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Legislature endorses health care bill

SenatorMichael Knapik (R-Westfield) announced that after five months of negotiations and conference committee meetings, the health care bill has been endorsed by Senate and House members and is now before the Governor for approval.

"This week, the Massachusetts legislature took a big step in changing the way our health care system operates," Knapik said. "This initiative will propel out state into the forefront of health care reform, compared to what other states are currently offering their citizens."

The bill requires all residents of the Commonwealth to purchase or maintain health insurance coverage by July 1, 2007 as long as affordable coverage is available. The Department of Revenue will determine whether insurance is affordable for certain residents. Confirmation of health insurance will be done through the state income tax forms filed in 2008, nd will then be verified through a database of insurance coverage. The Department of Revenue will enforce this provision with financial penalties.

"We are the first state in the nation to require all its citizens to have some form of health care. By requiring this measure, the state will become competitive and the amount of insurance companies who want to do business here will increase," Knapik said.

Massachusetts will establish the Commonwealth Care Health Insurance Program, which will enable low income families and adults to buy insurance with no deductible, and use a sliding-scale, based on income, to determine their premiums. No premiums will be necessary for people with incomes below 100 percent of the poverty level.

The Commonwealth Care Health Insurance Connector will also be established, which will allow private insurers to provide affordable policies to small businesses and individuals. Individuals will be able to buy insurance with pre-tax dollars and keep their policy even if their job happens to change. More than one employer will be able to contribute to an employee's health insurance premium. This Connector Authority will be chaired by the Secretary of Administration and Finance.

The bill creates a "Fair Share Contribution" where employers who do not provide insurance, and who have 11 or more employees will pay an estimated $295 fee for each employee. This fee will be pro-rated for companies with seasonal or part-time employees.

Family insurance plans will now be required to cover young adults two years past loss of dependency or until age 25, whichever comes first. High deductible plans will now have the ability to be linked to a Health Savings Account, and the non and small-group markets will be merged together.

"There are many strategies in this bill which successfully aim at improving coverage throughout the state. Requiring companies to have some sort of basic coverage and allowing the expansion of coverage to age 25, will greatly expand those covered in out state," Knapik said.

In addition, Medicaid is expanded through this legislation, allowing coverage of children up to 300 percent of the poverty level and providing $3 million for comprehensive community-based outreach programs, to contact people who are eligible for Medicaid but not yet enrolled. Vision and Dental will also be restored in MassHealth and enrollment caps will be lifted on MassHealth essential, CommonHealth and HIV programs. A two-year pilot program for smoking cessation will be created for MassHealth enrollees.

As of October 1, 2007, the uncompensated care pool will be eliminated, and will be replaced with the Safety Net Care Fund. This fund will be administered by a newly-created Health Safety Net Office, which will be located within the Office of Medicaid. The HSN Office will develop a new standard fee schedule for hospital reimbursements, and anticipated the transfer of funds to the Commonwealth Care Health Insurance Program as free care declines.

"In three years, we should have almost everyone in Massachusetts insured. If that happens, it will be a great accomplishment and this bill will become a national model for other states to follow," Knapik said.

The Health Care Bill is now on Governor Romney's desk, awaiting approval.