After Winning Over Senators, Massachusetts Single-Payer Backers Turn Focus to House

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By Katie Lannan

BOSTON — The Senate last week voted overwhelmingly to measure potential costs of single-payer health care, and advocates are now turning their focus to the House, and to their own holiday dinner tables.

“When we get together for Thanksgiving and you sit around the table — and trust me, the kids are listening and everybody’s watching — talk about single-payer and why it’s important,” Sen. Paul Feeney told participants in a single-payer lobby day Tuesday. “I got that crazy uncle, everybody’s got that crazy uncle — ‘You’re a socialist, it doesn’t work, Paul.’ Now he says, ‘You’re a socialist, it doesn’t work, Senator.'”

Feeney, a Foxborough Democrat, was sworn in to the Senate on Nov. 1 after winning a special election, and a week later joined his colleagues for debate on a sweeping health care reform package. Before passing the bill, the Senate voted 35-3 in favor of comparing the state’s current health spending to projected costs of a single-payer system and developing a single-payer implementation plan if that route proves less expensive.

Speakers at the lobby day, hosted by Mass-Care, the Massachusetts Campaign for Single Payer Health Care, said the vote marked the first time single-payer legislation passed a branch in the State House.

To become law, the single-payer study would need support in the House, which plans to take up its own health care bill early next year. Any single payer measure would also need to pass through the Corner Office, where Gov. Charlie Baker once served as CEO of the insurer Harvard Pilgrim Health Care.

“We need to show the House of Representatives this is the answer,” Mass-Care executive director Ture Turnbull said.

House leaders are fashioning their response to the Senate bill, with floor debate possible in early 2018.

Turnbull and others said momentum is growing behind the idea of single-payer health care, pointing to the attention attracted to the issue by U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign and to the work of grassroots activists..

To illustrate his point, Turnbull mentioned something he said would not have happened in the past: two lawmakers who had not been scheduled to speak — Rep. Denise Provost and Sen. Barbara L’Italien — stopped by to show their support after learning the event was happening.

Provost, a Somerville Democrat, said she remembered speaking at a similar lobby day in 2006 and was “delighted” the Senate agreed to study single-payer. L’Italien, who is weighing a run for Congress, asked single-payer backers to “be the army that comes in and says, ‘Yes, we can get there.'”

While single-payer supporters say the current system involving both public and private insurance is failing to adequately cover all people while also squeezing family, business and government budgets, opponents have argued that patients may lose choices under such a system, driving up costs.

The Massachusetts Association of Health Plans on Tuesday said discussing government-run single payer health care distracts from efforts to address the cost of health care at a time “when the attention needs to be squarely on controlling costs and maintaining the state’s gains in expanding coverage.”

“Making health care more affordable requires a commitment from everyone – hospitals, physicians, health plans, pharmaceutical companies, consumer groups, employers and policymakers – to work together to find real solutions,” association President Lora Pellegrini said in a statement. “The focus should be on addressing the underlying cost drivers, rather than relying on unproven approaches that would harm our state’s health reform efforts, undermine quality and medical innovation, limit access to care, and fail to lower health care costs for employers and consumers.”

The Massachusetts chapter of the National Association of Social Workers offered its support for single-payer, saying such a system would “ensure that all residents have equal access to affordable, high-quality health care.” Massachusetts residents spent an average $10,559 on health care in 2014, according to the association.

“Most behavioral health care services are not accessible without insurance, with out-of-pocket expenses ranging from $100-200 per session,” the association said in a statement. “Though Massachusetts continues to dedicate time, education, and funds to behavioral health care treatment, including for substance use, social workers are still seeing a lack of parity when it comes to services rendered.”