It’s encouraging to see vigorous debate in the Democratic presidential primary over what our country’s healthcare system should look like. While in many ways the debate over healthcare at the national level remains focused on the Affordable Care Act, in Massachusetts we have now reached the 10th anniversary of the passage of the An Act Providing Access to Affordable, Quality, Accountable Health Care, Chapter 58 of the Acts of 2006, marking an important milestone that should push us to reflect on the state of healthcare in Massachusetts today.
It’s important to note that it was grassroots pressure that led to the passage of Chapter 58, including from labor unions, the Greater Boston Interfaith Organization, but also a signature drive by the Affordable Care Today (ACT!!) Coalition. And though it’s often forgotten, a 2004-2006 grassroots campaign to establish health care as a right in the Massachusetts constitution played a crucial role, though the constitutional amendment was sent to study (to “die,” in legislative lingo) on July 12, 2006.
While Chapter 58 did not establish universal health care as a right, by 2010 it had successfully decreased the number of uninsured Massachusetts residents from 6 % to 2%, provided free health care insurance (MassHealth) for residents earning less than 150% of the federal poverty level, restored MassHealth benefits such as dental care and eyeglasses, and established the Health Connector, among other things.
As the lead Senate sponsor of S.579 An Act Establishing Medicare for All, creating single-payer health care in Massachusetts, I’d be the first to acknowledge that there are tremendous challenges to making health care a right here. At the same time, as a legislator I see that my staff and I spend almost a quarter of our constituent services work helping people apply for MassHealth, appeal denials of health care procedures by health insurance companies, and getting the Health Connector and other state agencies that provide some form of health care to respond to constituent requests. The inefficiency and waste, and families having gaps in their health insurance coverage, are disgusting.
Furthermore, this session, as the Senate chair of the Joint Committee on Financial Services, I’ve sat in public hearings to listen to hundreds of Massachusetts families plead with the committee to pass health insurance mandates, from mental health parity to craniofacial disorders to Lyme disease to cognitive therapy for brain injuries, because health insurance companies refuse to cover these medical problems. And just last week, the committee heard from non-profit executives, including the CEO of Pine Street Inn, talk about how a growing percentage of the limited state taxpayer dollars they receive just go right to health insurance premiums that often increase 10-20% each year. Outrageous!
Finally, as the Legislature is poised to pass for the second straight legislative session an opioid abuse bill, it’s very clear that our disjointed health care system does a major disservice to people who are struggling with addiction, mental illness, and depression. While debating the Senate’s opioid abuse bill last year, one of my colleagues conceded to me, “There’s no doubt that we’ll get to single-payer,” but too many legislators are unwilling to fight for such reform.
This session, Mass-Care has launched statewide listening sessions, including patients, doctors and nurses, medical students, and small business owners, to highlight how many gaps there are in our healthcare system, the healthcare horror stories that are increasingly common, and how expensive health insurance is for the average family. While single-payer healthcare advocates and legislators wait for the Joint Committee on Health Care Finance to hold a hearing on the bill, it is clear that more organizing and conversations around the concept of universal health care, its benefits, values, and cost savings, are necessary in every community in Massachusetts. If you believe in single-payer healthcare, like I do, I hope that you will be part of these conversations.