Gov. Charlie Baker said on Wednesday that health care costs overall in Massachusetts are dropping, not because fears of COVID-19 are prompting people to avoid hospitals but because the incidence of such routine health issues as ear infections, sore throats, and strep are way down from previous years.
The governor said the wearing of masks and social distancing is having an impact beyond COVID. “There’s a lot of stuff that traditionally ends up in the ER, or in the hospital, or in the doctor’s office that isn’t ending up there,” Baker said. “It’s because people aren’t moving around the same way, they’re treating each other different, and germs don’t have the ability to travel the way they have in years past.”
The comments suggested there has been a downturn in people seeking medical care going beyond a dramatic falloff that occurred in March and April, when many people stayed away from hospitals because of fear about being infected with COVID-19. At the time, many hospitals said patients were endangering their lives by failing to seek treatment.
Baker raised the issue to help explain how difficult it is for Beacon Hill officials to craft a budget this year. “Health care expenses, which the Commonwealth has a ton of, are coming in way below projections,” he said.
And health care costs are just one of many variables in the budget equation, from whether the federal government will pass another stimulus bill to whether state revenues will continue to surpass expectations and remain stable.
“When you’re working through an unprecedented time that no one has been through before, predictions and projections are just predictions and projections,” Baker said. Still, he expects his administration and the Legislature will reach some sort of budget consensus in October.
“We’ll know a lot more in 30 days than we know now and then we’ll have to put a marker down and say this is what the rest of the year is going to look like,” he said.
At a State House press conference, Baker also shook his head in frustration at the state of Maine’s insistence that Massachusetts residents quarantine for 14 days after entering the state or produce proof of being free of COVID-19. Maine doesn’t require residents of most other states in the northeast to take similar steps.
Baker said Massachusetts has the second-lowest positive test rate (positive cases divided by total tests) in the country, at 0.9 percent (which was later in the day revised to 0.8 percent), and is one of the top seven states in the nation in terms of daily cases per capita.
“I think that would make us a perfectly appropriate candidate to get off the no-fly zone in Maine, but, for whatever reason, it’s not going to happen,” Baker said.
Baker also backed Northeastern University on its decision to suspend 11 students for a semester for violating the school’s COVID rules and the decision to not refund $36,500 in tuition money.
“In this particular case, the rules were the rules, they were established up front, everybody attested to them, and they broke them,” Baker said.
Baker said he feels terrible for the kids and their families, but he said students have to realize that college is just not going to be the way it was before the coronavirus. “I think this sends a pretty powerful message about that despite the fact it’s obviously a really terrible blow for the families involved,” he said.
Baker was unusually dismissive of an investigative report by GBH alleging that the administration is inflating its numbers for awarding contracts to minority companies by allowing contractors to meet state-set goals “by paying for goods or services that may have nothing to do with a government contract. And many of the businesses getting paid are outside Massachusetts, are not certified as being minority-owned, or appear to barely exist at all.”
In response to a question about the report from a GBH reporter, Baker said: “I disagree with virtually everything in the GBH report and you guys should spend some time talking with us about it.”
GBH issued a statement saying it stands by the story and had reached out to Baker’s office and the state’s Supplier and Diversity Office on August 10 with a summary of the story and a request for an interview. That request, according to GBH, was declined. The news organization said it looked forward to hearing more from Baker on what specifically he disagrees with in the report.
During COVID, the Baker administration has attempted to funnel nearly all information to the public through the governor himself. Aides to the governor or representatives of various agencies typically do not comment for the record or conduct interviews. They may supply bits and pieces of information to reporters, but interviews are almost never done so it’s often difficult to gain insights into government policies without going to the governor’s press conferences, where questioning is limited.
On politics, Baker said he wasn’t prepared to endorse anyone in the race to succeed Joe Kennedy III in Congress. The Democrat in the race is Jake Auchincloss, who worked on Baker’s campaign 2014 and now describes himself as a “pragmatic progressive.” The Republican candidate is Julie Hall of Attleboro, a former city councilor and Air Force colonel, who has warned Auchincloss backs an “extreme socialist agenda.”
Baker said he was not prepared to make an endorsement, saying: “I would call them both friends.”