Baker’s Trojan horse?
Gov. Charlie Baker has made no secret of his disdain for the way the state’s health connector has been run, both on the campaign trail last year and since the day he took office.
With his background as CEO of Harvard Pilgrim, his view carries some weight. But some advocates see the current budget crisis as an opening for Baker to not only revamp the MassHealth program, but dismantle it and make it harder for people to get and afford comprehensive coverage as envisioned by the adaption of the first-in-the-nation universal health care law.
Baker’s first stab at reining in costs came when he unveiled his budget cuts to address the $768 million deficit with just five months remaining in the fiscal year. Few areas of the budget, save local aid, were spared, though the average cut was 1.9 percent and much of that will be realized through the administration’s hiring freeze, administrative reorganizations, reverting unspent funds back to the general coffers, and redirecting some new revenue sources. The plan outlines about $514 million in cuts and $254 million in revenues.
Out of the reductions, nearly a third will be coming from MassHealth. It is the language of the proposal that has advocates alarmed. In addition to launching an audit to determine eligibility of enrollees, something Baker says hasn’t been done in 15 months despite a federal mandate, the legislation seeks to broaden the executive branch’s power to make changes in eligibility and benefits as well as transfer the power to make cuts from the Legislature to the governor.
Bill Henning, executive director of the Boston Center for Independent Living, tells the Boston Globe that nothing should be sacrosanct in tight fiscal times but he says the cuts go beyond what other programs have to deal with. He adds that altering the statute will have long-range effects beyond budget-balancing.
“To get that authority, unilaterally and into the future, can really alter a system that was set up by advocates, legislators, former governors, and those who are served by the program over a long period of time,” he says.
Administration officials say advocates are overreacting and that the proposal is much more narrowly drawn. A Baker spokesman says the language is intended just for this fiscal year. But Senate President Stan Rosenberg tells the Globe he has similar concerns with the bill and his Ways and Means chairwoman has recommended that the language be dropped. The House is polling members as well and observers say the temperature there is just as cool, making the change unlikely to pass.
Last week, in a speech to the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce, Baker said MassHealth was growing at an unsustainable 13 percent rate. He laid out a general outline of what he sees as a viable program and what the state can and can’t handle. But Baker, who so far has had a giddy honeymoon with lawmakers more accustomed to being frozen out by the executive branch, will have to find a way to get legislative leaders to see things his way.
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