Health care chairs vow action on price variation

The co-chairs of the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Health Care Financing may be new to their posts, but both seem to grasp the urgency of tackling big issues facing the state’s health care sector and both sound optimistic about solutions to some thorny problems emerging in the current session on Beacon Hill.

That’s the takeaway from a conversation with Sen. Cindy Friedman and Rep. Jennifer Benson convened by Paul Hattis and John McDonough as part of their “Health or Consequences” interviews on The Codcast.

One of the biggest issues looming over the health care sector: the large price variation in what hospitals charge for similar services, a problem that vexed lawmakers last session, as they adjourned without reaching agreement on an approach to dealing with it.

“This is a very, very, very big issue, and it is not something that we’re going to be able to skirt if we really are going to address health care costs,” said Friedman. She said there’s a need to address issues “at both ends of that spectrum” — dealing both with the much higher costs charged by big teaching hospitals while also making sure community hospitals aren’t bringing inefficiency to the overall system by trying to add costly services already provided elsewhere.

“I think this is the most complicated issue that we have facing us,” said Benson, a Democrat from Lunenburg.

Too many patients “drive past” community hospitals near their home and head to Boston teaching hospitals when they don’t need to, she said. “By choosing to go to a Mass. General where it might cost twice as much as your community hospitals you’re not necessarily going to get better outcomes.”

Though they didn’t reveal much in the way of specifics of a potential plan to deal with the issue, the co-chairs both pronounced the odds favorable for legislation passing this session that addresses hospital price variation.

“I think good. I’m going to be positive,” said Benson.

“We can’t avoid it and say we’re covering the issues around health care,” said Friedman, agreeing with that assessment.

They both also sounded optimistic about the chances of dealing with the issue of “surprise billing” — when a patient getting care that is broadly covered by insurance gets hit with a charge for a specific service as part of it, say, the role of an anesthesiologist in surgery, because that provider is outside their covered network.

Benson claimed first-hand knowledge of the problem, “so I understand this very acutely,” she said.

Benson explained that when she went to a dermatologist for skin cancer screening she ended up with a “several hundred dollar bill” because a biopsy was sent to a lab that wasn’t in her covered network.

“We both are pretty clear that he patient has to be removed from this process,” Friedman said of the need to ensure that consumers shouldn’t have to track every element of their recommended care in relation to their coverage plan.

On the issue of pharmaceutical drug costs, it’s less clear where the Legislature will land. Both lawmakers sounded optimistic about dealing with high costs to the state’s Medicaid program. But the conversation was recorded before the House finalized its budget plan, which weakened a provision Gov. Charlie Baker had in his budget proposal to allow the state to apply pressure on drug companies to lower costs for high-cost treatments. The Senate releases its budget plan on Tuesday.

On the national health care topic of the day — Medicare for all — both lawmakers said they are sympathetic to the goal of a nationwide system, but would be very wary of any effort to go it alone and enact a state-based single-payer system in Massachusetts. Friedman went further, adding that even at the national level she’s not sure the public is really on board.

“And if the public isn’t ready, it cannot work, because it will require such a shift in how we provide medical care and what our health care system looks like,” she said. “If people aren’t ready for that or desperate for something brand new, it is going to be very hard to implement.”

MICHAEL JONAS


BEACON HILL

After a windfall in April, state tax collections are running nearly $1 billion above expectations. (State House News) Massachusetts is not alone. Thanks to federal tax cuts and a strong economy, many states are seeing a sharp uptick in revenue. (Governing)

Joshua McCabe of Endicott College says family friendly tax reform is needed in Massachusetts because the state doesn’t fully recognize the cost of raising children. (CommonWealth)

We shouldn’t let the business lobby hold back our progressive vision on housing, health care, revenue, and greenhouse gas emissions, says Jonathan Cohn of Progressive Massachusetts. (CommonWealth)

MUNICIPAL MATTERS

A federal judge temporarily blocked parts of Boston’s new regulations over short-term rentals such as Airbnb from going into effect, but allowed to stand a provision that would impose a fine of $300 per day for any time a service rents a unit not eligible for short-term stays. (Boston Globe)

Four lawsuits have been filed in state or federal court over the last year by women employees of the Boston Police Department alleging sex or race discrimination in the department. (Boston Globe)

The National Weather Service in Boston recorded 21 days of measurable rain in April, a record, an unwelcome sign for local farmers who say it has caused delays in planting. (Brockton Enterprise)

The owner of the Midtown Mall, an eyesore in downtown Worcester, sells the building to a real estate investor with other downtown properties. (Telegram & Gazette)

Lynn forecloses on a building where the owner was collecting rent from a restaurant but not paying city taxes. The restaurant is being allowed to continue to operate as long as its sends its rent checks to to the city. (Daily Item)

WASHINGTON/NATIONAL/INTERNATIONAL

A tentative ceasefire was put in place today after days of shelling between Gaza and Israel. The exchange of fire claimed the lives of 22 people in Gaza, about half civilian, and four Israeli civilians, the worst conflict there since 2014. (New York Times)

Red Sox manager Alex Cora said he won’t attend the team’s visit to the White House on Thursday to recognize the 2018 World Series champs, citing what he called the Trump administration’s inadequate response to Hurricane Maria. (Boston Herald)

ELECTIONS

Rep. Seth Moulton and the fellow Democrat he ousted five years ago, John Tierney, both made speaking appearances yesterday before North Shore groups, previewing a potential rematch as Tierney considers trying to win his seat back. (Boston Globe)

The Massachusetts Republican Party changed its rules to a winner-take-all form of presidential primary, which some see as a way of protecting President Trump against Bill Weld’s challenge. (Politico)

Jennifer Nassour, the CEO of ReflectUs, an organization trying to increase the number of women in elected office,  announced her candidacy for the District 8 Boston City Council seat. She serves on the board of MassINC, the publisher of CommonWealth, and previously served as chair of the Massachusetts Republican Party. The District 8 race is likely to have a crowded field.

BUSINESS/ECONOMY

Because of a regulatory quandary, Massachusetts farmers have been left out of the market for producing CBD and hemp. (WGBH)

The state’s Food System Caucus took a Westport food tour Friday, organized by State Rep. Paul Schmid, so legislators could see several forms of food production – raising livestock, aquaculture, planting grapes, hops and vegetables. (Herald News)

EDUCATION

A Globe editorial says the Boston public schools need bold leadership from incoming superintendent Brenda Cassellius who faces tough decisions with more than half of the district’s students attending schools rated in the bottom 25 percent of all schools statewide. Mayor Marty Walsh dismissed concerns about a lawsuit filed against the the state of Minnesota, where she was education commissioner, over poor outcomes for low-income and minority students. (Boston Herald)

Filmmaker Ken Burns is rallying fellow Hampshire College alumni to dig in and donate to save the struggling school. (Washington Post)

More than 1,500 people attended a pro-Palestinian event at UMass Amherst after three Jewish students tried unsuccessfully to block it in court. (Daily Hampshire Gazette)

HEALTH/HEALTH CARE

John McDonough says Massachusetts is not such a shiny star internationally when it comes to health care performance. (CommonWealth)

TRANSPORTATION

The MBTA says its move to all-electronic fare collection, scheduled to be in place by 2021, is facing indefinite delay, with no timeline or specific reason given for the delay. (Boston Globe)

Julia Wallerce and Jarred Johnson say it’s time for the MBTA to step up to bus rapid transit — the dedicated bus lanes that have been tested on some routes are only part of the BRT experiment, they say. (CommonWealth)

Ahead of Uber’s initial public offering, the Boston Independent Drivers Guild asks drivers and passengers not to use ride-hailing apps on Wednesday in solidarity with a gig-economy strike over wages. (WBUR)

A MetroWest Daily News editorial praises the Massport plan to encourage more travelers to use Logan Express buses to get to the airport.

ENERGY/ENVIRONMENT

A UN report says 1 million animal and plant species are on the verge of extinction, with ominous implications for human survival. (Washington Post)

Lawmakers want to crack down on illegal hunting in Massachusetts where, according to the Humane Society, poachers can break the law without fear of consequences. (Eagle-Tribune)

Falmouth officials have started working toward moving two town-owned wind turbines beyond Falmouth’s borders. (Cape Cod Times)

CASINOS

The bills keep piling up for Wynn Resorts. First, the company was hit was a $35 million fine and its CEO was assessed another $500,000. Now the Las Vegas company is on the hook for $1.3 million in legal bills incurred by the Massachusetts Gaming Commission fighting Steve Wynn in court. (CommonWealth)

CRIMINAL JUSTICE/COURTS

A woman claims that a Prisoner Transfer Services worker sexually assaulted her when the company was transporting her to Massachusetts on a probation violation. (WBUR)

MEDIA

Todd Wallack of the Boston Globe was named one of the 27 Nieman fellows.

CBS shakes up its morning and evening news programs, naming Norah O’Donnell Tis weekday evening anchor. O’Donnell has been a cohost on CBS This Morning. (New York Times)