GOV. CHARLIE BAKER has publicly criticized Republican efforts in Washington, DC, to roll back health coverage provided by the Affordable Care Act. He rightly argues that such changes will have tremendously negative effects on the health care of hundreds of thousands of people in Massachusetts, our economy, and our budget. We commend him for these words. Unfortunately, his recent actions in Massachusetts are at odds with these statements.
During recent state budget negotiations, Baker sent a last-minute reform plan to the Legislature that included dramatic changes to MassHealth, the state’s Medicaid program. If the governor’s proposal had been adopted, Massachusetts would have become the first state in the country to roll back Medicaid expansion authorized by the Affordable Care Act.
The proposal significantly alters long-standing policies that have made MassHealth an important support for low-income families working their way out of poverty. For the past decade, we have had bipartisan support for universal health coverage, but Baker’s changes mean a retreat from our position as a health care leader. In recent days, Baker has again proposed these cuts in his vetoes to the state budget, and asked the Legislature to act soon. In other words, the governor is proposing to do here exactly what he is publicly opposing in Washington.
Our commitment to Medicaid expansion has increased access to health care for hundreds of thousands in Massachusetts. Moreover, it has helped all of us, by investing in our local hospitals and health centers, and by ensuring our premium contributions do not pay for the uninsured. In addition, the state receives significant federal revenue to pay for MassHealth.
A number of us in the House of Representatives joined together in objecting to Baker’s proposed cuts, and exposed the significant impacts that might have otherwise flown under the radar. We are thankful that these harmful proposals were rejected and not included in the state budget enacted by the House and Senate. Thanks to the Democratic leadership of the Legislature, Massachusetts continues its history as a leader in health coverage and support for families in the Commonwealth. While budget constraints call for a trimming of costs in a challenging fiscal year, it is the Legislature’s job to ensure programs that positively impact Massachusetts’s families are the last items on the chopping block. There is no truer example than access to health care.
Particularly given the uncertainty about the future of health care coverage at the federal level, these changes are premature. We may not be able to control what is going on in Washington, but we have an opportunity and an obligation to our constituents to stand up and support health care at home.
The governor’s proposal lowers the MassHealth income standard from 133 percent of the federal poverty line to 100 percent. These changes would affect more than 100,000 working parents. A family of three with one working parent earning between $21,000 and $27,000 would no longer qualify for MassHealth, and would be transitioned to less comprehensive coverage that they cannot afford.
In addition, the governor’s reform package introduces a requirement for all low-income adults to accept their employer’s insurance, and for the first time disqualifies families who have access to insurance through work from MassHealth. The proposal adds unsustainable new costs to already cost-burdened families. While we support leveraging employer coverage, it must be affordable for the family to be able to stay insured and go to the doctor.
These are exactly the types of cuts that the governor is publicly opposing in Washington.
Here in Massachusetts, Baker argues that these cuts are necessary to curb budget costs – and we support ways to lower costs and create efficiencies. But we believe that the proposed changes undermine our state’s commitment to near-universal health coverage, for which we are a leader throughout the nation. Turning back on these programs now could set a terrible precedent for other states looking for ways to protect health coverage for vulnerable residents and put us on the road to undo the reforms of the last 10 years. Instead, we should be focusing on recent bipartisan reforms to improve our health system without cutting benefits.
Balancing the budget is an extremely difficult task in this environment, but should not be done on the backs of the working poor.
Health care reform that provided near-universal comprehensive health care coverage is one of the crowning achievements in Massachusetts. We have shown other states the way on expanding and maintaining health coverage and access to care. With continued talk in Washington about repealing health care access, now is not the time for Massachusetts to turn our back on our achievements or on the working families of the Commonwealth.
Christine P. Barber is a state representative from Somerville, Ruth B. Balser is a representative from Newton, and Jay D. Livingstone is a representative from Boston. All three are Democrats.