Baker hits some turbulence

Suddenly, Gov. Charlie Baker doesn’t seem so invulnerable.

He may still be the most popular governor in the country, but over the last few weeks Baker has hit some serious turbulence. An agency he controls botched the rollout of a new approach to health insurance for 430,000 state and municipal workers. Then his administration awarded the largest clean energy procurement in state history to a controversial project that was knocked out of contention on Thursday by New Hampshire regulators.

Steve Wynn’s plummeting fortunes are hardly Baker’s doing, but the fallout from the Las Vegas casino mogul’s alleged sexual misconduct could have profound repercussions for the Wynn casino going up in Everett. It’s an awkward situation for a governor who met privately with Wynn in Las Vegas in October and who in November was praised by Wynn as a “grounded, sensitive, intelligent man.”

The clean energy procurement, an expensive linchpin in the state’s bid to diversify and decarbonize its energy sources, is a puzzling self-inflicted wound. The Baker administration chose Northern Pass, perhaps the most controversial proposal of the 46 that came in, and insisted the project would win a permit it needed to build a transmission line from the Canadian border to southern New Hampshire. But on Thursday a regulatory agency in the Granite State summarily shot the project down saying it would have a negative impact on tourism, property values, and land use.

The retreat on the health insurance proposal was troubling on several fronts. The Group Insurance Commission is the largest purchaser of health care in the state, and a great place to set the tone for the state’s efforts to rein in the cost of health care. The agency’s staff proposed streamlining the number of carriers without sacrificing access to doctors and other health care providers, a move that was expected to save $21 million.

The plan was approved by the Group Insurance Commission board on January 18, but the lack of advance notice and public vetting caused widespread panic among workers that they would lose access to their doctors and health care providers. At that point, “trust me” was not an option for the commission, so on Thursday the agency reversed course and settled for the status quo. (Or, as commission members said, they opted for a triple rather than a homerun.)

It was telling moment for Baker and his administration. Would the governor fight for the original plan, or would he back down in the face of strong union opposition?

Here’s what he told a caller (10:40) to radio station WAAF. “I actually think the intent of this was noble, which was to find a way to save money. So they came up with a proposal which would reduce the number of health plans offered by the Group Insurance Commission to state employees and retirees from six to three, as Michelle [a caller into the show] said, and they did it in a way so they made sure that nobody was going to lose their doctor, everybody would still have access to the same networks, the benefits would still be the same, but the cost to employees or retirees would not go up by as much as it would if they just left that the way it was. That all by itself, I think, is all sort of the right way to think about this, but she’s absolutely right about the way the rollout worked.”

Michael Heffernan, Baker’s secretary of administration and finance, sits on the GIC board. On Thursday he seconded the motion to reconsider the earlier vote that green-lighted the new approach and then voted to return to the status quo. He praised Roberta Herman, the executive director of the Group Insurance Commission, saying “we’re lucky to have her.” But he said he wouldn’t be voting to back her policy because it was first necessary to restore the peace of mind of the state and municipal workers who purchase health insurance through the GIC.

I tried to talk with Heffernan after the vote. Facing each other across a desk, he held up a finger suggesting he needed a minute before he could talk. Then he ducked into a back room and then out a side door. Before I could catch up with him, he had stepped into an elevator whose door was closing. Sometimes actions speak louder than words.

BRUCE MOHL


BEACON HILL

The Group Insurance Commission abandoned an ambitious plan to reduce the number of insurance carriers offering health plans to some 430,000 state and municipal workers across the state. The consensus seemed to be that the plan had merit and would save $21 million, but it had to be scrapped because its rollout was botched, causing panic and eroding the trust of customers in the commission. (CommonWealth)

A Herald editorial suggests Beacon Hill lawmakers are kidding themselves if they think they’ll bring health care costs down without taking up things like Gov. Charlie Baker’s proposed MassHealth reforms, which were conspicuously absent from the House agenda-setting speech given this week by Speaker Robert DeLeo.

The House signed off on raises for child welfare lawyers to lure more of them to western Massachusetts. (State House News)

MUNICIPAL MATTERS

Fall River Mayor Jasiel Correia, who admitted last September he is the focus of a federal probe, has set up a legal defense fund, according to the Office of Campaign and Political Finance. (State House News)

Framingham city councilors are upset that Mayor Yvonne Spicer created and filled two senior-level positions without seeking the council’s approval. (MetroWest Daily News)

Knitted hats left on Boston Common provide a gesture of warmth for the homeless. (CommonWealth)

WASHINGTON/NATIONAL/INTERNATIONAL

Hullabaloo over releasing the classified memo detailing alleged surveillance abuses by the FBI overshadowed other topics at Republicans’ annual policy retreat in West Virginia. (Boston Globe)

The Arizona House of Representatives voted to expel Rep. Don Shooter over sexual harassment accusations. (Associated Press)

ELECTIONS

Identity politics are emerging as the major divide in the Democratic primary race between US Rep. Michael Capuano and challenger Ayanna Pressley. (Boston Herald, Boston Globe)

It looks like state reps. Nick Collins of South Boston and Evandro Carvalho of Dorchester will be in the Democratic primary special election for the state Senate seat vacated last week by Linda Forry. (Boston Globe)

BUSINESS/ECONOMY

The nation’s economy added 200,000 jobs in January, the 88th consecutive month of job growth, which is the longest streak on record, and the unemployment rate stayed steady at 4.1 percent but wages continue to stagnate. (New York Times)

A Globe editorial says it’s time to revisit a 1996 federal communications act that provides cover for sites like Facebook to allow advertisers to deny equal access to job listings by microtargeting listings to specific demographic groups.

Hobby Lobby, the controversial retail chain that invoked religious freedom in a challenge to the birth control coverage mandate in Obamacare, is planning to open a store in Braintree. (Patriot Ledger)

EDUCATION

Scot Lehigh says Jeff Riley was the right pick for the state education commissioner’s post. (Boston Globe)

The state’s school building assistance authority is sending Lowell officials back to the drawing board to remove plans for a swimming pool from the city’s plan for a new high school, a move that will delay the project until at least August 2019. (Boston Herald)

The number of foreign students in the US dropped for the first time in five years, with some speculating it’s the result of Donald Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric in the 2016 campaign. (Boston Globe)

Andover High hockey coach Christopher Kuchar is on administrative leave while the state Department of Children and Families investigates allegations that he withheld food and water from players after losses. It turns out the superintendent of the Andover school system, Sheldon Berman, wrote a letter to school officials two years ago complaining about his son’s treatment on the team. (Eagle-Tribune) Ted Teicher, a school committee member who feels Kuchar is being railroaded, said he wants Berman investigated. (Eagle-Tribune)

The Disability Law Center of Boston issued a report saying the Crowell Kindergarten Center in Haverhill mistreated students, including putting them in restraints. (Eagle-Tribune)

The Worcester School Department, angry at the lack of state funding, threatens to take the state to court. (Telegram & Gazette)

TRANSPORTATION

The head of the Worcester Regional Transit Authority, under fire for its service, said the agency is doing the best it can with the resources it has. (Telegram & Gazette)

With the Wollaston Red Line stop already closed for the next 19 months for upgrades, the MBTA is promising Quincy residents they will have a plan to handle the loss of nearly 500 parking spots at the North Quincy station when construction of a major development begins there in May. (Patriot Ledger)

Middleboro selectmen gave reluctant approval to a state plan for a temporary fix to the congestion caused by the rotary at Routes 44 and 18 but insist a permanent solution such as a proposed “flyover” needs to move forward quickly. (The Enterprise)

ENERGY/ENVIRONMENT

New Hampshire regulators gave a thumbs down to Northern Pass, delivering a stunning blow to Massachusetts’ massive clean energy procurement. (CommonWealth) The seven members of the New Hampshire Site Evaluation Committee said the project, a joint effort of Eversource Energy and Hydro-Quebec, had failed to demonstrate that the transmission line through New Hampshire would not “unduly interfere with the orderly development of the region.” (Union Leader)

coyote hunt on Cape Cod sponsored by a local outfitting company has spawned a heated debate over the ethics of the contest, with many noting it is not an effective population control for the species. (Cape Cod Times)

The Buzzards Bay Coalition has filed suit against the town of Marion, saying the municipality’s unlined “sewage lagoons” are leaking up to 50,000 gallons a day of untreated sewage into the bay. (Standard-Times)

Nomans Land Island in Chilmark will become a bunny sanctuary as federal wildlife officials plan to release cottontail rabbits on the 600-acre island in an attempt to boost the at-risk species population in New England. (Cape Cod Times)

CASINOS

There seems to be a growing consensus among those who follow the gambling industry that Steve Wynn, facing allegations of sexual misconduct, will need to leave his post as CEO of Wynn Resorts if the company is to retain its license to open its Everett casino now under construction. (Boston Globe) US Rep. Michael Capuano says there should be a backup plan to keep the project going if the state pulls Wynn’s license. (Boston Herald) CommonWealth’s Bruce Mohl and Shirley Leung and Nestor Ramos of the Globe give their takes on whether the project survives, with the two Globe columnists predicting Wynn will be ousted but the casino remains while Mohl says the license could be revoked. (Greater Boston)

CRIMINAL JUSTICE/COURTS

Two East Bridgewater women were arrested and charged with permanently disfiguring a 5-year-old girl during a Voodoo ritual and threatening her 8-year-old brother with a knife. Police said the women performed the ritual, which left a 3rd-degree burn on the girl’s face, at the request of the mother, who has since been committed to Pembroke Hospital for psychiatric evaluation. (The Enterprise)

MEDIA

The New York Times will begin using “augmented reality” — an app that allows viewers to place three-dimensional images on their phone and in their surroundings — in the latest attempt by legacy media to use changing technology to capture the new generation of news consumers.

  • Mhmjjj2012

    The GIC reversed its vote because Attorney General Maura Healey most likely will be finding violations of the Open Meeting Law. It’s all about containing the damage.

  • Mhmjjj2012

    Shouldn’t the GIC’s procurement process be investigated by the Inspector General’s office? How does it make any sense for Partners to set lower provider rates for its subsidiary, Neighborhood Health Plan, while at the same time having the same ability to set higher rates for Neighborhood Health Plan’s competitors? Shouldn’t a state bidding process be a level playing field for all bidders to compete?

  • Mhmjjj2012

    The Telegram & Gazette’s article, “Again facing deficit, Worcester school board threatens to take state to court over funding formula,” brought up some of the areas the state is not meeting its financial obligations to local public school districts.