, we're going to create all kinds of issues for ourselves everywhere else in the state budget," Baker said.



More from WBUR

Listen Live