Single payer backers point to Sanders’ success, health system’s flaws

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STATE HOUSE — Ten years after the state passed landmark universal health care legislation, advocates are pushing lawmakers to consider adopting a single-payer system as the next step in efforts to control health costs and expand access to insurance and care in Massachusetts.

During a hearing before the Joint Committee on Health Care Financing on Tuesday, supporters of “Medicare for all” legislation (S 579/H 1026) filed by Sen. Jamie Eldridge and Rep. Tom Sannicandro said that a move toward a single-payer system could help curb rising health care spending and free up money for other areas of the state budget, though opponents say it could hurt quality of care and would not address underlying cost problems.

Eldridge told the committee that his bill would guarantee that every Massachusetts resident had affordable access to high-quality care from their choice of provider, while also lowering administrative costs and reducing waste.

“I acknowledge we have a great health care system, but it’s a health care system that doesn’t work for everybody,” the Acton Democrat said.

Sannicandro told reporters that a relative of his did not have health insurance while between jobs, and others might lack coverage because of their immigration status.

In 2006, Gov. Mitt Romney signed a law making health insurance mandatory in Massachusetts and setting up a state insurance exchange.

A survey conducted for the Center for Health Information and Analysis, published last year, found that 3.6 percent of adults continued to lack health coverage in 2015.

“Three percent of six and a half million people is a lot of people,” Sannicandro said.

Asked if he expects to see the Legislature pass a single-payer bill this session, Sannicandro, an Ashland Democrat who is not seeking reelection, said he did not.

“But we need to have this conversation, that health care should be a right for everyone,” he said.

A conversation about single-payer health care has been unfolding on the national stage, with Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, the United States senator from Vermont, campaigning with his own “Medicare for all” plan as a major component of his platform.

Sanders lost the Massachusetts Democratic primary with 586,716 votes to former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s 603,784.

“Clinton and Sanders pretty much split the vote by about 10,000 votes, of roughly about 1.1 million votes,” said Rand Wilson, communications and policy director for the public service workers union SEIU Local 888. “Now, if you think of half those votes being for Sanders, those were very strong Medicare for all votes. But the votes for Clinton, those also were votes that were clearly in support of measures to control costs, and at various times in her life, she’s also been a champion for a Medicare for all, single-payer type of plan.”

Between the House and Senate versions of the single-payer bill, nine senators — nearly a quarter of the body — and 29 representatives have signed on as cosponsors.

Eric Linzer, the senior vice president of public affairs and operations at the Massachusetts Association of Health Plans, challenged the supporters’ position that establishing a single-payer system would translate into cost savings.

“We’re on our way to getting to 100 percent coverage,” Linzer told the News Service. “I think where the challenge really lies is getting health care costs under control, and I think when you look at what the drivers are — increases in the prices that providers charge, significant increases in prescription drug costs that really have been staggering for state budgets as well as for employers and consumers — a government-run single-payer system doesn’t address that.”

Linzer called for a focus on meeting the goals of a 2012 cost containment law “as opposed to throwing out the entire system.”

— Written by Katie Lannan

Copyright State House News Service